Michael J Canaan, CPP CFLC
PI since 1989
PNAI since 1992
When Michael Canaan joined the ranks of the professional investigators in Seattle, the price of gas was 97 cents, the Berlin Wall was falling in Germany, Nintendo released the Game Boy, Reagan was leaving office and George Bush SR moved in. The commercial internet as we know it did not exist. Microfiche and 35mm film development were still standards in the industry.
Now digital photos and internet searches are common, and gas is over 6 dollars in some areas of the state. In 33 years, Michael has seen a lot of changes from Alaska to Ecuador and beyond. The distillation of his over three decades of experience in the technology changes for PIs or the “octopus of opportunity” that he calls it, the tried and true consistent core principles of a successful PI agency are valuable for new and experienced investigators alike.
PNAI is fortunate to have a cadre of long-serving investigators that bring a wealth of experience and knowledge into the community. Michael Canaan, CPP CFLC is among the most senior members of PNAI and the PI community in Washington state.
Michael’s following interview was compiled in September and October 2022 by Al Johnson, PNAI historian.
 Michael’s first mentor, Jerry Poth owned a 60 Minute Photo Development business in Capital Hill. It was started “primarily to process the photos taken by his agents. https://petapixel.com/2013/01/28/photo-essay-the-final-week-of-capitol-hill-60-minute-photo-in-seattle/
PNAI Historical Information Questions
Interview questions for Michael Canaan.
Interviewed by Al Johnson, PNAI Historian.
Interview conducted in person and via email in September 2022
Q: How long have you been a PI? What year did you start?
I became a licensed private investigator 33 years ago when I first went to work for Jerry Poth and his investigative firm, Poth and Associates on Capitol Hill in Seattle.
Q: What was the motivation to become a PI?
I wanted to continue my then decade plus of military and civil law enforcement experience, and corporate security and investigative work into the private sector serving law firms and insurance companies.
Q: What were the most significant differences you saw from what you thought about the PI business before coming into when you started?
Back then I did not have the business knowledge I have today. If I have made any mistakes in the past 33 years is that I then did not conduct a fundamental business or marketing plan. One of my early goals was to be able to provide lost prevention and internal investigative services to medium and small businesses. What I learned quickly was that they do not have loss prevention or investigative services because they cannot afford loss prevention or investigative services! I spent a great deal of time and money in an area that if I had done my research, I would have known there was little to no opportunity for that type of business.
Q: What was the most prominent “eye opener” you encountered when starting?
As we know, there are distinct differences between public and private sector investigations. Many of my early mentors had been in business for over twenty years. They were very patient in sharing with me how they overcame the challenges of being a “private” investigator.
Q: Did you initially work for another company or set up your own?
I first went to work for Jerry Poth at his firm, Poth and Associates on Capitol Hill in Seattle. Jerry was a retired Seattle police detective and then president of the World Association of Detectives. Jerry owned his own building with his residence on the second floor and had a photo lab and his PI business on the main floor. It was an impressive operation.
Q: What is the most memorable case from your first 5 years?
In my 33 years of investigative work, there are many. The one that comes to mind first is the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box E.coli outbreak. For me, this was not a single case. It was over a dozen closely related cases of families who had experienced several illness or death from eating a hamburger contaminated with Escherichia coli O157:H7 bacterium. My clients ranged from individuals to entire families, including being appointed the class action investigator at a large firm in Seattle. My work and document load were so expansive, that the plaintiffs firm provided me an office in their building for my work. That work for lasted four years. This case was the most meaningful of all the work I have done. I participated in some of the most emotional moments with the families, including sharing in extreme sadness, last rights, documenting and photographing major surgeries and physical therapy.
Q: In your opinion, what are some of the biggest benefits of how PIs use technology now vs. when you were starting?
