The World's Gumshoes Call Severna Park Home

February 05, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

The house stands back from Benfield Road, past the treed yard where a Dodge Omni, a Pontiac station wagon and an old fuel tank lie moldering among dead leaves. Welcome to the headquarters of the World Association of Detectives, the world's largest organization of private investigators and security agencies.

Here is where detectives in 47 countries turn for information on their profession, or to register complaints about the practices of fellow investigators. Here is where a lawyer in Baltimore might call if she had a case that needed attention in, say, Rome.

From a dark office inside this Severna Park house, Charles E. Dennis Jr. -- president of the Dennis Detective Agency Inc. -- runs the 66-year-old association's affairs. He publishes its monthly newsletter, refers prospective clients to more than 800 member agencies and organizes association conferences.

Dennis is a big, white-bearded man who speaks in clipped sentences, talks as little as possible about his business and takes a dim view of reporters. The media, he figures, are too hung up with the television version of his profession, too busy looking for sensation, violence and sleaze.

Among the stacks of paper on his desk today is a letter from a New York City television production company offering money for true case stories that might be turned into television dramas. They won't be doing any business with Dennis.

"We don't discuss our cases," Dennis said. "I don't believe in that . . . You got some (detectives) who'll talk every day ofthe week. Then you got guys like me that don't enjoy it."

The World Association of Detectives is sensitive about the way the profession has been portrayed in the media. A column in this month's newsletter -- not written by Dennis -- urges members to be very careful what they say to the press, as reporters "can turn your statements around .. . If we all keep trying we one day may educate the reporters and the public that we are not sleazebag freaks, but professional businessmen."

Other items from the current newsletter fall under such headlines as "Occult Crimes in America," "Microwaves and Mr. Winston Churchill," "British Money Laundering Up" and "Reports on Personal Computers."

Today's private eye might spend about as much time hunched over a computer terminal as the old movie version might have spent slumped over a bottle. Now as always, the private investigator is above all a gatherer of information, and more information is available now and in less time than ever before, Dennis said. Today's private investigator has a wealth of data banks from which to choose and thanks tofax machines and computer networks no longer necessarily has to travel to work a case.

"A big part of being a detective is knowing where to look for what you're looking for," Dennis said. "People don't realize how much information is available."

And which computer databanks does he use?

"I'm not going to tell you what we get. That'sstupid . . . Somebody'll call up and say 'I want to go into the detective business. How do I do it?' I don't tell them."

He's also turned down offers to teach courses on private investigation. He says you don't learn this trade in school. You learn by working, he said, and "it helps to have someone who knows what they're doing show you theway."

Dennis, who allows reluctantly that he is 65 years old, learned his trade while working as an investigator and photographer for the Navy during World War II and the war in Korea. He later served aschief special agent for the Baltimore Transit Co. and opened the Dennis Detective Agency in 1955.

The agency handles everything from criminal investigations to work for defense lawyers, matrimonial cases, missing persons, embezzlement. The agency also provides security guards for stores and other businesses.

Dennis said he spends most of his time running the agency and the World Association of Detectives, which in September held a conference in Dublin, Ireland. About 150 detectives showed up, hearing speakers hold forth on subjects such as"Trial Preparation for Aviation Cases," "The Role of the Private Investigator in Aiding the Eastern European Legal Community" and "RecentChange in the Italian Criminal Code."

Recent changes in world politics have been reflected in the doings of the World Association of Detectives, Dennis said. Before 1989, the Soviet Union did not allow private detectives. Since then, the association has received a membership application from Valentin Kosyakov, the Soviet Union's first private eye.

Normally, it takes a prospective member six to eight months to have his or her background checked by the association. In Kosyakov's case, said Dennis, "It's going to take at least two years. He doesn't have a track record."

Dennis himself hasn't been out on a case in some time. He said it would take something special to pull himout from behind the desk from which he runs the World Association ofDetectives.

"Maybe an old lawyer friend might ask me to do something personally . . . A criminal case isn't bad to work on. The thrill of the chase, is that what they call it?"

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