Lois Colley is the Invisible Woman

From the July/August 2014 issue of Capital Style

The office where Lois Colley, private eye, bases her international business is nothing like the detective agencies in the movies. Sunlight streams in from a wall of large windows near her desk, rather than from a bleak overhead light bulb. The walls are mostly bare, rather than covered in photos of the perps she’s chasing. The room is bright and airy, rather than weighted by clouds of dingy cigarette smoke. On the 14th floor of a gleaming office building in downtown Columbus, it looks out over a peaceful courtyard blanketed in green grass and colorful flowers.

In fact, the only indications that Colley is the successful globe-traveling investigator that she is are organized neatly on the modern couch she keeps in a corner.

In one box: a pair of wingtip shoes belonging to a man who died from a drug overdose. His family, unsatisfied with the police explanation, hired Colley to find out if foul play lead to his death.

In another: paperwork to help her find a man one client believes has been scamming people around the country.

In both cases, she’ll do what she always does: Start with the public records, extrapolate those to find sources to interview, talk to people, verify details and pull puzzle pieces together into a story. She’ll travel to musty courthouses and stake out office buildings where shell companies claim to do business.

None of these things will scare her. As the founder of Columbus-based Colley P.I., the 57-year-old is no stranger to the darker, more nefarious sides of the world. She’s tracked down a Middle Eastern rug thief at a furniture market in North Carolina and traveled around the world chasing conmen who would swindle clients out of their money, homes and business holdings.

“It’s amazing how people can get conned into stuff,” she said. “Let them join a golf course, lease a Lexus, and they can convince you of anything.”

Colley is trim, blonde and stylish—a modern-day Sherlock Holmes in heels and tailored skirts. She is thoughtful, smart and funny. But when she thinks of her clients, and some of the cases that have stuck with her through the years, she turns serious.

Colley started her company with $500—money she got by cashing out a retirement plan from her days working in the Franklin County courthouse. In the beginning, she was a single mom who paid a babysitter $25 to watch her two kids while she worked out of her bedroom with the door shut. Almost 30 years later, she’s grown Colley P.I. into a lucrative company with 10 employees up and down the East Coast and contacts around the world. She’s also made a name for herself in a secretive business dominated by men.

She’s interviewed inmates in prisons, helped national news networks profile kidnappers, and followed without detection people who her clients thought might be cheating the system out of money.

She’s also helped myriad businesses investigate potential executives as part of the hiring process—figuring out where their money came from, whether they’re as astute as is believed, who they are beyond the designer suit.

And she’s learned the best ways to follow someone without them knowing she’s on their tail—switching cars, hiring former CIA agents to help her on a stakeout, donning a wig or costumes if necessary to avoid being seen.

“I’ve changed clothes in graveyards at night,” she said, shrugging.

(Her tip for a stakeout: “Don’t drink a lot of coffee and water.”)

Oftentimes, though, her work involves old-fashioned paper trails.

Consider one recent case, in which a client hired her to background a contractor who seemed fishy. The contractor said he worked for a company based in New Jersey, with hundreds of employees in offices in England and France. Colley did some digging, and discovered that the New Jersey address was occupied by a group of Russians, and was not a business at all. The offices in England and France were pretenses, too.

“It was all just bogus,” she said. 

Colley is the woman a parent calls when a child disappears and law enforcement officers can’t help. She unravels the mystery when someone dies under bizarre circumstances and police don’t seem to care. She helps families untangle wills. Those cases, which usually play out in the theater of a probate courtroom, are some of her favorites. “They have death, money, greed—all the things that make a colorful story,” she said.

Mike Ruddy, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who has worked with Colley for the last eight years on cases, said for one of their cases, she tracked an international jewelry seller to a dirty back alley in India. The man had been scamming people around the globe for years. For another case, he said, Colley figured out how to bug a car to get a confession from a man his firm had been tracking. 

Colley’s clients are frequently surprised when they meet her, Ruddy said, because she looks more like a country club wife than a dogged investigator. She’s helped his firm track countless paper trails. “But she can still put on a skirt and high heels and walk into a bar and, after a few drinks, have a person telling her all kinds of information,” he said.

Colley’s style is subdued, and her career has been her passion—sometimes, she says with a sad smile, taking her away from her kids. (She’ll also tell you with a rueful grin that her work occasionally turned them into decoys for stake-outs. They obviously were intrigued with the business, however, as both are working in the field.) But her investigations also have turned her into a confident business owner who deftly navigates an industry dominated by her male counterparts.

Colley was born in Florida, but grew up in Ohio, and in developing Colley P.I., she’s relied on those Midwestern values: She works hard and honestly, approaching her clients with kindness and professionalism. Growing up, she was shy, preferring to stay behind the scenes and let attention fall on someone else. Even now, she hates public speaking. Her career as a private investigator, though, has forced her out of her shell and sometimes into a harsh spotlight. “I’ve had to testify and I’ve been deposed,” she said matter-of-factly. “You have to put on your big girl panties and deal with it.”

Three decades in, Colley is pleased to have evolved from the gal male private investigators looked down on (“I could almost feel them getting ready to pat me on the head,” she said) into a colleague they look to as a leader.

One New York City private investigator who asked not to be named described a case where Colley helped catch gun-store owners who were selling a large number of firearms that ended up being used in crimes. 

“She’s fearless,” the P.I. said. “And she’s also incredibly smart. She’s got a doggedness that’s admirable.”