When I first entered the profession in 1989, personal computers were not as prevalent as they are today. Microsoft Windows was just beginning to integrate into the business world. And we know that Microsoft Office came soon thereafter. Back then I was handwriting or dictating onto microcassettes for the secretaries to transcribe. They would type our reports on an IBM Selectric typewriter. We had to go to each municipal, district, or superior court for records as there was not statewide system. Before the state system was put online, we had purchased what turned out to be the last King County Court microfiche. We have court records dating back to the very first document kept by the county court system. Pretty cool. And we still use it today and those files still have not been scanned into the existing system. Now, nearly everything is available via a computer. You new people are spoiled!
Q: Conversely, in your opinion, what are some of the biggest disadvantages of how PIs use technology now vs. when you were starting?
Technology is an octopus of opportunity. Perhaps the subject for a book. However, one area we all can get into technology trouble with is data mining or due diligence. How often do you read the data disclaimers and small print? Who has time for that? I sure do not. Assumptions are made by all that we get “any and all” in our search results. Still, with what we assume to be advanced technology, there are still gaps and failures.
One example is comparing the Washington State Patrol WATCH system data to what is available to us on the state court systems. It is common for us to find discrepancies between the two systems. Usually, the WATCH report is not as detailed. Why? Most people do not realize that the differences are that the WATCH data is convictions only.
Another example are the differences between fee-based data sources. Without mentioning names, those that use them frequently have favorites. Before we can truly come to an opinion with foundation, we really need to have had experience with all these providers. I find that many of our peers have only one account, or access only one source, and call it good. Well, my experience tells me otherwise.
I could go on for hours, but we have limited space to share. The takeaway here is to understand the tools you are using.
Q: What was the most humorous (clean version) incident you can remember from your decades-long experience?
One of the many humorous jobs we had had was where we were assigned to go to a lesbian bar in the Seattle area to attempt to gain photos of a patented, free-standing, lighted, spinning stripper cage with dance pole. Yup, there is such a thing! The two women bar owners were going through a divorce. One of the owners had opened another bar nearby (the one we were looking at) and built a replica cage without permission. Our tasking was to discretely photograph the construction and mechanisms of the cage for our law firm client. For obvious reasons, I could not work the case. So, my wife Renee and the wife of one of our male employee’s played the lesbian couple role and went to the bar. They were successful in getting the photos needed, caged strippers and all, to close the case. Perhaps this was not humorous to the case litigants. But it was funny to me!
Q: What was the most dangerous?
The most dangerous job I had was the one I was within a day of working. A law firm client had me conduct a threat assessment on an employee of a local industrial plant who had been suspended from work for threatening his boss and wife. His wife was an employee of the same company. Long story short, as we were waiting for approval to start protective services at the workplace, the husband returned to work and shot and killed his wife in the parking lot as she was exiting her car. The husband fled the parking lot and later that morning he got into a shootout with police before he was eventually arrested. What is frightening is that I and at least two of our fellow members would have been there.
Q: When did you join PNAI? How did you hear about PNAI?
I joined PNAI in 1992 right around the time that the new Washington state private investigator law went into effect. As do all our members, I wanted to be a part of a professional group of investigators. At that time, there was a dizzying array of city and county licenses required to do business. Both the investigative and security communities, including PNAI, came together to help our profession operate with a single license. Back then trying to keep up with when a license is expired, or if you even needed to have a license for a jurisdiction, was an administrative challenge to say the least.
Q: Can you review and elaborate on the memories you have of PNAI in those early years?
My first PNAI meeting was in early in 1992 was at a place called Andy’s diner in Tukwila. There were two Andy’s restaurants, both with retired railroad passenger cars serving as their dining area. It was a fun quirky place to have a meal. (1) Back then, the meetings were suit and tie and very professional. There were a lot of what we call them, old school detectives running the association. Add our monthly meetings, we had speakers ranging from the WA Secretary of State, candidates, police chiefs, medical examiners, and others from the public sector. During the meetings, members would exchange information amongst us in a non-formal setting. PNAI was an organization where we could gather and share information. It was an abundant source of help when needed. The membership then was a very cohesive group.
