One afternoon in September 1999, Matthew Belinkie ’02 returned home after reading a Sherlock Holmes story for his literature class.
Then-roommate Joseph Yrigollen ’02 said he remembers the moment well.
“He told me, ‘Joe, you and I are going to be detectives. Sherlock Holmes is cool, and we could be cool.’ We told everyone at dinner that night, but no one believed us,” Yrigollen said.
But after that dinner, the pair started Yale’s only undergraduate detective agency. At first only two roommates, now the agency has expanded to include several students solving mysteries ranging from lost wallets to the whereabouts of crush objects.
Belinkie and Yrigollen started small before throwing themselves into the private investigation business.
Holed-up in their Trumbull common room, the roommates wrote a 29-page mystery about the kidnapping of a freshman a cappella singer in two days before Tap Night. They gave the story to Out of the Blue.
“They loved it. Word spread. Suddenly it was cool to be a detective,” Yrigollen said.
Belinkie and Yrigollen then headed to the Salvation Army store and spent eight dollars each purchasing fedora hats, plaid jackets, trench coats and matching trousers. But their uniforms were not yet complete.
“We needed weapons, so people would know we’re serious,” Yrigollen said. “We bought light sabers and perfected the routine from “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.”
After all, as Belinkie said, “Times crop up when the conventional means of justice are, shall we say, inadvisable.”
Satisfied with their image, the partners dressed up one afternoon and prowled around Old Campus until they ran into a group of puzzled freshman girls. The detectives inquired if the girls had any unsolved mysteries.
In fact, they did — someone had stolen a cactus from their bedroom. Belinkie and Yrigollen were on the case.
Although the detectives never solved “The Case of the Missing Cactus”– the beloved plant later turned up of its own accord, hanging from the Saybrook tower — Belinkie and Yrigollen realized that their agency filled a long-neglected need on Yale’s campus. So they began to publicize it, handing out business cards.
“We made each one with a different slogan, so they would be like baseball cards — you know, ‘collect them all,'” Yrigollen said.
The pair began publishing a weekly newsletter, “The Gumshoe Gazette,” and deposited issues in table tents throughout the Trumbull dining hall. The newsletter was popular with others, and the detectives learned they were not the only students called to a life in private investigation.
“I got involved because the ‘Gumshoe Gazette’ was so funny,” said Bill Weeks ’02, who joined the agency at the end of last year. “I wanted to be a detective.”
But Belinkie and Yrigollen knew that not everyone was cut out for the job. They chose new recruits carefully and initiated them into the underworld of private investigation.
“We held an orientation meeting at a secret location. We publicized it as a meeting of the Animal Lovers’ Society for security reasons,” Yrigollen said.
By the end of last year, the agency consisted of five detectives. Today the exact number of detectives on the roster is unclear because many of them prefer to work anonymously, Belinkie said.
Yrigollen said they have been grateful for the extra help. The weeks during Trumbull’s Assassins game are typically the busiest season.
“My Assassins target was a fifth or sixth-year senior who — had his picture omitted from every Trumbull facebook since his freshman year,” Brad Rosenberg ’02 said. “To make matters worse, he lived off-campus.
“I desperately needed a photo of him so I could make my kill,” Rosenberg said.
The job was simple, Yrigollen said. After receiving the assignment, he went to the manuscript room at Sterling Memorial Library and rifled through old freshman facebooks and then sent Rosenberg a copy.
Craig Felt ’03 is equally grateful to the Yale Detectives. Recently, he lost a pair of glasses and could not find them himself. A friend gave him one of the detectives’ business cards.
“I sent them a message, and was given a time and place to meet. The one I spoke with — sat me down and asked me what seemed to be an endless stream of questions. Among those asked were, ‘Where did you put them last?,’ and ‘Did you check your pockets?” Felt said.
“That night, the detective came to my room and started looking around the place with a flashlight,” Felt said. “I asked him if he wanted me to turn on the lights, but was greeted only with a blank stare and a request to leave the room while he searched. About 30 minutes later, he came out wearing the glasses.”
Felt’s case may “represent the ‘no case too small’ end of the spectrum,” said detective Aaron Goldhamer ’03, but the Yale Detectives are confident in their ability to tackle more challenging mysteries.
Ultimately, the Yale Detectives “exist because our friends think it is funny to have gumshoes walking around in our goofy-looking detective clothes solving ludicrous cases,” Yrigollen said.
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