By Cecilla Chan, GSN Managing Editor
The Phoenix girl was in her early teens when her mother sold her to sex traffickers.
Three or four years down the road, law enforcement agents busted a sex-traffic ring and arrested the girl, who was charged alongside her perpetrators.
“We were hired by the federal government to review her case and prepare for trial with her defense attorney,” recalled Justin Yentes, a Gilbert private investigator. “We spent a lot of time traveling around the country, talking to other people involved in this ring who were victimized and also accused of being co-conspirators. We were able to determine this individual that we were hired to defend had been victimized and forced into the ring.”
Yentes is the newly married husband of Gilbert’s newest Town Council member, Aimee Rigler.
His work as a PI has presented him with a wide variety of cases – including work on the defense team for the notorious convicted killer Jodi Arias.
In the case of the Phoenix woman who was charged with sex trafficking, Yentes presented his findings to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which dropped the charges.
Today, a decade later, that case still resonates with the 39-year-old Yentes, who moved to Gilbert in 2002.
“It was an innocent in my view, a child that was victimized by her own family and some very violent criminals,” Yentes said. “She wasn’t initially believed. She also was a victim, but she was believed to be a perpetrator and we were able to show she was a victim. She was able to start her life over.”
Yentes hadn’t been a gumshoe for long when he took on that case. He founded Arizona Investigative Associates in 2007, leaving behind a desk job as an accountant routing out fraud for a private finance company.
“Lots of investigative agencies seek out folks with a finance background because we tend to be pretty meticulous in our ability to pay attention to detail,” said Yentes, who noted his first business partner was a former Phoenix police sergeant. “There’s a wide array of folks in the private investigative field.”
For examples, he pointed to former Valley journalists Paul Rubin and Rich Robertson, both private investigators with R3 Investigations in Tempe, and a former store manager at Fashion Square Mall who is now a PI.
“They come from all walks of life,” said Yentes.
But they all tend to have similar traits that help them succeed as a PI.
“You have to be creative and curious and you have to work tirelessly and be a good people-person,” Yentes said. “I’ve never worn a disguise, but we don’t go up and say, ‘I’m a PI and want to know this.’”
Gaining someone’s trust is immeasurable, especially when the investigator is representing a government agency, according to Yentes.
“You’re going to show up at someone’s door to try to get information from them to help with your case,” he said. “That trust has to come within the first five to 10 seconds of meeting someone at the front door.”
At times, he’s even paid for information, including the time he bought a sub sandwich for a woman in order for her to reveal the location of a man he was looking for.
“We’ve worked on some cases that are emotionally trying,” Yentes said. “We’ve done some missing person cases that turned up with the person being deceased and those are always traumatic. Cases where kids are put at risk, those are always hard.”
Arizona Investigative Associates, currently with three investigators, handles all sorts of cases, including asset search, surveillance, finding missing people such as heirs and loved ones, organized criminal syndicates and criminal defense litigation support.
But the office primarily focuses on death-penalty cases. The firm is on contract with Maricopa County to support attorneys who defend people charged with a capital crime.
Yentes also does work for Jennifer Willmott, attorney known for defending Arias, who was convicted in the brutal slaying of an ex-boyfriend in Mesa after a trial that was nationally televised. Yentes said he can’t comment on what work he did on the Arias case.
His office has a number of cases going at any given time and a majority of them are multi-year cases.
“The cases we are handling right now have been in trial for several years,” he said. “Both of them range from three to six years.”
He’s also worked on a triple-homicide case from 2002 that went on for close to five years.
“We work our own analysis if there is sufficient evidence to find someone guilty of homicide for example,” he said.
That analysis includes examining the crime scene, interviewing witnesses and hiring experts to review cell phone tower records, DNA evidence and ballistics, etc., according to Yentes.
“After that, we look at the aggravating or mitigating factors such as poverty, child abuse, mental disorder – those items are brought up during the penalty phase of the trial where the jury can hear if someone is deserving of death,” he said.
The goal of his investigation is to get the court to show leniency and reduce a death sentence to life behind bars instead.
”We’ve had several cases where the death penalty initially was sought and was not given at the end,” said Yentes, who would not disclose the cases. “They were all well-covered.”
Like most PIs, Yentes has his share of harrowing stories.
“There has been a couple of situations where we‘ve been out looking for folks and we’ve had guns pulled on us or threats made against us, folks who don’t like to be involved in a criminal case or want to hide,” he said. “Yeah, there’s been some hairy situations.”
His job has taken him to tiny fishing villages in Alaska, remote Hawaiian islands accessible only by a Cessna and most every U.S. state. Fluent in Spanish, he’s also used his sleuthing skills in Mexico, South America and Central America.
“We’ve had interesting clients that have flown us around in private jets and asked us to do some pretty interesting things,” he said. “It’s always something new. Generally, no two days are exactly the same.”