Photo from Vintage King Co Facebook Page.
Q: How has PNAI helped the PI community in the NW, in your opinion, over the past decades since you have been a member?
Did you know that PNAI is the oldest private investigator association in the country, established in 1948? Historically, PNAI’s significant contribution to the investigative profession has been in-person meetings, training sessions, and membership communication. The pandemic has hit all associations hard. Because we are no longer organizing larger membership events and rarely communicate amongst ourselves. Over time, we have lost a great deal of our cohesiveness and comradery. Unlike other associations, PNAI’s historical success was due to not being an association of individuals. There often was a common energy amongst members. Moving forward, we will need to come together to change our current course and work to restore PNAI to a successful position.
Q: What are your future plans?
For those of you who have been in business over 20 years, you will have seen a change in the types of cases you receive or want to work. In the thirty-plus years, I have been in business, my menu of services has both grown and evolved. Two years ago, I opened a second office in North Idaho. Currently, I spend an equal amount of time here in Kent and there in Sandpoint. It would be my retirement goal over the next 10 years, at some point, to spend most all my time in Sandpoint.
My workload has been steadily increasing for some time now. It is getting more difficult to accomplish work tasks. Earlier this year I sold my electronic countermeasures equipment. I simply did not have time to maintain proficiency and market that business sector. At some point in the next year or so, I hope to sell the detection dog portion of my business.
Most of my work currently is serving as a forensic security liability expert witness in federal and state courts. My work has taken me from Alaska to Ecuador; over to Costa Rica, and up to Central America, and the Caribbean; and then across the United States and Canada. This type of work allows me to work about anywhere where I have a computer and be in proximity to a regional airport.
Q: What advice would you give new PIs in this industry?
- Always be honest and ethical. We live in a very, very small world.
- Follow through with your commitments to your clients and peers. Do not ever fail show up for work. Be prepared to do and be your best.
- Charge a fair price. Do not strive to be that lowest common denominator. Be professional. Invoice as a professional. When you are pressed by a client for a low rate, ask yourselves, what do plumbers, electricians, painters, or landscapers charge per hour? This gives you a different perspective, doesn’t it?! While those are honorable trades, we are not doing that kind of work. Is our work more important? Remember, you need to cover payroll, overhead, mortgage, insurance, licensing, etc. And equally as important, have money in the bank to purchase the necessary equipment for that new job, and invest for our retirement.
- If you plan on being in business long, do not put all your eggs in one basket. Industry or economy change could put you out of business. I had a close call early on in my career. It was 1995, four years in business, and 80% of all my then surveillance cases were coming from one company SIU office. They assigned me over one hundred cases for three straight years. I barely had time for other work. Then, one day unexpectedly, they closed the office, force-retired my client, and consolidated to another city. I had so much work from them that I was not growing with other customers. Bad move on my part. Needless to say, I had to scramble to create more work.
- Be diverse. Roll with the flow. Learn new skills. Grow. Improve. Evolve.
- To be successful, as with any small business, your work week will often consist of late evenings over eight or more days. All of us get paid by the hour. All successful business operators live, eat, breathe, sleep “business.”
- To that point, we are operating a business. Not a hobby. Learn to be the best you can be in business. Your investigative skills will follow. I have seen dozens of really awesome investigators over the past three decades come into the private sector with high hopes only to find their phone did not ring. This silence was not due to their inadequate investigative skill sets.
- Answer the telephone when it rings. Some of my biggest cases happened because I answered the telephone on evenings and weekends. Yes, robocalls today are infuriating. However, there are tools and technology available to prevent this just as there are for spam and junk mail.
1. History of Andy’s Diner from “Vintage King County” FB page. https://www.facebook.com/VintageKingCounty/posts/andys-diner-andy-yurkanin-seattle-legend-for-over-60-years-and-still-telling-sto/3884631598253436/