By Kendra Budd, Editor
This time, it’s the PI who got caught.
It’s no secret that private investigators (PIs) are frequently hired to surveil and conduct deep background checks on public servants, politicians, and political candidates (although apparently not for George Santos!).
In the case of surveillance, these types of high-profile jobs almost always fly under the radar. Political figures likely suspect that someone might be “watching,” but rarely do they catch anyone red-handed or bring the matter into public view (See Political Opponent Hires PI to Follow Judge).
However, every once in a while a PI gets caught.
The following case serves as a prime example—not only showing the risks that PIs are exposed to when tasked with high-profile political targets, but also providing a rare, inside look into the inner workings of cut-throat opposition research and political surveillance.
In December 2022, Hillary Schieve, Reno, Nevada’s mayor since 2014, discovered a GPS tracker on her personal vehicle and promptly filed a lawsuit against the PI whom is allegedly responsible, as well as the unknown third-party who hired him. Her lawsuit includes eight separate “causes of action” against the defendants and accuses the PI of subjecting her to “significant fear and distress.”
After taking her car to a local mechanic due to an oil leak, Schieve discovered that someone had installed a “sophisticated GPS tracking device” on her car that was “monitoring her every movement” after the mechanic found the device and showed it to her.
Schieve immediately brought the device to Sparks Police Department (PD), who determined David McNeely was the purchaser of the device. McNeely, a resident of Washoe County, Nevada, is a licensed PI in Nevada and the owner of 5 Alpha Industries—his PI agency.
In less than six weeks following her discovery, Schieve filed a lawsuit against McNeely and 5 Alpha Industries.
Schieve’s lawsuit against McNeeley, and “Does 1 through X” (presumably the third-party that hired McNeeley), accuses the defendants of invasion of privacy (both intrusion upon seclusion and public disclosure of private facts), violation of Nevada’s anti-doxxing laws, trespassing, and civil conspiracy.
Schieve’s complaint alleges McNeely, under 5 Alpha Industries, trespassed on her private property and installed the GPS device on her personal vehicle. The device then gave minute-by-minute updates on Schieve’s location, which were shared with the unidentified third-party.
In addition to seeking damages for the reasons above, Schieve’s suit seeks to reveal who McNeely’s client was, i.e. who hired McNeely to surveil her.
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In that regard, a subpoena to reveal the unidentified third-party who hired McNeeley was recently approved by Washoe County District Judge David Hardy in late January. When granting the subpoena, Hardy remarked: “Upon review, this Court finds good cause to permit early discovery for the limited purpose of identifying the ‘Doe’ defendant(s).” Shortly thereafter, McNeely deleted his agency’s 5 Alpha Industries website, and has refused to comment.
Schieve argues that the defendants’ actions “shock the conscience” and caused her significant fear and distress, “as it would cause any reasonable person.” It is worth noting that Schieve is filing the lawsuit as a private citizen, and not in her capacity as mayor.
Schieve commented on the incident in The Nevada Independent saying, “I was shocked. I felt sick to my stomach. I would never want this to happen to a family member, a young girl. It’s an invasion of privacy. It’s stalking. It’s just super alarming.”
It is not uncommon for surveillance targets, whether personal injury plaintiffs or politicians, to equate private investigators simply doing their jobs with “stalking” or “harassment,” as this case demonstrates.
After finding the GPS tracker, Schieve, the current mayor of Reno, chose not to take her concerns to the Reno PD, but instead took the case to the Sparks PD in order to “keep clear of any conflict of interest questions.”
Working PI obtained a video of the interview that Sparks Police conducted with Schieve after concluding the investigation.
As it turns out, the timing of the placement of the GPS tracker coincided perfectly with Schieve’s election campaign—spanning nearly a month directly before Reno’s election day.
The 2022 Reno mayoral election was held on November 8, 2022. Schieve’s conversation with the Sparks Police investigators reveals that the GPS tracker was placed on her vehicle on October 12th around 3 a.m., and was discovered by her mechanic on Nov. 4th, just four days prior to the election.
