Guards at the Gogebic Taconite mine site in Iron County need assault rifles and military garb because they must be ready for the worst, says the Arizona-based president of the security company that has drawn heavy criticism for its presence.
Bulletproof Securities president Tom Parrella said the high-powered, AR-15 rifles are justified because of online postings by mine opponents that appear to be death threats and by “strange and threatening behavior” by a few others.
“We don’t put our people out in harm’s way without giving them the best of the best in terms of the tools they need,” Parrella said. “There is absolutely no apology on the part of our company for sending our professionals out there with the tools they need.”
His comments came as video surfaced of masked protesters making profanity-laden verbal attacks on mine workers in a June 11 incident. The video shows a masked woman wrestling a camera from a mine worker while other protesters block co-workers from interceding.
The incident led to a charge of robbery by force and three misdemeanors against a Stevens Point woman.
The state’s business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, pointed to the video in a statement calling for closing public access to the site. The land owner receives tax breaks in exchange for leaving the land open for recreation.
Mine opponent Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, said the assailants in the video were “idiots” who aren’t representative of Wisconsin residents, “who regardless of their view on mining have respect for the rule of law.”
There may be just a few, Parrella said, but “radical” protesters have posted death threats on a Facebook page and guards have seen people “sneaking” through the woods several times a day.
“A handgun is relatively useless in some of these situations,” Parrella said. “We didn’t send them out with a belt-fed machine gun ... we sent them out with a lightweight (rifle) to give them the opportunity to defend themselves and the people at the site.”
Bulletproof guards were withdrawn Wednesday after it was learned that they were not licensed in Wisconsin.
A few weeks ago they stepped onto the scene of the controversial mine project that has roused environmentalists.
A conviction for operating without a license would block the company from operating in Wisconsin for a year. Iron County district attorney Marty Lipske is considering whether to prosecute. Jauch and another legislator have asked the mine company to banish the guards, saying they were needlessly intimidating and potentially dangerous.
Anthony Stella, a Hurley attorney, on Thursday urged the state licensing agency to ban Bulletproof from the state, saying they violated several rules, including one that requires guards to wear clearly visible badges or patches identifying them as security guards.
“It would not be unreasonable for a citizen to act in fear and refuse to obey, and perhaps even draw a weapon, on a person appearing from within the woods dressed in full camouflaged gear with his face covered, brandishing what looks like a military weapon,” Stella said in a letter to the state.
Bulletproof spokeswoman Stacy Pearson said the camouflage clothing has shoulder patches, but the guards’ striking appearance has a purpose.
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“These guys aren’t Wal-Mart security guards,” Pearson said. “The nicer they look, the less effective they become. They are preventative by design. We’re trying to prevent the bad guys from seeing this as a target ripe for an attack.”
A state Department of Safety and Professional Services spokeswoman declined comment, but Gogebic spokesman Bob Seitz has said Bulletproof will obtain licenses and return within days.
Parrella said security will be needed, and his company is well qualified. He predicted that tactics of a few “eco-terrorists” will escalate as the mine project continues, while acknowledging that, except for the June 11 incident, there is little or no hard evidence of criminal activity.
“What they are trying to do or accomplish (now) is unknown,” Parrella said.
Parrella said guards have photographed illegal campsites on private land near the test drilling sites and found elevated spots where people have set up places to watch the sites.
“They couldn’t see that we were watching them,” Parrella said. “When the team made their presence known, they didn’t like that they could no longer sneak up on the drilling site without anybody holding them accountable.”
On Tuesday after a heavy rain, a guard watched a man wearing a black garbage bag sneaking through the woods, then lie on his back motionless for 30 minutes, even as guards spoke to him, Parrella said.
Eventually the man departed, and guards watched as he zigzagged away through the trees, Parrella said.
One day, guards saw a masked man holding an M-16 rifle while standing at attention a few miles from the drilling near a camp on public land being used by mine opponents, Parrella said.
He acknowledged that all of the behavior he cited could be essentially harmless, but his job is to prepare for the worst.
“For every hundred peaceful protesters, you probably get one or two rotten apples, and you just don’t know what they are going to do,” Parrella said.
Guards wear masks to avoid being photographed, not to intimidate anyone or to avoid accountability, he said.
“They really don’t want to have their faces posted all over radical websites,” Parrella said. “These are professional (former) soldiers and law enforcement officers who don’t need that kind of PR. They worry about who may be looking them up, who may be stalking their families.”
The 11-year-old company has handled high-profile assignments, sometimes jointly with federal agencies, guarding two Mexican presidents visiting the U.S., a former U.S. vice president and major infrastructure such as power plants, Parrella said.
He declined to provide other details, saying the company promises clients confidentiality.