Deep, Deep, Deep Undercover
Photo by Jack GouldMany Americans worry about what old-school unemployment means in the New Economy. Not Ian Sitren. Since Sept. 11, the 51-year-old private investigator says, he has had more work than he can handle.
For two decades, the Santa Ana P.I. pursued small cases as well as more complex jobs for corporate clients ranging from Procter & Gamble to John Paul Mitchell. But as a self-described news junkie, he developed a side interest in terrorism stories he ran across on the TV news.
Now, Sitren's hobby has evolved into a full-time job as a freelance consultant to a variety of local and national news organizations, including Dateline NBC. His specialty: tracking down and verifying the seemingly endless terrorism-related news leads that have emerged since Sept. 11.
Shortly after those attacks, for example, it became clear that two suspected hijackers had lived in San Diego. A third man who knew the pair was quickly arrested and brought to New York to face a federal grand jury investigation. Thanks to Sitren, one of the first news outlets on the scene was KGTV, an ABC affiliate in San Diego.
"He's really been a godsend for us in this particular case," J.W. August, KGTV's managing editor, said of Sitren. "There was so much information that it was impossible for us to track it all down ourselves."
August said Sitren first approached the station a few years ago with free information on a timely story. He has worked as a consultant for KGTV ever since. "Ian has the ability to go through a lot of information and put together all the pieces of a puzzle when we don't even know what the final picture is supposed to look like," he explained.
Sitren is apparently fast, too. "He's been very instrumental in helping us tell stories about events that just happened," said August.
Other media clients, such as Dateline NBC, are coyer about Sitren's services but confirm that he plays an important role in sorting fact from fiction.
"I can't comment on the details of any story he's helped us with," said a Dateline producer who asked not to be identified by name. "But he's a good investigator. He can track information down very quickly. . . . He has been very valuable to us on terrorism-related stories."
Sitren first came to the Weekly's attention more than a year ago, when he e-mailed us a profile of former Anaheim resident and U.S. citizen Khalil Deek, then under arrest in Jordan as a suspected terrorist tied to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. That profile was based almost entirely on material previously reported in far-flung media outlets. Only Sitren put them together.
Sitren boasts of the fact that unlike most private investigators, he doesn't rely on law-enforcement sources for his information.
"Everything I have developed I have developed sitting right here in my house in Santa Ana," Sitren boasts. "I have no contact with law enforcement at all. In fact, a lot of the information on some of the terrorist suspects that came out in the media was developed by me, prior to law enforcement even knowing about it."
Sitren says he does almost all his work inside his home, tracking people through the Internet and a variety of databases that are widely used by private investigators and the news media. In just a few minutes on his computer, Sitren is frequently able to identify a person's mailing address, any post office boxes they use, what businesses they own—even what gym memberships they hold.
Sitren's journey from private investigator to media-savvy terrorist watchdog is remarkably unremarkable. He grew up in Garden Grove and Anaheim and graduated from Fullerton Junior College with a degree in police science. He moved to LA and started "haunting," as he called it, the Beverly Hills Public Library.
"I studied up on things and started talking to people," he recalled. "My only experience regarding private investigators was watching television programs like The Rockford Files."
Sitren wouldn't elaborate on how he gained entry into a highly competitive field dominated by ex-law-enforcement-types, except to say he "met somebody who said, 'I'll teach you, kid.'"
At first, Sitren says, he worked dull divorce cases. But he quickly moved on to more challenging work, investigating corporate espionage and fraud for large companies with offices in Southern California. Sitren also says he did some work as a bounty hunter, estimating that he put 1,000 people behind bars.
Acknowledging that he doesn't "look like a linebacker," he says he "learned early on that a little bit of smarts would help keep me out of trouble." According to Sitren, not once during his two-decade career as a private investigator did he fire a gun or even hit anyone, nor was he ever attacked by the people he brought into custody—a cast of characters that Sitren says included rapists and murderers. "I've never had any kind of dramatic incident other than someone running away from me," he recalled.
Among the more high-profile fugitives Sitren helped locate and bring to justice was David Kim Stanley, a high-tech scam artist who was hiding out in Orange County's dot-com-millionaire-saturated suburbs under a false name. Two years ago, Sitren discovered an Orange County-based counterfeit racket that marketed phony John Paul Mitchell hair products. That led to a series of high-profile arrests and headlines in The Orange County Register.
Nowadays, Sitren gets paid handsomely for his information, so he doesn't mind not getting credit for his work. "They don't like putting it out there that all the information they have on a story came from this guy in Santa Ana," he reflected. "So at the end of the evening news, you're not going to see a credit for Ian Sitren."
Sitren says his various clients are also reluctant to refer his services to other news organizations because many of them compete with one another on the same story—and thus for the same information. But Sitren says he isn't worried. "I've found out over the past few years that my name has gotten around," he explained. "For the first time in my life, I am not chasing business. I have plenty to do."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss OC Weekly's biggest stories. Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts