She's made her name finding the facts. But Li Fellers will never know the what, where or why of her own birth.
“My adopted mother, Li-Hwa, was a real con artist,” says Fellers, 38. She's sitting at Taylor's, a dimly lit steak house in the grungy heart of Koreatown. She takes a big bite of top sirloin. “She was this sexy young lady living in rural Taiwan. When she met my father, who was stationed there during a tour of duty in Vietnam, she faked a pregnancy so he'd feel obligated to marry her.”
Li-Hwa then convinced a superstitious farming family to give her their newborn child — a girl. The fourth daughter. Worthless, in other words. Maybe, Li-Hwa told them, they'd get a washing machine out of it.
“Who knows what the reality is,” Fellers says. She laughs. “I'm sure the truth is somewhere in there.”
Maybe that's why raw, corroborated information is what's important to Fellers now. She's a private investigator in the employ of Public Interest Investigations, a crusading gang of trained lawyers and journalists who do the legwork on civil rights and criminal cases, from Agoura Hills to Abu Ghraib.
Fellers is vivacious, a restless soul who's been on the move ever since she left Hawaii for New York City (“a different kind of island,” in her words) at 17. She wanted to experience different people, different jobs, ways of life that weren't obvious to the naked eye. Journalism was her entrée into the world of professional curiosity.
In the '90s she produced hidden-camera segments for ABC. She engineered brilliant setups — working with understaffed police departments to catch drug dealers, corrupt bureaucrats, even an arsonist — but she grew cynical.
“We brought a lot of people to justice, but in the end, it's all about self-interest,” she recalls. “You're just looking for someone who has something to benefit from, and then you exploit it. Everyone wants to be on TV.”
Private investigation is different. There's nothing flashy about uncovering the ordinary unseemliness of the Southland. The porky boss who harasses female employees. The deadbeat landlord who evicts his black tenants before he fixes their floors. The murder in Inglewood, mired for decades in appeals courts while a man on death row insists he's innocent.
“Basically, I just don't take no for an answer,” Fellers says. She played digital slots with the woman who has a gambling problem. She brought Golden Bird fried chicken to a key witness who'd moved to the desert. She lets self-righteous evangelists and chuckling pervs invite her into their apartments.
“However I can, I make my interviews informal and unthreatening,” she says. “I'm honest about who I am, and I ask them to help me understand what might have happened.”
She chews, thoughtfully.
“You'd think private investigation is a lot of chasing people with guns. But you know what? People are really nice to me.”