It was a child custody case and his assignment was simple: observe the mother and her children for a weekend and then report back to his client, her ex-husband. So why was Mike Kirkman, Santa Barbara private eye, dressing in orange robes and sleeping on a mattress in the middle of nowhere?
Well, as chance would have it, the woman was a disciple of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, that guru with a taste for group sex and Rolls Royces. The ex-husband wanted to know if she was exposing the kids to something more than ashrams and alfalfa sprouts. Once a month, the Rajneeshees had a “Let Go” weekend at their California desert commune-sort of an open house for potential recruits. Kirkman figured he could go undercover and get the goods on the woman.
The orange robes, the non-stop chanting, sleeping on lumpy mattresses, 30 to a dorm-it wasn’t Kirkman’s idea of a great time. But he had a job to do. No, this isn’t the latest wrinkle in Santa Barbara detective fiction, an addition to the ranks of Lew Archer or Kinsey Millhone. Mike Kirkman is a real-life local gurnshoe whose experience with the Rajneeshees is just one chapter in a history of bizarre cases.
Working out of a spartan office on Garden Street, decorated with a few professional plaques and prints of eagles, he handles everything from runaway teenagers to murder suspects. In what has become a competitive field-the local Yellow Pages lists some two dozen sleuths he’s a leader of the pack. Alluding to his tenacity and resourcefulness, one local attorney calls him “a bright bulldog.”
“He’s probably the most successful private investigator in this area,” says Santa Barbara Sheriffs Detective Fred Ray, a former colleague. After 14 years in the business, Kirkman could be excused for slowing down. But this dapper, stocky man-who looks more like football coach Hank Strarn than Sam Spade or Magnum P.I. -still approaches detective work with the vigor of an Andy Hardy. “I tend to run around with a childlike energy when I’m busy at work,” he says. “Some days I think I’m totally burned out. Then a new challenge appears. I get pretty excited about jumping into something new.”
Kirkman’s real name is Malcolm-that’s how he’s listed in the phone book-but he has gone by Mike since childhood. These days, he uses Mike as a screening device. “When people call and ask for Malcolm, I know they don’t know me, so my antenna goes out,” he explains.
He came to detective work via an unlikely route. A native Californian, he was born in Oakland and raised in Visalia, a San Joaquin Valley Farm town. After dropping out of college, he spent eight years in the Air Force, working as a mechanic on B-52s. In 1966, he came to Santa Barbara as an insurance salesman, opening an agency. Kirkman sold his agency after only two years but was at a loss for what to do next. As a stopgap, he signed on as a sheriffs deputy. “The job would be six weeks, then I’d quit,” he says. “I knew my first wife would not have enthusiasm for that kind of work.”
He distinguished himself by fainting at his first sight of a corpse. But after the six weeks went by, he stayed put. Moving quickly through the ranks, he made detective and joined a crack burglary squad. “We averaged one arrest a day,” says Fred Ray, who remembers Kirkman as an aggressive and innovative cop. “There were times when people actually had their bags packed to go to jail because they knew we were coming. We had to tell them, “Hey, you can’t take your suitcase to jail.”
For his last promotion, Kirkman was appointed head of the major crimes unit. He supervised the investigation of such cases as the murders of three UCSB coeds which drew nationwide attention. But he says the move into management frustrated him. “I get my thrills doing the work rather than supervising,” he says. In 1978, he quit the sheriffs office and set out on his own. There were only about half a dozen private eyes in Santa Barbara back then, and he alienated some of his old police buddies by taking jobs from criminal defense lawyers. One early job was to assist the defense of Thor Christiansen, who was arrested for the UCSB murders after Kirkman left the sheriff’s office and who was eventually convicted of all three.
These days, Kirkman owns a cabin in the Sierras near Visalia and a home in Santa Barbara. He’s the only detective in his firm, Santa Barbara Detectives, and there’s no staff either-his wife helps with word processing. He gets most of his work from private attorneys, exploiting connections that are the envy of his competition. In one recent notorious case-the fatal stabbing of Montecito millionaire Lester Berman he was hired twice. He originally worked for top Los Angeles lawyer Ed Medvene in preparing a defense for the suspect, Geoffrey St. Clair. After authorities decided not to prosecute St. Clair on the grounds he acted in self-defense, Kirkman signed on with Philip Marking, a local probate lawyer representing Berman’s widow.
