In Search of the Sleuth

Edmund J. Pankau trades on his hard-boiled private-eye image to attract clients and speaking engagements. To find out more about him, we resort to some Sam Spade work of our own.

Who is Edmund J. Pankau? And why did I tiptoe to the edge of his property this morning and make off with his trash while he and his family slept? I acted like nothing had happened when he called the office later today to invite me to lunch. In fact, I accepted the invitation and soon found myself savoring grilled salmon on his dime.

Our respective roles had brought us together. I was casting about for a story early last month and stumbled upon an interview Pankau had given to National Public Radio about changing one's identity and disappearing. A little more research revealed that he was a tough-talking, trailblazing "supersleuth," a man who, according to some, had revolutionized his profession, working some of the biggest cases of the age. A page-one New York Times headline went so far as to dub Pankau "A New Breed of Sam Spade."

He is a best-selling author and popular lecturer to boot.

Scott Gilbert

The story of how Pankau raced into a burning building in Panama once occupied by Manuel Noriega made for great theater.
Scott Gilbert
The story of how Pankau raced into a burning building in Panama once occupied by Manuel Noriega made for great theater.

When I discovered that Pankau was a local boy, I felt sure I had found a story I could love. We met and had an amiable chat. His red German face was like a big craggy fist. His blue eyes were laser-sharp. Pankau has thick, scary hands. Despite the menacing features, he proved to be a likable man with stories that would amaze Philip Marlowe.

Before our visit, I'd been flipping through a couple of Pankau's books. One, a paperback called Check It Out!, ambitiously promises to help the reader find out "anything about anybody." I was particularly impressed by his discussion of how he had gotten the goods on former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.

"I just happened to be in Panama during the 1989 invasion [by the United States], sitting in a bar when parachutes blossomed all over the sky," he wrote. He and his investigators watched as marines cleared the streets and flushed a squad of soldiers from the home of Noriega's finance minister. Like piranhas, Pankau and posse moved in for the kill.

"Seeing a unique opportunity, we ran into the burning house and bagged every document, paper, and computer disk we could find, then hightailed it back to the bar. Among the items we nabbed were a computer listing of the properties, bank accounts, and names that Noriega hid money in all over the world."

When I brought up this extraordinary episode, Pankau thrust a copy of the document into my face. Sure enough, laid out neat as a grocery list in Spanish, were the deposed strongman's purported assets in 18 countries: hotels in Florida, a Buddhist temple in Japan, an Italian villa, $27 million stashed away in a Luxembourg bank account, and much more. I was hungry for details. What was it like to watch the most powerful military ever lay hurt on a banana republic? How did it feel getting swept up in the fury and coming away with this nifty treasure map?

"I was next door in Honduras," Pankau said calmly. An "associate" of his was the one who had bagged the goods from the flaming compound. Something didn't smell right, but I didn't want to add to the stink. After all, this was still a get-acquainted talk. I had yet to make my story pitch to him, and he had yet to agree to be the subject of a profile. I made a mental note of the discrepancy and moved on.

Finally I got down to business. "I think a story about you and your experiences would be great," I gushed. To do it right, I would need to spend as much time as possible with him at his office, home, watering holes and, of course, on the trail of the bad guys. Pankau said he liked the idea. Said he was working on some "juicy" cases that might be of interest. He was going to be away teaching a seminar later in the week, but promised that we would dive into our project upon his return.

We shook hands and Pankau disappeared.

The next week he called to say he was going to be testifying in a bizarre murder case. The morning of the scheduled appearance, I rang him up to find out which court. Pankau told me that his testimony had been canceled and that he would buzz me later about getting together. I heard nothing further until his wife called the next afternoon to tell me Pankau was knocked out with the flu "or whatever this virus is that's going around."

Things went on like this for two weeks. I watched my deadline bear down on me like a runaway train. Not knowing what else to do, I decided I would find out who Ed Pankau was with or without his help. Lucky for me, I had a trusty guide: that slender paperback, written by the master himself.

"Don't ever worry that you are being too suspicious." -- Check It Out!

For Ralph Thomas, director of the National Association of Investigative Specialists in Austin, Ed Pankau is a visionary. And like many another visionary, Pankau's chief claim to greatness sounds ridiculously simple when put into words. Thomas explains his colleague's contribution like this: "Instead of sending someone out of the office to get information, you can bring information into the office without leaving."

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