Schieve’s interview with Sparks Police took place only a few weeks after she won the Reno mayoral election. In the video, Schieve laments the tough political climate that she has endured, saying that her political opponents had spread lies about her having a relationship with the Police Chief, claimed that she was killing babies for endorsements, and falsely accused her of getting pulled over for a DUI. “They put out all these crazy, outlandish lies. The problem is I think many of their supporters actually believed them,” Schieve reports.
In her interview with Sparks Police, Schieve complains of stalkers and having a general sense of being watched in the months leading up to election day. “There have been strange cars outside my house really late and really early in the morning, like three or four o’clock in the morning. Maybe I am being paranoid but I also often have a sense that I am being followed. Like, hey, this car is still behind me,” Schieve details.
Schieve names a prominent far-right activist with deep pockets and shares her suspicion that he was behind the surveillance. “They were having a debate that they invited me to. I think part of this is they wanted to find out where I was during this ‘fake’ political debate that they put out there. I think they were hoping to find me at a bar or a club or something instead of being at their debate,” Schieve says in the video.
Schieve tells Sparks Police that a powerful political figure in Reno politics spent over $1M on different political races over the last year and she shared her belief that he has used a number of different PIs to surveil his political opponents. “He has a lot of money but he seems really out there. They were saying that the elections were stolen and broadcasting financial rewards for anyone who could give them information that could get our elected officials arrested,” Schieve reports.
Through a separate interview with McNeely (detailed below), Sparks Police investigators confirmed that McNeely never physically surveilled Schieve, meaning he simply installed the GPS tracker and monitored it. One Sparks Police investigator, in an effort to explain the cars that Schieve has seen outside her house and/or following her, suggests that Schieve’s political opponent, “probably just uses PIs all over town” and “there are other people that were possibly following you.”
Referencing the infidelity rumors that were widely publicized in September 2022 regarding Reno Councilman Oscar Delgado (who promptly resigned to “focus on his family”) and Mariluz Garcia (who was elected to the County Commission in Nov. 2022). Schieve speculates that the same political enemies who were surveilling her had put trackers on Garcia’s car to uncover the affair and smear Garcia and Delgado. These political enemies were “trying to use our personal lives” against us to win political points, Schieve tells Sparks Police.
This case raises several interesting questions for PIs and for law enforcement generally—mainly because Schieve is an elected official. On one hand, McNeely did not break any laws in the state of Nevada, but at the same time, stalking, harassing, or threatening an elected official has to be taken seriously by law enforcement.
In their discussion, one of the Sparks investigators explains to Schieve that McNeeley did not intend to harm her and that they don’t have the basis to charge McNeeley with criminal conduct: “He’s not trying to harass you. He’s trying to do his business. It’s common practice for private investigators nowadays to [use these types of trackers]. As much as we disagree with it, there is not a criminal nexus to this as it stands right now. Civilly you may have some options, but criminally we don’t have anything. We checked with the Sparks City attorneys,” says the Sparks Police investigator.
Sparks Police also contacted the FBI, the Secret Service, and other law enforcement agencies to see if there was anything they could do (or anything they could charge the PI with!) about McNeely’s surveillance of Schieve, according to one of the Sparks Police investigators. Ultimately, Sparks Police concluded that no crime had occurred and that there was no criminal element to McNeely’s operations.
In their interview with Schieve, a Sparks PD investigator describes how they identified McNeely. Sparks Police is said to have issued subpoenas to Verizon and AT&T, as well as the company that sells the tracking devices. “The company was very forthright with us and gave us everything we needed. They told us who bought the device, when they bought it, and where it’s been—everything. If they hadn’t been so helpful, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation,” the Sparks Police investigator tells Schieve.
Some Nevada news outlets have argued that Schieve used her political influence to get Sparks Police to help her investigate the tracker. Interested parties have also insisted that Sparks Police should not have disclosed David McNeely’s name to Schieve, especially since they concluded there was no criminal activity.
