Omaha private detective looks for the truth
July 13, 2023
The Catholic Media Association held its annual conference last month, where the following story was a finalist for the Cardinal Foley Award for Best Catholic Journalism in 2022. The Catholic Voice originally published it on April 19, 2022.
Most know the myth of the private detective in whodunit novels.
Private detectives dig in aluminum trash cans.
They attach illegal listening devices to suspects’ phones.
Their weapons are high-tech miniature gadgets that go unnoticed.
They wear a trench coat and fedora.
And the private detective’s work is done at night. His office is inside an old sedan, parked out of range of tall streetlights. It’s littered with Styrofoam cups, binoculars, fast-food wrappers and camera lenses.
Tom Gorgen, 72, isn’t the private detective you see in movies or read about in books.
Sure, Gorgen poked around trash cans when he was younger. But he doesn’t anymore. If he breaks a law to solve a case, he’ll lose his Nebraska private detective’s license.
Trench coats are uncomfortable, and he doesn’t look good in a hat, he says. Gorgen works from home and rarely at night. He no longer carries a gun. His best asset is his voice.
Eleven years ago, the Archdiocese of Omaha hired Gorgen to look into a sex abuse allegation.
“I was surprised to get a call from an Omaha priest asking me to investigate an Omaha priest,” he said. “The caller made it clear he was after the truth.”
It was easy for Gorgen to accept the job under those terms.
“I’m in the truth-finding business,” he said.
Gorgen’s life is a series of contradictions.
He’s a Central City, Neb., farm boy who grew up to be an Omaha police detective.
He was driving his father’s pickup truck when he was five, and a tractor a year later.
He went from tinkering with farm equipment to designing hidden cameras and miniature recording devices.
After graduating from Central City High School in 1968, Gorgen attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). He had a plan: Study general education and return to work on the family farm. Then he met Pete Kuchel, chair of UNO’s criminal justice department. Kuchel encouraged Gorgen to study criminal justice.
“I became fascinated with the topic,” Gorgen said.
While a student, he worked part-time as an investigator for one of Nebraska’s largest detective agencies. A college classmate helped him get the job.
“I loved my first experience as an investigator,” Gorgen said. “Investigative work was the exact opposite of farming.”
He landed an internship with the Omaha Police Department (OPD). He had an unusual skill for a male — he could type. And he could type fast.
“I didn’t peck the keys with two fingers,” Gorgen said.
Because of his unique skill, Gorgen was assigned to OPD’s detective bureau. He was quickly introduced to investigations. His job was to read and summarize investigative reports.
“I got educated fast by talking to old-time detectives,” Gorgen said.
Gorgen eventually transferred to the office of the police chief. He holds the distinction of being the first intern to work in the chief’s office.
After his May 1972 graduation from UNO, Gorgen entered the police academy in June and graduated in August.
His officer field training got off to an inauspicious beginning.
He was paired with a veteran officer to patrol downtown Omaha. Early on, he was dispatched to a midtown traffic accident.
A car had crashed into a brick wall. When he arrived on the scene, Gorgen noticed the driver’s shoes.
“They looked like shoes worn by prisoners.” He kept the information to himself. “I thought it was a coincidence.”
The driver and the two cops got into the cruiser. Gorgen was in the passenger seat and the driver of the wrecked car sat in the back seat. His partner was behind the wheel. The man pulled out a .45-caliber pistol and placed it against his partner’s head.
“Give me your gun, or I’ll shoot,” the man told Gorgen. He remembered the man’s shoes.
“The academy teaches you never to give up your firearm,” Gorgen said. “I had a decision to make. My partner was looking at me. I gave up my weapon.”
The man ordered the officers to drive downtown. They pulled into an alley off 16th Street and were ordered from the cruiser. The criminal handcuffed Gorgen and his partner to a fire escape. He took their wallets and drove away in the cruiser.
Gorgen had an extra handcuff key in a pocket. He freed himself and his partner. Later, he’d learn the man had escaped from prison. Gorgen was punished for giving up his weapon. For six months he sat on a steel chair taking complaints from the lobby of OPD’s central headquarters.
“I didn’t write many complaints,” he said. “The days were long. I missed the streets.”
He eventually returned to them. It didn’t take him long to advance in the ranks of OPD. He worked in the vice and narcotics division. He was promoted to detective sergeant. At the same time, he was learning about lie detection technology.
His superiors sent him to Alexandria, Virginia, to learn voice stress analysis. He also received specialized training in interrogation techniques.
