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SF private eye searches dark corners of Bay Area for evidence and witnesses

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Private investigator Bret Stemme peeks into an abandoned building while working on a case in San Francisco on June 9. (Jonah Owen Lamb/S.F. Examiner)
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The alley smelled of rotting flowers. Their corpses lay everywhere among sliced stems and wilted bouquets. The narrow lane at the rear end of the Flower Mart was the dumping ground for the flower wholesalers.

Private investigator Bret Stemme, a lanky 33-year-old with an elongated walk, waded warily into the South of Market alley on a recent Friday.

Stemme was looking for a guy who’d stolen a rug.

He had been led to the alley by a woman he met at a nearby homeless encampment. After wheeling up on a small bicycle, she said the man Stemme wanted to talk to was in an abandoned building — a “bando” — five blocks away.

The man Stemme sought had stolen a prayer rug. Stemme’s client was arrested when he tried to sell the nearly 140-year-old Azerbaijani rug back to the store it had been lifted from.

“It seems like a silly case, like, a stolen rug,” Stemme said.

But if Stemme could get the guy to say his client had no idea the rug was stolen, that would be enough to get charges dropped or reduced for his client.

The walk down the alley and into an abandoned dentist’s office — the magazines in the place dated January 2015 — led to nothing. The place was empty.

“That’s the end of it today,” said Stemme.

Bret Stemme stands his shared law office near the Hall of Justice in San Francisco on June 13. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

PRIVATE EYES IN SAN FRANCISCO

Stemme is among 337 private investigators based in San Francisco who do just about any legwork that is needed for their clients — mostly lawyers — from finding witnesses to wading through court documents and delivering subpoenas.

He is among a storied local group of fictional private eyes — think Sam Spade of “The Maltese Falcon” — and real-life gumshoes, like Joshiah “Tink” Thompson, a retired philosophy professor who became an investigator and wrote “Gumshoe: Reflections in a Private Eye,” and Hal Lipset, who was known to have bugged a martini olive.

Unlike the majority of investigators who work for insurance companies, or the fame-chasers who follow celebrities, Stemme and his ilk work mostly criminal investigations. They’re often the ones following in the footsteps of the police, looking for cracks in their cases.

That can mean finding and convincing witnesses to talk and testify, seeking out details that the police may have overlooked in their investigations that would exonerate his clients, and tracking down information to discredit the prosecution’s witnesses. Much of the work is about talking to people — or trying to get people to talk. It’s taken Stemme as far east as Texas and brought him in front of everyone from wealthy, gun-toting San Francisco residents, to criminals, victims and jailbirds.

Lawyers rely on the work of private investigators to understand the prosecution’s case as well as establish the facts, said Julie Traun of the San Francisco Bar Association.

“Often, the absence of investigators leads to unfair results,” Traun said.

With about 55 cases a year, Stemme handles all kinds of legal matters. Currently, his cases include a couple murders, a class-action lawsuit and a sexual assault case, among a handful of others.

Bret Stemme grabs a drink at Mars bar near the Hall of Justice. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

A DAY’S WORK

Across the street from the Hall of Justice and above a coffee shop, Stemme’s office is a simple affair: a desk, computers, a phone. On the wall, blown-up photos of some clients who got in a fight in El Paso line the wall. A stack of books sit nearby, beside a plate with a picture of Humphrey Bogart on it as Sam Spade.

After the morning search in the alley, Stemme needed to cross the Bay and find a woman in East Oakland and a witness to a burglary in Berkeley.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Stemme has worked investigations for more than nine years — and he’s not the first person in his family to do so. His mother Glenda Brewer was a public defender in Marin County, and his father, Robert Stemme, was an investigator for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. For a time, Stemme worked for his father’s private investigation business.

“I kinda fell into it,” he said, noting the family connection. Stemme’s father said he forced his son to take an internship at the Public Defender’s Office when he wanted to take a break from college.

“I think he kinda got the bug then,” his father said.

Stemme also worked for a private investigator in the East Bay, and for now-deceased former Deputy Public Defender Marla Zamora, who was killed in her home last year allegedly by her nephew.

“She took me under her wing,” Stemme recalled, adding that he had to rack up 6,000 hours of work under other licensed investigators before getting his license in 2014.

Robert Stemme said the work is appealing in part due to it’s freedom, but not that alone. “There’s a lot of personal freedom. It’s different every day. At least for awhile,” he said. “It helps to think the system is a little corrupt and that cops lie.”

And the work does suit him. It’s a world he feels comfortable in. Most days, he’s in service of a defendant in a criminal case. The goal is to find a piece of information that the police overlooked, so his client has an advantage in court.

An early case in Stemme’s career illustrated how digging can destroy a solid prosecution case. His client was charged in a beating at Candlestick Park. All those involved were from Sacramento, so he drove up north to see what court records showed. It turned out one of the victims had a domestic violence case on his record.

“It was a really messy case,” Stemme said. The man had stuck a gun in his girlfriend’s mouth, and she had to run out of the house to wave down police.

The prosecution had no idea about the case. Stemme’s client ended up pleading to a misdemeanor instead of the original attempted murder charge.