In other words, if you’re a private citizen in Nevada and you find a GPS tracker on your car, you likely would encounter great difficulty in tracing it back to the individual who installed it. However, because of her political position, Sparks Police issued numerous subpoenas on her behalf and quickly uncovered this information for her.
Adding fuel to the political fire, Schieve jokingly remarked to the Sparks Police investigators, “Do you guys need a job? We’re hiring!”
At the end of her discussion with Sparks Police, Schieve indicates her desire to change the laws in Nevada to make use of GPS trackers on vehicles illegal, remarking that she is sure she can get someone in the Nevada Legislature to carry the bill. “We’re all in agreement that this is wrong. It wasn’t long ago  that law enforcement didn’t need a warrant [to install a GPS tracker on a car], and there’s no reason a private citizen should be able to do that and invade somebody’s privacy in that way. It is wrong,” a Sparks Police investigator tells Schieve.
Confirming Political Motives David McNeely, a licensed PI and security guard in Nevada, built his career in law enforcement for over 20 years and worked on the Tri-NET Narcotic Task Force in Carson City, Nevada for over a decade before transitioning into PI work. In their conversations with Schieve, Sparks Police investigators tell her that “he is very experienced and highly trained in surveillance. [He] wouldn’t be someone you would notice was following you. He’s also extremely well-trained in electronic surveillance.” Working PI also obtained video copies of the interview that Sparks Police conducted with McNeely in November 2022 after they traced the GPS tracker back to him.
On the tape, Sparks Police are waiting in McNeely’s driveway when he returns home, after which he promptly invites the officers into his house. Officers question McNeely on the type of work he does and he responds: “There’s nothing that I won’t do as long as it’s within the confines of the law.”
After explaining to McNeely that they’ve traced the GPS tracker used on Schieve’s car back to him and they are investigating whether someone means harm to her, McNeely reveals that his investigation was “political” in nature. “There is no threat to the mayor. I can’t get into too many details on it. It is not with the intent of causing harm to anyone. There were all kinds of [political] allegations that [based on my investigation] were completely unfounded. So, I went back and told the client ‘this person is not doing what you think.’ She seems to be doing what mayors are supposed to do. Super boring—she goes to work, she goes home, that’s it,” McNeely told the officers.
McNeely ultimately said that he could not reveal the name of his client and would need a non-administrative subpoena if Sparks Police wanted that information. “So basically, a warrant,” remarked one of the Officers.
McNeely said he had a duty of confidentiality to his client and added that his surveillance of Schieve was “nothing personal,”—he was just doing his job.
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The Right to Privacy
Schieve’s case raises a number of interesting legal questions—primarily because of her position as a public servant and political figure. Schieve’s original complaint cites Nevada case law (Ringelberg v. Vanguard Integrity Pros.-Nevada, Inc.) which indicates that the installation of a GPS tracker implicates the tort of invasion of privacy. In other words, there is case law that, at a minimum, justifies Schieve’s right to bring a lawsuit against McNeely.
However, there is also an argument that a politician who runs for office and serves as a public figure, does not have the same expectation of privacy as a private citizen. Similar to the way a personal injury plaintiff waives many of their “rights to privacy” as a result of bringing a claim.
For example, in an article titled “Do Political Candidates Have the Right to Privacy?” published in the Fordham Law Journal, author Kirby Shilling writes that when an individual is sworn into office, “They have waived their privacy rights ‘as the price of admission’ in the political sphere” and that case law has established that “political figures, have no privacy claim with respect to ‘the flow of truthful information which may be relevant to his qualifications for office,'” informs Shilling.
Advice for Private Investigators on High-Profile Investigations Kelly Riddle, President of Kelmar Global and the lead instructor at PI Institute of Education, has been a private investigator for over 41 years and has first-hand experience with these types of high-profile, political investigations. Riddle sat down with Working PI and shared some insight and advice for PIs who find themselves doing these types of assignments.
