Ed Wunsch majored in criminal justice and psychology, but it’s no secret which of the two fields he leans on regularly in his unusual line of work.
Wunsch is a private investigator, specializing in the strange and strained world of “child abductions by parents.” The 58-year-old bachelor lives in St. Louis Park, where his company, Commercial Reports, is based. While his bread-and-butter work comes from contentious family-court custody and criminal defense cases, Wunsch devotes increasing pro bono hours to helping traumatized parents reunite with children who were illegally taken by former spouses or partners.
Wunsch arrived for a recent interview wearing a Packers sweatshirt and jeans, from which he pulled out a constantly buzzing smartphone. He was generous with his time and stories, but requested that I not take his picture.
Q: Why do parents kidnap their own child?
A: Of the cases I work on, most have nothing to do with the kids. It’s mostly about getting back at the other parent. A few months ago, a father got a child support order increasing his payments. So he kept the kid. Even when they get joint custody, this happens. It’s vindictiveness, a lot of control issues. What’s the worst thing a parent could do? Take the kid.
I’m not a parent, so I can only imagine the trauma.
Q: What do you make of the high-profile case in which Sandra Grazzini-Rucki was charged with felony deprivation of parental rights for allegedly hiding her daughters, Samantha and Gianna, from their father since 2013?
A: I was not involved. That case was weird even by our standards. I don’t know all the circumstances, but I’m guessing that the mom somehow knew the jig was up. In my opinion, there were outside influences in this case … some kind of underground support system. Most of the time, there is some other influence, like a family member or grandparents involved.
Q: What are your objectives in such an emotionally charged situation?
A: We try to look at this logically, and it’s an illogical situation. Parents don’t always think it all the way through. You have to have a general understanding of the psychology of people. I’m able to sum someone up pretty quickly. Whether I’m talking to an attorney, a cop or a mom who is hysterical, it’s key to not escalate the situation. Everybody’s different. You have to sit down with them.
Q: How do you combat the P.I.-as-slimy stereotype?
A: I try to do my job the best I can. I keep everything above board. I try to follow the law. I’ve never been charged with a crime.
Q: How many cases of parental abductions have you worked on?
A: Since I started doing this type of private investigative work in 2003, probably 50 or 60.
Q: Any repeat customers?
A: Not with parents, but I have had some repeat runaways.
Q: Have the parental cases all been resolved?
A: Probably three haven’t been. Some [parents who abduct their kids] bring the child back and say, “I screwed up.”
Q: Do you ever follow up with families?
A: I usually try to follow up with a call every night for a week or so, and then I start slowly trickling off. After a month or two, I let them know they can call me if they need to. Some parents want to talk. Others want to get on with their lives.
Q: What are some of your most memorable cases?
A: The youngest child abducted by a parent, in this case the father, was 10 days old. Mom gave Dad a couple of hours with the kid and he took off. We found him at a high school graduation party.
One of my first cases was with a father, working with the FBI, who was certain that his wife had taken their daughter to Poland. The mom had changed her name and was living in St. Paul. The FBI said, “Huh. Look at that.”
Q: What’s the longest running case on your books?
A: I’ve had cases that lasted five, six, seven years. Kids have been told that Mom is dead or that she moved on and doesn’t love them. Terrible stuff. In one case many years back, a young girl was taken by her father. She was found five years later, but there are still problems in her relationship with her mother.
Q: Do you ever worry about your physical safety?
A: I don’t, but I probably should. I get into situations where, afterward, I think, “That could have gone really bad really quick.” You get into it and you don’t think about it. You’re focused on getting the job done.
Q: In March, you’ll be on a panel at the United Nations speaking about parental abductions. Does this imply that this is an international problem?
A: It is an international problem. The cases I work on mostly occur in the United States, where kids are taken to another country. Most of the time, it’s a no-win situation. Canada and Mexico are pretty good, but if we don’t have diplomatic relations, it can take years to get through their court systems.
Q: What keeps you doing such stressful work?
A: The adrenaline high is great. Sometimes I want to pull my hair out, but … it’s the high you get when you get the kids back. When you hand a little kid back to Mom or Dad and they say, “Thank you!”
Q: Where do you go to escape?
A: Anywhere quiet. My sister in Oregon has 80 acres on a hobby farm. That’s a place where cellphones don’t work.