Kirkman won’t reveal much about his methods, even to people he works for. “I believe he has access to telephone company computers,” says attorney Dennis Merenbach. “He can probably locate anybody who’s used a credit card in the last five years. But I’m just guessing.”
Most of his cases are confidential. “I’m hired because I have a reputation of being discreet,” he explains. “Most are cases you would not know about.” But sometimes he has taken a higher profile, most recently through his work on two major cases that were perhaps the toughest challenges of his career.
Private investigator Roger Best, a Kirkman competitor, sounds wistful. “The odds of finding a client in a position to pay you to go all over the world to look for assets are not very good,” he says. But in the estate of eccentric millionaire investor Loran Mansfield, Kirkman found such a client, one that kept him busy for nearly five years. Mansfield, a devout Christian Scientist who made his fortune in South African gold stocks, had been equally adept at hiding his wealth from the government and his heirs. In 1987, his son Shaun, fearing that an aging Mansfield was jeopardizing the fortune, sued to place his affairs in a conservatorship. The case was filed in Santa Barbara because Mansfield owned a home near East Beach. Shaun Mansfield’s lawyer, Merenbach, hired Kirkman initially to serve papers on the old man.
Kirkman has had plenty of experience finding people, whether runaway teens, missing persons or deadbeat dads. “If you want somebody found, he’s the guy I’d go to,” says Marking. But the reclusive Mansfield proved a challenge. Following up on a lead he won’t divulge, Kirkman spent several days combing the Boston area. Eventually, he traced Mansfield to a $39-a-night motel. When he served him with the subpoena, Mansfield, taken aback, could only respond, “Goodbye, sir, I’ll see you in court,” Kirkman recalls. The next assignment was to locate Mansfield’s assets, a daunting prospect given the complexity of his affairs and his secret European bank accounts. While Mansfield was alive, a strange game of cat-and-mouse developed. “We’d find one dollar and he’d hide two,” Kirkman says. The old man was evidently impressed by his adversary’s efforts, summoning him to his deathbed and telling him, “You know more about my finances than I do.”
After Mansfield died in September 1988, the asset search was just as complicated. With Marking, who represented the estate’s co-executor, Security Pacific Bank, Kirkman made numerous trips to Europe, navigating a maze of bank secrecy laws in Switzerland and Lichtenstein. “I had to develop new areas of expertise just to survive,” says Kirkman, pulling out a tome on Swiss secrecy laws. According to Marking, Kirkman was particularly valuable in enlisting the cooperation of some 30 Lichtenstein government officials.
A lot of Kirkman’s time was spent locating 46 properties on five Hawaiian islands, most owned by Mansfield but not in his name. By poring through dozens of Mansfield’s handwritten letters, Kirkman discovered about 140 “alter ego” names that Mansfield used, ranging from Aequus and Living Heritage Foundation to Mary Baker Eddy (the Christian Science founder). Then it was a matter of matching the names to Hawaiian property records.
Eventually, some $60 million in assets were recovered in what is believed to be the largest probate case in Santa Barbara history-the 1.2 million pages of paperwork alone fill 240 banker boxes. “We wouldn’t have got the money out of there without Mike,” Marking says. For Kirkman, Mansfield posed a major test. “When you have someone very bright and skillful trying to conceal something, that’s a real challenge. I like that!” he adds, almost jumping out of his seat.
In the middle of the Mansfield investigation, Kirkman faced a very different test, a case that put him at loggerheads with some old colleagues in law enforcement. He had often been on the opposing side to cops while working for defense lawyers on criminal cases. In 1986 for example, he helped Ed Medvene to defend Anthony Romasanta, who was acquitted of kidnaping and rape. What made the case of David Anderson so different was that Kirkman was ostensibly on the same side as the police.