Gorgen is credited with bringing voice stress analysis to Nebraska.
He’s administered hundreds of lie detection examinations. He became one of the top examiners in the country. Gorgen helped write Nebraska’s lie detection law. In 1981, Nebraska’s secretary of state appointed him to the state’s Truth and Deception Board, where he continues to serve.
Gorgen left OPD in 1983 to start a private security business with a partner from Lincoln. Silverhawk Investigations and Security Specialists was the brainchild of his six-month exile sitting on the steel chair in the police headquarters lobby.
His early clients were agricultural services companies and packing houses. Silverhawk conducted employee background checks, insurance fraud investigations and grain theft investigations.
Silverhawk was a thriving business when the partners sold it. Gorgen decided to simplify his life and open a one-man private detective agency.
Like his fictional counterparts, Gorgen solved many criminal cases and tracked down missing persons with the tricks he kept up his sleeve.
He hid miniature cameras in eyeglasses, potted plants and Christmas tree ornaments. The pen in his shirt pocket was usually a microphone.
In 2011, Gorgen answered a phone call from Father Joe Taphorn, who at the time was the vicar for clergy for the Archdiocese of Omaha.
Father Taphorn told Gorgen about an Omaha priest accused of sexually abusing a minor many years before. The accuser was an adult in the Douglas County Jail. The accused priest was serving in an Omaha parish.
Father Taphorn knew he lacked the knowledge and experience to conduct a sexual abuse allegation himself.
“The seriousness of the situation merited the assistance of an outside expert, who can bring added professionalism and objectivity,” he said.
Father Taphorn asked Gorgen to investigate the credibility of the complaint. Gorgen recalls being impressed with Taphorn’s commitment to truth, justice and child safety.
“I’m not a very religious person,” Gorgen said. “People with a spiritual calling were a stretch for me, until I met Father Taphorn. I liked his honesty and transparency.”
He accepted the case. He said it was an opportunity to help the victim and the Catholic Church manage complicated issues. It would be the first of many sexual abuse investigations he would accept from the archdiocese.
Father Taphorn calls Gorgen a respectful and objective investigator who is motivated to find the truth.
He’s been able to prove the guilt of most of the priests he’s investigated. He was able to exonerate others.
Gorgen isn’t Catholic. He says that’s an advantage. Victims know he’s unbiased. He doesn’t put priests on a pedestal.
“Like me, priests are imperfect,” he said.
Gorgen’s voice is his primary asset. He’s a people person with a knack for putting others at ease. Strangers tell him things they keep from family and friends.
During interviews, he listens carefully to what a person is saying. “Everybody is going to tell you the truth in some way.”
Interviewing abuse victims can be a delicate task. They have to recount a traumatic event from the past.
“It’s important to give victims the space and freedom to express themselves in their own way and their own time,” Gorgen said.
Mary Beth Hanus is the archdiocese’s advocate for sex abuse victims. She’s not hesitant to give Gorgen access to someone who continues to suffer from the trauma of abuse.
“Tom has so much compassion for victims,” Hanus said. “He puts them at ease. When you combine his compassion with a relentless search for the truth, you get an excellent investigator.”
Father Taphorn said Gorgen stays in touch with some victims, long after the conclusion of a case.
“He is under no obligation to accompany a victim, but he is moved to help because it is the Christian thing to do,” Father Taphorn said.
Gorgen says every sexual abuse case is different, but the goal is always the same: to search for the truth.
“The archdiocese has never interfered with one of my investigations. I have free rein. I would not take a case if it was any other way. I don’t need the money.”
Gorgen believes his faith has grown stronger since accepting the archdiocese as a client.
“My spiritual life has been renewed in a way I did not expect because of the witness of Archbishop George Lucas and Father Taphorn,” he said. “We all want the same thing: truth, justice, and healing for the victim.”
Gorgen thinks he might have worked himself out of a job with the archdiocese.
“The archdiocese on several occasions has scoured its clergy files and doggedly pursued decades-old allegations of sexual abuse,” he said.
He doesn’t know if he’s ready to retire. He and his wife, Beth, have been married 31 years. They have three grown children between them, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
The archdiocese’s marriage tribunal hires him to do record searches. He no longer accepts insurance claim investigations, criminal cases and missing-person requests.
The miniature cameras and electronic devices are in a box somewhere in Gorgen’s house. He doesn’t need them. He has his voice, which soothes victims and assures them they’re heard and respected. His voice lets them know he’ll put on a virtual trench coat and fedora on their behalf, digging in digital trash cans to learn the truth.