By Bill Osinski
The Atlanta Journal Constitution
Freckle-faced and petite, the young woman at the door looks as if she could be selling cookies. The unsuspecting resident opens the door to greet the innocent-looking stranger. But Kristi Martinelli is not as she appears. And suddenly the 18-year-old reaches into the back pocket of her blue jeans, pulls out some papers, and—-bam! You’ve been served.
It’s all in a day’s, or night’s, work for Martinelli, Gwinnett County’s real-life Nancy Drew. The Grayson High School senior holds a private investigator’s license from the state of Georgia. Martinelli, who will graduate this week, said she considered her private-eye work more practical than glamorous. “I figured that being a private investigator would be better than working part time at McDonald’s,” she said. She’s probably more passionate about grooming and showing her Arabian mare, Tura Lura Lura. Also, she likes the tools of her trade almost as much as the work itself; she plans to study photography in college. Still, being a private eye has its moments. It’s pretty cool to follow people,” Martinelli said. “And I like surveillance. It’s fun to sit there and watch.”
Working within the justice system is a family affair in the Martinelli household. Kristi’s mother, Robin Martinelli, a former sheriff’s deputy, is president of Martinelli Investigations, Inc., a private investigative and process-serving agency based in Lawrenceville. Her father is Cpl. Doug Martinelli of the Gwinnett Police Department; he does no work for the private agency.
When Robin Martinelli was getting her agency going about five years ago, she occasionally took Kristi and her two other children on stakeouts when there were no sitters available. “I’d just throw the kids into the back seat,” she said. “They weren’t part of the job, but they were good cover.”
Becoming a private investigator was a longtime goal, Robin Martinelli said. She was a big fan of the Nancy Drew mystery series, she said. “Nancy was feminine, and she could get everything done.” Her own daughter turned out to be about as intrepid and independent as the fictional Nancy.
In fact, Carolyn Keene’s first Nancy Drew book, “The Secret Of The Old Clock,” begins, “Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of 18, was driving home along a country road in her new dark-blue convertible. She had just delivered some legal papers for her father.”
As her agency grew, Robin Martinelli looked to Kristi for help. Last summer, Kristi passed a private investigator’s course at Gwinnett Tech, and shortly after her 18th birthday last November she applied for and received her Georgia license.
Kristi may be the youngest person ever issued a private investigator’s license. Her mother said officials in the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office have searched the records and have not found anyone younger than Kristi who has received a license. Since getting her license, Kristi has served court papers at the rate of about 15 per month. So far, she said, she has always been able to track down her target.
Adam Parman of Roswell credits Kristi’s photographs and video footage with helping him win his child custody dispute. “Without her, we wouldn’t have had a case,” Parman said. “Nobody suspected her,” he said, referring to her surveillance work.
“She got the job done,” said Lawrenceville attorney Paul Andrews, who has used the Martinelli agency to serve legal documents. “I’m sure she’s effective in certain situations because of her gender and appearance,” he said, adding that people wary of a summons server are often on the lookout for a large male, not a young woman who could pass for 16. Kristi does not carry a weapon. It takes a different type of license for a private investigator to be armed, and no one under 21 may apply for one.
Also, her parents try to screen out assignments that might be dangerous. We’re concerned, so we take precautions,” Doug Martinelli said. “We tell her that if she sees anything that makes her feel uncomfortable, just keep driving.” Sometimes Kristi will take a friend along on a stakeout. A small group of teenagers sitting in a parked car can be a very effective cover for her work, she said.
Mostly, people find it hard to be rude or angry to her, she said. Her biggest frustration is when people lie about their identity in an attempt to avoid being served, she said. But there have been dicey moments, she added.
Once, Kristi approached a home seeking to serve a woman wanted in a drug-trafficking case. While she was at the door, the woman drove up accompanied by a huge, rough-looking man. But Kristi was able to serve the papers without incident, she said. Another time, Kristi said, she was brought to the brink of tears when a woman she had served started screaming at her and slammed the door in her face.
And then there was, perhaps, her favorite assignment, one that Nancy Drew would have loved. Call it “The Purloined Prom Dress.” Kristi’s client – a clothing retailer – suspected that a competitor had stolen some popular prom dress designs. Kristi took a hidden camera with her, appearing to be just another young shopper while collecting evidence to support her client’s claim. “I got paid, and I got a free prom dress,” she said.