By Peter Jamison
Russian oligarchs. Khmer Rouge leaders. Islamic terrorist suspects. Kobe Bryant. What do they have in common, other than some unsavory connotations in polite society? They've all done business with David Fechheimer, the former literature scholar who is perhaps San Francisco's most venerated private investigator.
Fechheimer, who speaks softly and has the flowing white hair and luxurious beard of a Reform rabbi, was lured into his vocation by San Francisco author Dashiell Hammett's depiction of the P.I.'s life in his 1930 novel, The Maltese Falcon. Fechheimer read the book in the 1960s while pursuing a graduate degree in literature — he was an aspiring poet — at San Francisco State University.
While a real private detective's workday is often less vivid than that of Hammett's protagonist, Sam Spade, it's almost always interesting. “The truth is that most of what people like me do is mental,” Fechheimer says. While the detective's trade has its own rules, tricks, and argot, each new assignment brings its own puzzles. As he puts it, one of the traits of a good investigator is the capacity to answer the question: How do you do that?
Case in point: Fechheimer's overseas investigations on behalf of John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” charged by the government with aiding al-Qaeda after he was captured in Afghanistan in 2001. (Lindh eventually pleaded guilty to reduced charges stemming from his service as a Taliban soldier.)
In an effort to undermine the government's case against Lindh, Fechheimer traced the Marin County resident's travels through Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan. Performing detective work in those countries posed unusual logistical challenges, particularly in war-ravaged Afghanistan. “There were no telephones, no hotels, no restaurants, no ATMs, no rental cars. There were land mines everywhere,” he recalls. “You would find a car that you thought would take you where you needed to go. And then you would find the owner and try to get him to take you. And then you would have to find gasoline. People had gasoline hoarded in Coke bottles.”
Fechheimer, who hires himself out at $350 per hour, says his most satisfying cases have involved work on behalf of criminal defendants, such as Lindh or Bryant. After a recent interview with a reporter in his airy home office space in Pacific Heights, he was headed to a Los Angeles Lakers game, tickets courtesy of a certain famous shooting guard.
“All criminal defendants are at a tremendous disadvantage when they go up against the state and its resources,” he says. “I guess if I have any politics at all, it's that the strong shouldn't prey on the weak.”
Fechheimer continues to work hard. In a recent case, he was hired by documentary filmmakers to dig up information on the background of Jacques Vergès, the controversial French attorney who has defended such clients as Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie. Fechheimer traveled to Cambodia on the job, where he met and interviewed Nuon Chea, the infamous “Brother Number Two” who partnered with Pol Pot to head the Khmer Rouge regime.
“I'm 69,” Fechheimer muses. “I'm still getting to play capture-the-flag.”