Angelica Brooks’ early love of crime shows carried her into the forensics field, then toward her real calling: investigating trafficking, missing persons, and cold cases for families with few resources.

I’ve always known what I wanted to do. An early obsession with crime shows like “Criminal Minds,” “The First 48,” “Unsolved Mysteries,” and “America’s Most Wanted” stoked my childhood dream to become a crime scene investigator — a CSI.

Motherhood and a toxic marriage put that dream on hold. For years, the verbal abuse from my husband and his family had me believing what they told me: that I would never become anything. One day, I stopped listening. I wanted more for myself and my son, and I made it my mission to go out and get it.

I got out of that marriage, enrolled in a criminal justice program, and applied for an internship with the Crime Scene Unit of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office in Pensacola, Florida. I can’t say I waited “patiently” for a response, because I was too excited to get started. (Spoiler alert: the answer was yes.)

Death Investigations: Trial by Fire

I’ll never forget my first ride-along to the scene of a death. I’d never seen a dead body before. This was nothing like “CSI” or “Law & Order.” A teenage girl had shot herself with the family’s handgun because her boyfriend had broken up with her. The sight of that girl, so young she looked like a doll, froze me in my tracks. My investigator-mentor asked if I was OK. After a moment, I put aside my fear and sadness and got to work.

Not long afterwards, I accompanied the unit to the apartment of a deceased elderly man. He had been there for quite some time and was in the advanced stages of decomposition — you could tell that the minute you turned onto his street. Those experiences taught me to separate work and feeling, at least enough to focus on the job. But I loved the work, investigating and testifying on all kinds of cases, including homicides, assaults, domestic violence, burglaries, and arsons. The internship turned into a job, and I got to work some high-profile cases — my friends occasionally called to say they’d seen me on TV.

All the while, I was storing up everything I saw, learning about the social issues and causes I would one day champion.

Next Moves

After a few years of investigating crime scenes, I decided I wanted to serve the community in a way that felt more meaningful to me. I became an investigator for child protective services, looking into potential child abuse cases to determine whether children should be removed from the home. This gave me a close-up view of broken family dynamics, generational curses, and cracks in the legal system, and I started to see where these failures too often led: Trafficking. Homelessness. Prison. Young lives broken, headed down dead-end paths. I wondered how I might help break that cycle.

At about that time, my (now) husband was ending his career with the Marines, and our family relocated to a small town near Montgomery, Alabama. I took a job as a forensic pathology associate with the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences. My job was to remove all clothing and evidence from the bodies, swab and bag the evidence, prepare the room and body for forensic examination, and conduct the autopsy. The forensic physician would then examine the organs and body after autopsy to determine the cause of death.

I loved this work from the “other side” of the crime scene, working on cases of homicide, suicide, and SIDS. But after having my two daughters, I decided not to go back to forensics work. I wondered how I could use my skills to give back to my community and had many long talks with my husband about what I should do next.

The AHA Moment

One night during one of those talks, I spoke into existence an idea I had long been afraid to voice: I wanted to be a private investigator.

There was a long silence. And then my husband said he was a hundred percent behind me. “I’ve never seen anyone so driven,” he said, adding that he knew, without a doubt, that if I chose private investigation, I would knock it out of the park. I had pondered and prayed about this idea for more than a year. Fear of failure had kept me from acting on it.

Now that I knew my partner had my back, there was no stopping me.

One night … I spoke into existence an idea I had long been afraid to voice: I wanted to be a private investigator.

Two years ago, I got my PI license and started working insurance fraud cases for an agency. One of my first cases was to surveil a man who claimed that he could not move his legs. I followed him all over Montgomery: to restaurants, to take his son for a haircut, to Walmart, and back to his house. At all these locales, he seemed to be moving his legs rather well. I changed my hair and outfits three different times, and he never noticed me at all. Staying in sight of him and taking photos without getting burned gave me a rush of adrenalin. But if I’m honest, even though I knew this was a great place to get my feet wet, I didn’t love the work.

I wanted my own PI firm, with my own mission as a guiding star. I started teaching criminal justice part time at a small local college and got to work building a business.

The Job Becomes a Calling

Early on, I was approached by a woman who had been looking for her daughter for six months. She had very little money, so I took her case pro bono. There were several leads, but also a lot of misinformation. I was able to identify her last known location and the people who most likely took her and pass that information forward to law enforcement. So far there’s no happy ending on that front, but at least we found some additional leads.

As I put hours of digging into that case, I thought back to those broken homes I saw as a child abuse investigator. I thought about underprivileged families who had little recourse when a loved one went missing or a case went cold. I thought about how law enforcement could get so bogged down with cases, they ran out of time and manpower to dedicate to families. That’s when I decided to start a nonprofit to help those families. My four best friends backed my play and helped me get the organization up and running.

Silent Voices

We called our nonprofit the Silent Voices Project. Our motto is “to be a voice to the voiceless,” and our mission is to help families whose loved ones are missing or have fallen victim to human trafficking. We also look into murder investigations that have gone unsolved. We have an amazing team of researchers and an upcoming internship partnership with Tulane University.

One of our current research projects is pulling together national data on missing persons, to help us understand how best to fight and prevent trafficking. We’ve partnered with a Nigerian nonprofit that helps child migrant survivors learn a trade and start new lives. And we’re developing a program called Release to help women survivors of domestic violence and trafficking overcome their past and begin a new chapter. We also hope to offer trafficking awareness seminars to civic organizations and training in cold case investigations, trafficking research, and victim advocacy to our own volunteers and any PI who’s interested in these areas.

Meanwhile, I’m working on a couple of ventures on my own: a monthly subscription box of self-defense gear for women and a local TV show where I can talk to families about cold cases or missing loved ones. My PI work has been a slow start. I take cases on an as-needed basis — mainly surveillance and background investigations — but my focus has turned to my nonprofit. SVP is inundated with clients and families making contact daily about their loved ones’ cases. So the workload has picked up tremendously.

I’ve always said that I have done my job if I can change one single life. I started by changing my own.

I know. It’s a lot to take in, and a lot to get done. But my life story has prepared me for this exact mission. Investigating child abuse and tragic, untimely deaths showed me how the very worst things can happen, and how our system too often fails the most vulnerable among us. Working with families who feel silenced in their search for closure has given me the courage to raise my own voice on their behalf. And my own history of verbal abuse helped me see how cruelty disempowers people — and made me all the more determined to prove what I could become.

I’ve always said that I have done my job if I can change one single life. I started by changing my own.

 

About the author:

Angelica Brooks is a private investigator and justice activist with a passion for finding leads in missing persons, human trafficking, and cold cases. She is the founder of the Silent Voices Project, a nonprofit dedicated to research and education about the realities of human trafficking and investigating missing persons and cold cases for families with few resources. (Published: https://pursuitmag.com/origin-story-from-csi-to-new-pi/)