David Fechheimer, a budding flower child of the 1960s and aspiring English teacher who was spurred overnight by the fictional gumshoe Sam Spade to switch careers and become one of the nation’s leading private investigators, died Tuesday in Redwood City, Calif. He was 76.
His son Zachary, also a private investigator, said the cause was complications of open-heart surgery.
By dint of personality and practice, Mr. Fechheimer was inconspicuous compared with many of his colleagues and most of his clients. He handled cases involving the Black Panthers, Kobe Bryant, Angela Davis, Robert Durst, John Gotti, Daniel Ellsberg, Patty Hearst, Timothy McVeigh, Roman Polanski, and Martha Stewart, among others.
In 2000, he won $50 million for four children sired by Larry Hillbloom, a founder of DHL, the shipping company, in a disputed estate case. He established paternity through DNA after sitting behind Hillbloom’s reclusive mother at church, placing $10 in the collection plate, and, feigning Parkinson’s disease, asking her to lick the envelope for him.
In 2002, Mr. Fechheimer, whose nickname was Fetch, went from cave to cave on the Afghan-Pakistan border in search of witnesses to support John Walker Lindh’s claim that he had provided only minor support to terrorists. (By the time Mr. Fechheimer returned, the case had been settled. Lindh, a US citizen, was sentenced to 20 years in jail for providing his services as a soldier to the Taliban.)
He also investigated several cases without fee for the Innocence Project, leading to the exoneration of inmates facing the death penalty in Alabama and Mississippi.
His clients notwithstanding, Mr. Fechheimer was not an ideologue, Peter Neufeld, a founder of the Innocence Project, said in a telephone interview. “He was political in that he cared so much about people and had progressive values about race and war and the human condition,” Neufeld said.
Replete with a beard, shaggy gray hair and rimless granny glasses, he looked more like Jerry Garcia than Humphrey Bogart, who played Sam Spade in John Huston’s famous film version of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon.”
“The mythical detective is a bad detective,” Mr. Fechheimer told Esquire magazine in 1984. “Any time you find yourself diving through a plate-glass window, you know you’ve made a serious error.”
He was more likely to listen earnestly to witnesses and suspects than to lunge at them.
“He could get anyone to talk because he intimidated no one,” Neufeld recalled. “He would say, ‘If you really want to get someone to talk, talk to them about what matters to them most.’ ”
David Fechheimer was born David Burgess Bissinger on April 30, 1942, in Cincinnati to Karl Bissinger, who became a fashion and portrait photographer in New York and later a peace advocate, and Juliet (Esselborn) Bissinger. After his parents divorced, his mother married Paul R. Fechheimer, an engineer who ran a factory that made packing machinery, in 1945.
As a young man, Mr. Fechheimer traveled across Africa and lived in Europe. After returning to the United States, he hitchhiked to California, where he received a bachelor’s degree in English from San Francisco State College (now University) in 1964.
Living hand-to-mouth as a student and needing a job, Mr. Fechheimer picked up “The Maltese Falcon” and became enthralled, he told The Dallas Morning News in 1994.
The next morning, he applied to the Pinkerton detective agency, where Hammett had worked before embarking on his writing career. He was hired and began working there for $2 an hour.
“I called Pinkerton and asked if they needed someone who had no experience and a beard,” Mr. Fechheimer said. “To my surprise, they said they needed someone with a beard that day. I thought I would do it a couple of weeks as a goof. It looked like fun, being Sam Spade. Pinkerton put me under cover on the docks, and I was hooked. I never went back to school.”
His first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his son Zachary, he leaves his wife, Dianne Roxas; another son, Samuel, a professional chef; two granddaughters; and a sister, Ann Neff.