LDS private investigator has colorful career

Published: Monday, Jan. 29 2001 5:10 p.m. MST

MOSES LAKE, Wash. — There may be just one thing Special Agent Mike McPheters didn't get to do during his long, varied career with the FBI.

"I still want to reach my professional goal of riding in after a bad guy and bringing him in on a horse," McPheters joked.

That may be part of the reason why the retired G-man started his own private investigator business, Basin Investigations, in Moses Lake, though he's not exactly owning up to that.

Headlines have followed him from Miami to Portland to Pendleton to Utah to Southern California as he's busted auto theft rings, underworld figures, murderers, timber thieves, drug manufacturers, bank robbers and white slave traders.

McPheters began duty in 1968 for an annual salary of $9,297 after his Mormon mission in Paraguay and Uruguay, where he learned Spanish.

It was during his mission that several of his cohorts interested him in FBI work.

He continued his Spanish studies in college and later was assigned to Miami, where Spanish-speaking agents were especially needed.

Along the way, he also earned a master's degree in business and public administration.

In 1971, he helped end one of the biggest stolen car rackets ever — a case that took two years to crack and ultimately yielded 40 indictments.

That case earned him his first letter of commendation from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Twenty-two such letters were to follow from Hoover's successors. His accolades also include a National Medal of Honor from Bolivia in 1989 for solving the murders of two Mormon missionaries.

But before leaving southern Florida's near tropics for the gray Northwest, McPheters would tangle with mobsters, help safeguard former President Nixon, become a member of the FBI's first SWAT team as well as part of an eight-man group sent into St. Croix, Virgin Islands, to solve the case of eight murdered U.S. citizens.

From his Portland base, he worked timber theft, bank robberies, white slavery, prostitution and pornography, until his move to the dry side, where he covered a third of Oregon from his Pendleton post. Despite Pendleton's reputation for its wild annual rodeo, McPheters still never got to saddle up his horse.

It was there, though, that he worked some of his most rewarding and dangerous cases. His closest brush with death came in 1983 in Elgin during a shoot-out in which two extortionists died.

The case involved a farmer who was told his family would be killed if he didn't cough up $50,000. But when the two extortionists showed up for payment, the farmer didn't follow the plan, eventually leading his would-be killer straight to McPheters.

A bullet missed McPheters by less than an inch.

One case involving a 5-year-old Milton-Freewater girl brought a special reward. The youngster had been kidnapped, sexually abused for a few days and later abandoned in Salt Lake City.

The eventual outcome of the 1985 case still brings a giant smile to the face of the 57-year-old grandfather of 10. "I was able to call her mother and say we found her," McPheters said. "It was the most satisfying case of my career."

After winding up his 30-year-career and retiring two years ago from the Riverside, Calif., division, where he was assigned to international drug cartels, McPheters said he didn't really plan to return to investigative work.

A job at Big Bend Community College, where he teaches criminal justice, criminal law and conversational Spanish — plus a daughter and four grandchildren in Moses Lake — drew him back to the Mid-Columbia.

And he eventually also found himself drawn back to using his investigative skills, deciding to go into business as a Spanish interpreter and a private investigator.

He specializes in finding missing persons, researching businesses and investigating cases of abandoned and neglected children.

His new practice is already off to a successful start. An 82-year-old man recently asked McPheters to find his 57-year-old son. McPheters found him in just 10 minutes. He can do it with just a partial name, a partial address, a city or even a partial phone number.

"Finding a missing person is really gratifying," he said. "A lot of information is available to people, but they don't know how to get it. Information is a valuable tool, and if it's used ethically, it can free people from a lot of their problems."

He said he believes there's also a big need for more investigative work regarding nursing homes, sexual harassment in the workplace and even screening of singles' ads.

But, he adds, "You have to let victims know you're out there."

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