Costa, P.I.: Oh, The Secrets He Could TellDec 15th, 2010 | By Amy Lindblom | Category: Safe, Sound and Savvy
Neatly stacked on a bookshelf in Al Costa’s Sonora home is the record of the last 48 years of his life. For on the pages of these yearly “Day-At-A-Glance” books he has recorded the names of every person he spoke with on any given day, people he met and things he accomplished.
Those notes have come in handy for Costa, who continues to make his living today as he has since 1959. The personalized license plate on his car gives it away: MT P EYE. And contacts, information and knowledge are imperative to his work.
“It’s all here,” Costa says. “Even your name, telephone number and something about our conversation today will be recorded. I’ve had to refer to these books often.”
Costa may sport a crop of gray hair and not walk quite as fast as he used to, but even if finances permitted, he has no plans to retire. There are still plenty of missing people to be found, wandering spouses to be investigated, and families concerned that granddad’s new attentive caretaker may be more nefarious than altruistic.
Over the past five decades, Costa has used his private investigator’s license as debt collector, a repo man, child support collection specialist, finder of lost family members, and advisor to senior citizens. He’s got plenty of stories to tell.
Like the time a rich heiress hired him to spy on her husband, whom she believed was cheating on her. Costa followed the man on a train from San Francisco to Chicago and back.
“I spent six days on the train and the guy never did anything,” he recalls. “It was pretty easy money.”
Then there’s the time he found 15 head of cattle and a $12,000 saddle stolen from a Tuolumne County rancher. Costa used the Internet to find the brands on cattle entering auctions throughout the Western U.S., and located the rustled livestock in an Arizona stockyard. The saddle was in one of the rustler’s trucks.
Costa didn’t start out as a private investigator. He was a Navy medic during the Korean War, and went on to graduate from San Francisco State. By the late 1950s he was working as a high school teacher in Marysville. But on a summer break in San Francisco, he found a job more suited to a young man ready for action.
“I didn’t like the fishbowl atmosphere of being a school teacher in a small town,” Costa recalls. “I had to go out of town to get a date, and you couldn’t even smoke a cigarette unless it was in your own house with the blinds down.”
Walking down Van Ness Street, Costa saw a sign in a finance company looking for an assistant collections manager – more enticing, he thought, than teaching high school Spanish and English. His job was to collect on bad loans, including car loans, for which he used repo men. When he realized he was paying them more than he was making, he got his own repo license and began repossessing cars.
His favorite memory? The time he asked Bank of America for repo work and got turned down. That is, until a couple of prostitutes he knew spotted a brand-new 1957 Cadillac owned by an Oakland pimp who’d missed a few payments. Costa sent a photo to a B of A executive: Al smiling next to the bank-owned Caddy. He was promptly hired.
Most of the time, repo work was a game of words.
“You have to be a good talker to get people to give up their car,” he says. “I used to tell them I was temporarily storing it until they made their payments. I became an excellent communicator.”
He is still licensed to carry a concealed weapon, but says he has never had to use it.
Costa worked his way up from repossessing cars to working with the FBI on counterfeiting crimes and other frauds. In the late 1960s, he worked for Bank of America on embezzlement and fraud cases, then did a stint as a real-estate appraiser.
In the early 1970s came the “hairiest” case he’s encountered: that of Juan Corona, convicted of killing and burying 25 farm workers in Sutter County. As the first defense investigator hired by Corona family attorney Richard Hawk, Costa interviewed Corona for hours at a time over a period of weeks. The victims’ bodies showed signs of brutal violence with “homosexual overtones,” Costa recalls, “and Juan was as heterosexual as you could get.”
Though Corona maintained he was innocent, he was twice convicted, the second time in a retrial after the first guilty verdict was overturned. Costa still believes the real killer was Juan’s gay half-brother, Natividad, who was later stabbed to death in Mexico, Costa says.
In 1976, Costa was hired by San Joaquin County to collect from deadbeat parents who failed to make their child-support payments. His collection and investigative skills caught the eye of Joe Freitas, then San Francisco’s district attorney, who hired Costa as his chief investigator from 1977-1978.
Life was good. He was hobnobbing with the likes of Dianne Feinstein, making a six-figure salary, and being a single dad to Carsynn, his daughter from his second marriage to a beautiful finance company coworker. Costa gained custody of 8-month-old Carsynn when his wife left to join Liberace’s troupe. He has three other daughters, Amy, Marcy and Michelle, from his other marriages.
Costa moved to Sonora in 1978 after meeting his fourth wife, Eleanor, at a child-support conference. The couple divorced about 10 years ago. “I came up here from the fast city life, and thought, ‘What am I going to do up here?’ ” he recalls.
He bought a used furniture business – “the most fun thing I ever did in my life.” But he soon realized there was a void in Tuolumne County when it came to PIs and repo men. After selling the business and opening his own private investigation office, Costa began making a name by finding lost people through the Internet, accessing databases only licensed PIs and law enforcement used.
Armed with just a few bits of information about a lost person, like date and place of birth, or a Social Security number, he could find what he was looking for quickly, without the exhaustive legwork of earlier years.
Costa helped a dying man locate the daughter he hadn’t seen for 39 years. The man’s ex-wife took the girl when she was three years old. Costa found the daughter in Oklahoma shortly before his client died of lung cancer.
He also found a son lost for 25 years, a daughter missing for 28 years, and a 5-year-old boy stolen by a father’s ex-girlfriend. Those are his “multiple handkerchief” stories. His empathy for these families, many of whom suffered a dire sense of loss for years, may have roots in his own childhood.
His father, Mexico native Albert Figueroa, was a professional gambler and San Francisco restaurateur who was rich by Depression standards, Costa says. In the mid-1930s, when Al was 3 or 4, his mother, Vera, contracted tuberculosis. Al was sent to a Marin County boarding school, St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum, where he recalls being beaten periodically for trying to run away. He also picked up his love of reading there, and learned the basics of boxing. His father visited every few months, he says. He doesn’t recall his mother visiting, but a 1939 photo shows her outside his school, Al in a suit for First Communion. Two years later, she arrived to reclaim him.
Those early years “conditioned me to be a loner,” says Costa. Happily, his mother’s second marriage yielded a kind stepfather and a brother, David, with whom he remains close.
What’s next? Costa won’t retire anytime soon – he can’t afford it, he says, and still takes whatever jobs come his way. He also does a lot of pro bono work, mostly for elderly clients. He recently helped a family discover that a 95-year-old man’s 45-year-old caretaker had a criminal record “a mile long.”
“I got her prints off a glass, ran them through a database and found her prison record,” he says. “The guy married her anyway, despite what his children were telling him. He thought he was in love.”
He recently helped a Modesto attorney with a civil case by tracking down dozens of witnesses and getting statements. Costa says the case, which centered on a stabbing at a reputed Jamestown area drug house, ended in a $1.3 million plaintiff’s verdict.
“This is what I’m good at. I don’t make a lot of money now, but it is still interesting. I love it when the phone rings,” Costa says. “I never know what I’m going to be asked to do.”
© 2010 Friends and Neighbors