We tell every new client the same thing: when we report on a person we investigate, chronology is critical.

Take the New York Times story this week with the headline, “Plot to Kill Putin is Uncovered.” We rushed to read this because it sounds as if someone tried to kill the Russian leader that day, the previous day or perhaps even earlier in the week.


In fact, security services foiled the plot six weeks before, but are only leaking the information now. The headline could easily have been “Security Services Leak News of Old, Foiled Plot to Kill Putin.”

The key difference is that the plot itself is not the only thing you want in your chronology, but also the revelation of the plot and then even after that, the willingness of politicians and security services to confirm it.

After all, any plot we know about would have to have a time at which it was revealed. Otherwise we wouldn’t know about it. If the times are close together, such as the attempt on President Reagan’s life, that’s one thing. There was no speculation that the attempt on Reagan was manipulated at the time for political gain by timing news of its happening. This plot against Putin is quite another matter.

Academics devoted to figuring out how fact investigators think have long known about the importance of time lines. My colleague Peter Tillers and David Schum, in their classic A Theory of Preliminary Fact Investigation state that “the construction of a hierarchy of possibilities takes into account the order in which evidence was discovered.”

Still, many investigators love to break events up by type (securities violations here, real estate purchases there, and then place each category in reverse-chronological order). Beyond failing to tell a coherent story, strange juxtapositions that could jump out at a person reading a story can get lost without a timeline.

Take another case we worked on recently. A man owed our client in excess of $1 million, but after incurring the debt went bankrupt. Was he really judgment-proof? The man’s ex-wife is a successful entrepreneur. He was divorced. He lived in a community property state.

That doesn’t tell us very much until we take those facts and put them in chronological order:

Got married. Moved to community property state. Wife started prosperous business. Got divorced after long matrimonial case. Declared bankrupt within a month of the divorce. Sounds a little suspicious when you line it all up on a timeline, doesn’t it?