For starters, there are always more people involved than a normal surveillance operation. “There are often so many different eyes looking over your shoulder, it can muddy the waters because high-profile investigations usually mean other agencies have already had their hands in the investigation. So, it just kind of complicates everything that you do,” Riddle explains.
Not only do you have to worry about other investigators looking over your shoulder; but you have to be mindful of the people who are also working for your target. In fact, Riddle says that there is a heightened safety issue because of this factor. “A lot of times they have their own executive protection details, or they go to places with heightened security such as the state capital, the white house, court houses, etc. There’s more people watching them, therefore there is more potential that we’re being observed too.”
With this increased risk of your cover being blown, it’s important to take the proper safety precautions as an investigator. Riddle advises that it is more important than ever for PIs to adhere to confidentiality, ethical standards, contractual commitments, and laws. “I have seen investigators that have posted on social media about what they were doing. Even without posting who they were surveilling, I’ve seen where it came back and got them in trouble, because the opposition picked up on it. You must remain confidential,” Riddle iterates.
As discussed above, politicians waive at least a part of their “right to privacy” once they begin a campaign. However, that doesn’t mean that investigators can trespass on their property or track their vehicles without permission (depending on state laws). Riddle explains, “Yes, they’re in the public eye but that just means they’ll be in the public a little bit more. Obviously, that makes things easier for us, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we can circumvent all the normal laws we have to deal with.”
As we’ve seen with this case, even if an investigator follows all the applicable laws, they might still end up in trouble. In fact, Riddle says sometimes going to court is part of the territory. However, it isn’t something many investigators need to be too worried about. “If you maintain your ethics and stay within the boundaries of the law, the likelihood of you getting drawn into a lawsuit is lessened. But the fact that you’re involved in a high-profile case at all can drag you into a lawsuit. It does come with the job, which is why you also need to make sure you have good insurance,” Riddle tells us.
Riddle doesn’t necessarily believe all investigators should be doing these types of investigations because of the ramifications, “Just because they’re high-profile, a lot of investigators will turn it down. Realistically, you don’t know who you’re stepping on. These high-profile people can come back on you and cause problems for you and the industry. So, I understand why a lot of investigators don’t do it.”
It is clear from her lawsuit, and the comments Schieve has made to both the press and the Sparks Police investigators, that she is looking to make a strong statement to the political opponents that she believes hired McNeely.
In her conversations with Sparks Police, Schieve makes that clear. “Because of how alarming this [election] cycle has been, I want it very public. I want them to know this isn’t okay, but also just for our safety so they know we’re paying attention. More so than anything, I worry about women and their safety. The fact that [the Sparks Police] have to get an order to [use GPS trackers] but [McNeely] didn’t, is really alarming,” Schieve says.
In response to Judge Hardy’s subpoena to reveal his client, McNeely fired back with a motion to dismiss the entire lawsuit, award him attorney fees, and protect the confidentiality of his client. McNeely’s attorneys write, “Based on his experience in the industry, understanding of client expectations…and the publicity associated with this lawsuit, McNeely believes that if he discloses the identity of the client(s), he will lose current clients and [be] unable to obtain new clients, which could be ruinous for his practice as a private investigator.”
In asking the court to dismiss the case, McNeely argues: “There is no allegation that the use of the device was prohibited by Nevada law—it was not. In fact, the use of such devices is a regular and safe practice among private investigators in the State of Nevada.”
This is a developing story. Subscribe to Working PI’s email edition online at WorkingPImag.com to stay up-to-date on this and other breaking news for the PI profession. Stay safe out there!
About the Author
Kendra Budd is the Editor of Working PI magazine and the Marketing Coordinator for OREP, a leading provider of E&O insurance—trusted by over 12,000 professionals nationwide. She graduated with a BA in Theatre and English from Western Washington University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Full Sail University.
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