Upon Further Investigation: How Ronnie Dahl Became a PI

The former Channel 7 reporter has turned her research skills into the foundation for a career at a private investigator.
Dahl offers “boutique” investigation services, including background checks and research for criminal and political cases. // Photograph by Brad Ziegler

In a Facebook post she wrote shortly after making the most dramatic career shift of her life, Ronnie Dahl shared her list of the “top 5 reasons why leaving TV news to become a private investigator is the best decision ever”:

“1. Save money on hair
2. Save money on makeup
3. Save money on clothes
4. Spend more time with dog
5. Get to utilize my kick ass investigative skills to help people!”

Far beyond the monetary advantages, reason No. 5 motivated Dahl, one of Detroit TV’s most recognizable faces after her 12 years as an investigative reporter for WXYZ (Channel 7) and reporter for Fox 2 Detroit, to drop the mic and become a licensed private investigator.

“People were like, ‘What are you doing?’” she acknowledges, adding, “I miss what TV used to be. It became a fight every day getting stories on the air. But to see how many people we helped — that’s a cool thing.

“Most PIs come from law enforcement. I was lucky because I know [Fox 2 Problem Solver legend] Scott Lewis. We’d worked together; he knows I don’t like BS and where journalism is today. He told me, ‘You’ll never regret it.’ And business is good.”

If you’re envisioning a glamorous, trench-coated sleuth photographing cheating spouses, look again. Dahl does most of her work at home on her computer with her dog, Trixie, alongside. A self-confessed “weird” research freak, she frequently retrieves and analyzes documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

“I don’t think people realize there are many areas to the private investigation world,” Dahl says. “I focus on criminal defense and political investigations because that’s where I feel comfortable. I know FOIA, the court system, how to get records. I know my wheelhouse, so I’m not going to take money to do something I don’t know. I don’t take child custody or divorce cases. I’m a boutique [business].”

By “boutique,” Dahl means her range of services is limited: Beyond criminal and political cases, she does background checks and document retrieval — and has even taken on a missing persons search. So far, many of her clients have been relatives of incarcerated people seeking new information to exonerate their loved ones.

“Did you know incarcerated people cannot put in a FOIA?” Dahl asks.“So a lot of what I do is put in FOIAs for people. If you don’t have somebody on the outside advocating for you, it can be so hard.”

She empathizes with people going through tough times. Born Rhonda Mae Dull in tiny Tiffin, Ohio, the youngest of nine children with her twin sister, Wanda Kay, she grew up with a single father who worked two jobs to support his family. At her first job, on a North Carolina radio station, “they said, ‘We can’t have somebody named Dull on the air,’” she recalls. “They wanted to call me ‘Barbie Belinsky.’ … [Instead,] I kept my nickname, Ronnie, but spelled my last name D-A-H-L.”

Dahl was still under a TV contract when she launched her PI career, so she learned the ropes by working gratis for a local investigator who still assigns her the occasional case. Her years on Detroit TV screens helps, and as she notes on her website, ronniedahlinvestigations.com, “Female investigators are often underestimated, which works to your benefit!” She also gained visibility co-hosting the 2022 podcast CrimeCasters Network revisiting unsolved cases from her past.

Another job also proved helpful in her work as a private investigator: She was a regional public information officer for ATF, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, from 2016 to 2020.

“I got their Twitter pages up and running in Detroit and Chicago, handled their social media, worked to recruit new agents,” she explains. “I never shot a gun before working for ATF. People just assumed because I was a reporter in Detroit, I owned one.”

The stories she did for Channel 7 covering declining Detroit neighborhoods still resonate with her. “Blight is one of the biggest reasons why people leave the city,” Dahl believes. “But there are people who care, and when they get involved in their neighborhoods, it helps keep crime down. People called me ‘Blight Bitch,’ and I’m proud of that. Fighting blight made me a better reporter.”

This story is from the January 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.