Around Dec. 3, 1989, Rick Klaus, a 35-year-old with a trust-fund fortune and a home in Montecito, disappeared. At first, sheriffs investigators speculated that Klaus, known as eccentric, might have taken off on his own accord. But his friends suspected foul play. Sam Eaton, the lawyer acting as Klaus’ conservator, hired Kirkman to find out what happened. “We were getting leads they [police] weren’t doing anything about,” he recalls.
“I was thoroughly convinced it was a murder case,” Kirkman says. Within a few weeks, he had a possible suspect, Anderson, a drifter who had been seen driving Klaus’ Mercedes convertible in Santa Barbara soon after Klaus disappeared. Anderson had been interviewed by police but Kirkman figured he might be able to get something more out of him. Using Anderson’s wife as a go-between, Kirkman arranged two meeting with Anderson-in Seattle in February 1990 and in Phoenix the next month. “My purpose was to get him to tell us how to find Rick,” Kirkman recalls.
It was tough. Kirkman is a licensed polygraph examiner, but he knew there was no way he could use a lie detector on Anderson. To put him at ease, he didn’t even use a notebook or tape recorder. Anderson was reticent and evasive and terminated the Seattle meeting after only a quarter of an hour. But probing and persisting, Kirkman got him to open up. Without supplying an outright confession, he made statements that tied him to Klaus’ disappearance-he admitted driving the Mercedes and using credit cards taken from Klaus, and he described Klaus’ Montecito home. He even mentioned there was hay in the trunk of the Mercedes, a significant detail since Kirkman knew that Klaus had a pet goat. The detective came away thinking that Anderson was “the kind of person who wanted to get it off his chest but didn’t know how.”
Kirkman passed these details onto police but, without a body, the case languished. Tensions rose. “We’re limited as to what kind of information we can share, ” explains Fred Ray. “Yet we expected him to share everything that he learned. That did create a conflict.”
Finally in July 1991, hikers stumbled upon Klaus’ remains in the Los Padres National Forest north of Ojai. Anderson was arrested in Oregon and convicted of second-degree murder after a trial last summer. Because of his conversations with Anderson, Kirkman was a key prosecution witness. “He [Anderson] made damaging statements to Kirkman that he never made to us,” Ray says. “Kirkman was not bound by the same Miranda rules we are bound by…. He was a key person in this whole case.”
One statement in particular came back to haunt Anderson. As part of his defense at trial, be claimed that he had been framed for the murder by a mysterious “third man” with whom he had eaten at a Santa Barbara restaurant. The bill showed two people were at the table and that two root-beer floats were ordered. But Anderson had apparently forgotten that he had already told Kirkman that he ate alone and drank both floats himself
“Not many times from the private sector do you get to work murder cases,” Kirkman says. “Finding the guy, who killed Rick Klaus was the ultimate challenge.” Of course, Kirkman doesn’t always get his man. In another recent, headline-grabbing case, he was hired to help Desiree Telstar – granddaughter of Hollywood mogul Harry Warner-find her husband, who had allegedly run off with $1.6 million of her money. He traced David Telstar to San Francisco but was unable to bring him in-Telstar would later be arrested as he tried to enter New York state through Canada. “We might have found a way of detaining him in San Francisco but she [Desiree Telstar] couldn’t pay me to do it,” Kirkman says ruefully.
But more typical was his experience in the case of a client attempting to get his support payments to his ex-wife reduced. Kirkman traveled to central Mexico where the client said the ex-wife was living in an artists’ colony with her new boyfriend. “I’ve got good news and bad news,” Kirkman told the woman as he served her with court papers. “The bad news is this subpoena. The good news is I’m friendly, I’m nice and I’ll buy you dinner.
“They [the woman and her boyfriend] told me everything I wanted to know,” Kirkman recalls with a laugh. “I told [the client] I took his ex-wife to dinner. He had to reimburse me.”
And the Rajneeshee case? The undercover work paid off and Kirkman’s client won that, too. M is for Mantra, anyone?
Matthew Heller recently completed a book about Santa Barbara’s notorious 1989 Bogdanoff murder.
In 1995 Kirkman moved to Las Vegas and opened Las Vegas Detectives.
Call Mike Kirkman Now: (702) 897-6820