Bret Stemme goes through paperwork for a homicide case in his San Francisco office. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

TECHNIQUES

Stemme’s work has also run him into less-than-safe places. One client — who had been in and out of jail his whole life and had a tattoo on his face that reads “Moma Tried” — became physical with Stemme when they met inside a prison interview room.

The art of making someone open up is another skill people like Stemme need. A Market Street “beat down” case illustrated how much playing to someone’s vanity can do just that. In this case, pride was the key a San Francisco cop used to help make a man talk, said Stemme, who was working for the defendant and read the police report.

The defendant was unwilling to talk, so the cop played to his inflated self image, saying that everybody knows who he is on the streets. So, the guy started talking. “It’s because I’m a model and I rap,” Stemme said, imitating the man’s statement to police.

Stemme uses a wear-them-down technique. He isn’t rude, but describes himself as persistent. He once found a man he needed to speak with working on his car outside the man’s house. “I kept hanging around and started talking about his car,” Stemme said, noting that it finally worked.

But persistence does not always pay off. Recently, he was delivering a subpoena for a man and his wife up by Mount Davidson. Stemme knocked on the door, and the man told him to get off his property. Stemme asked his name so he could be served, but the man kept yelling. When Stemme finally left, he looked back and saw the man holding a gun.

“I can see he’s got a gun in his hand,” he recalled. “Homeless people are so much nicer.”

When he heads to more obviously dangerous areas, he never walks into a situation without knowing someone in the area who can act as a guide. “It’s next to impossible to be a white dude knocking on doors in the projects,” Stemme noted. While working a Tenderloin stabbing case, he found a “fixer” who made sure people knew he was coming to help the defendant. “This woman is O.G. [original gangster]. She knew everybody. She could get me in anywhere,” he said.

Private investigator Bret Stemme brushes up on a case file while in the field investigating in San Francisco. (Jonah Owen Lamb/S.F. Examiner)

TRIP TO OAKLAND

A group of men crouched on a street corner near 73rd Avenue playing dice, with the Oakland Coliseum looming in the distance. Some dogs barked. Ranchero music came from a home.

Stemme rolled by, waving at a man crossing the street. Then, he parked, making sure to leave his car unhindered in case he needed to beat a quick retreat.

He was looking for a tenant in a building who might know something about why his client, who has mental illness, was evicted. But Stemme had to be more careful than usual. The landlord lived on-site and had biker gang friends.

“He was kinda taking advantage of her and then evicted her,” Stemme said of his client. “He’s kinda a scary figure.”

After pushing past the waist-high fence, and offering a quick “hello” to a girl at the top of the stairs smoking and talking on the phone, Stemme knocked on a lower apartment door. A few “hellos” went unanswered. So Stemme headed back to his car.

“Typically I would leave a card, but because the situation,” he said, alluding the rough landlord living on site. “It’s also a lot easier to talk to people face-to-face.”

LIFE ON THE STREETS

Many of the people Stemme comes into contact with live in a marginal world. “People living on the fringes, making their income on the black market. Hustling for survival,” is how he described them. Growing up in San Francisco in the ’80s and ’90s exposed him to a lot, including some of the culture that exists on the streets.

For instance, he was one of a handful of white kids in his high school. “It’s a world I’m comfortable in,” he said, joking that “squares are a little more boring.”

During a Mission driveby case, Stemme ran into a guy he’d gone to school with on Potrero Hill. The guy thought Stemme was just saying hello, but when he figured out Stemme wanted to know about a shooting, he clammed up.

“It was like night and day,” said Stemme. “[He] backed up and walked away from me.”

But that world can leave scars on people just passing through that world, too. “Seeing people suffering all the time, it’s hard,” he said. “I can’t go out of my way to fix these people’s lives.”

His first case left the most lasting mark. The 2007 murder trial dealt with a drug dealer who was killed because of a feud between blacks in Alemay projects and Latinos in the Excelsior. Over time, Stemme got close to the defendant, who Stemme didn’t believe was the shooter. “When he got convicted, that probably hit me harder than anything,” he said.

GOOD NEWS IN BERKELEY

After stopping in downtown Oakland for a grilled cheese sandwich and Fernet with a soda water side, Stemme headed to Berkeley in search of witnesses to a robbery attempt.

When a short man walked out of an apartment complex in North Berkeley, Stemme grabbed the opaque glass door before it shut and hopped inside. He was looking for a witness to a burglary attempt. That man came to the front door of his apartment in his shorts and flip flops.

“I’m not the police or anything,” said Stemme, who then began asking the man about what he saw.

“I don’t want them to go to jail. I don’t care,” the man replied. “They’re just kids.”

Stemme listened and then asked more questions. He went over each detail with the man again and again, so he could paint a picture of what happened. They walked around the building together as the witness told Stemme about the two kids who came into the complex and the third kid who waited on the street as a lookout.

When he was finally satisfied, Stemme got the man’s number and headed back to The City. “It was definitely more positive than anything else,” he said, noting that the man’s story did not align with the police report. That was good news for Stemme’s client, who is charged with attempted burglary.

But there was one more piece of positive news before he got out of Berkeley: The rug thief he couldn’t find earlier that morning had reached out.

“I think I’m just going to have to play it by ear and see where his comfort zone is,” said Stemme, who had enticed the man to call by telling folks in the encampment that he had the man’s winning lottery ticket.

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