Simple check can pierce many secrets
The Columbus Dispatch, Holly Zachariah, January 11, 2009
Mary Kington once asked her daughter how to use the Internet to see if someone
had served time in prison or had a criminal record.
Katrina Gregory steered her mother, a 56-year-old home-health caregiver from
Worthington, to the searchable Web site of the Franklin County Municipal Court
and the state prison system's online database of inmates and parolees.
Gregory, 26, said she never would have thought to tell her mother to dig deeper.
It turns out that Kington's boyfriend of seven years, Teddy L. Thompson, had a
lengthy criminal record from the 1980s in California and Texas that included charges
of attempted murder, kidnapping, assault with a firearm and rape.
Kington never knew.
Authorities say Thompson, 50, had used three different Social Security numbers and
two birthdates over the years. So they say the best record search in the world likely
could not have prevented what eventually became a murder-suicide.
Thompson strangled Kington and then shot himself in his West Jefferson apartment the
weekend before Christmas.
The case underscores a very modern-day question: In this age of the Internet, just
how far can or should people go to check, legally, the history of someone they might
not really know?
As far as possible, says one Columbus man whose job is to uncover secrets.
Mike Powers said his business, Powers Investigations, is flooded with requests from
people who want someone checked out.
Often, the inquirers aren't so much looking for a criminal past as they are worried
about evidence of instability.
"They want us to find out about bankruptcies, how many times someone has moved, how
many times they've been married, who they associate with, that kind of stuff,"
"People know the information is public and that it is out there, but it takes a lot
of footwork to get it."
To investigate someone's background thoroughly, two things are key: Know the places
they have lived and traveled, and have about $500 if you want a private investigator
to do the digging for you.
Madison County Sheriff Jim Sabin, in whose county Kington was murdered, said every
so often, people ask him to run a background check on someone they've met -- a
potential love interest, a new neighbor, a baby sitter.
Unless they have that person's written permission, they are always refused.
The information available through comprehensive state and national law-enforcement
systems is for police, not public consumption.
Instead, Sabin tells them to visit local courts, many of which now post records
online, and conduct a search themselves. It's time-consuming, he said, but it could
be well worth it in the end.
"I don't think you need to run a check on every casual acquaintance," Sabin said.
"But if you are bringing someone into your home to be around you or your family,
I'd say utilize whatever you can."
There are also Web sites that can do some of the work for you.
Bryce Lane, president and chief operating officer of the California-based Web
sites peoplefinders.com and
criminalsearches.com, said the company
compiles what is already a matter of public record and puts it in searchable form.
Peoplefinders.com digs relatively deep, mining, among other things, birth, marriage
and property records. Lane's other site searches felony and misdemeanor court
A note on criminalsearches.com cautions users to avoid relying solely upon its data
as evidence of what someone might have done.
"We cannot have everything, but we certainly make it easier to search what's out
there nationally," Lane said. "We're simply one tool."
Thompson's family couldn't be reached for comment, but West Jefferson Police Sgt.
Terry Ward, who investigated the murder-suicide, said relatives told him they were
aware that Thompson had been in trouble before but didn't realize the extent of it.
Gregory said her mother had long been afraid of Thompson. Kington had installed a
home-security system and had told friends that if something happened to her,
Thompson would be to blame.
Powers said he's seen that before: "You should never ignore your gut."
Web searches are a good way to learn about someone's past, but they can be
imperfect, experts warn.