Writer goes undercover as a VIP

  • Wednesday, February 27, 2013

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Everyone’s seen them, at least on TV. The motorcades gliding up in front of impressive government buildings, red carpet walkways at gala Hollywood awards shows and more. The VIPs riding in the limousines are met by serious-looking, business suit-wearing men and women talking into their wrist radio transmitters and listening to important information and instructions on earpieces connected by squiggly wires to radio receivers hidden in their clothing, next to their concealed firearms.

It’s impressive to view. But, what might it be like to be one of those VIPs – the President and First Lady or wildly popular Hollywood or music stars? Judy and I found out recently when we ventured to Columbia to participate in the practical field exercises of a team of federal, state, local and military law enforcement personnel adding to and upgrading their skills through a week-long Protective Security/Dignitary Protection tactical training course offered by South Carolina-based SORD (Special Operations Research and Development International).

We were guests of SORD’s founder Darren Norris, who is also both an active law enforcement officer and a frequent traveling security chief for such well-known performers as pop singer Josh Groban and rockers System of a Down. Norris has traveled the world protecting these and other celebrities and along the way has made friends and contacts among military and police units, many of whom have sent their personnel to SORD to experience hands-on training in vital disciplines ranging from high risk warrant service to hostage rescue and tactical vehicle assaults. SORD has also worked with numerous government officials and corporate executives. Long before the recent tragic school killings in Newtown, Conn., SORD also offered a comprehensive course in rapid deployment to active shooter/terrorist incidents and tactical skills for school resource officers.

Norris, who I’ve known and worked with for many years, asked me to serve as his stand-in dignitary because he knew that I had had some similar experiences both in Los Angeles and on trips throughout the United States with my former boss, Playboy’s Hugh M. Hefner. At least, that’s what I thought his reason was. He later confided that a controlling factor was that “I knew you had to have at least one nice, dark suit that would make you look important. And, I needed Judy in this exercise and I knew I couldn’t have gotten her if I didn’t invite you, too.”

When my ego recovered, we headed to the hotel where we’d be housed for two days while the eight men in our security detail got the opportunity to put their classroom training into real world action.

Over the course of the next 48 hours, we were whisked around the capital to pre-determined locations ranging from an elegant restaurant to a huge shopping mall, Williams Brice Stadium, Riverfront Park, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Hall of Fame and numerous other quick stops, including a crowded Starbucks where we attracted the most attention during the exercise as men and women alike peered over their lattes and cappuccinos trying to figure out why this well-dressed couple was being surrounded by “bodyguards” and whether we, in fact “were somebody.”

We traveled in a three vehicle motorcade, comprised of fully staffed lead vehicle, the limo itself and a follow vehicle. At each stop, all of which had been cleared and secured by an advance team and “pre-posters,” detail officers assigned to each destination to handle any security issues on site.

As we cruised around Columbia, we learned that I would always be referred to as the “principal” while Judy would be called “the secondary package.” I sensed that she might have been a bit miffed at that label, but she was quickly assured that she would have equal protection as the individual traveling with the principal is often seen by the “bad guys” as a prime target and a way of reaching the dignitary himself.

Among the other specifics we learned were that the principal has a designated spot in the limo; the limo driver never leaves the vehicle, keeping it ready for a hasty escape if necessary; the dignitaries do not exit the limo, they deploy from it, and they never do so unless the agent in charge gives the detail and them an absolute all clear signal

Throughout the exercise, at Darren Norris’ secret instruction, we frequently changed our minds as to where we wanted to go next, requiring the detail to alter plans on the fly; we chattered constantly with the officers in the limo to distract them from their gimlet-eyed observations and from their incoming radio messages; we dropped and “lost” items so that an officer would have to stop everything, whip out his flashlight and search for them in the dark. We also learned that the vehicle in which the principal is riding is always “the limo” even when it isn’t. In fact, ours was a huge, new Chevy Suburban.

Back at the hotel, we all gathered in the ballroom for a debriefing and critique on the officers’ performance conducted by Norris. He had only gotten a few minutes into his analysis when a nice-looking youngish “soccer mom” type walked in and asked if she was in the right place.

After a beat, while all of us – Judy, me, the officers – looked perplexed, Darren introduced us. She is a member of a SORD counter surveillance team who was tasked with observing the protective detail’s performance. She had been shadowing us throughout our activities, with the advantage of knowing where we were going and approximately when we would arrive. And, something of a quick change artist, she had altered her appearance at every stop.

First, while we enjoyed our dinner under the scrutiny of our security detail seated nearby, she took a position at the bar where she could keep us in direct line of sight, overhear the waiter to learn what we were eating and drinking and, not coincidentally, watch our drinks being prepared to make sure no one was slipping anything dangerous into them. Under the guise of planning a big dinner party, she convinced a restaurant staffer to take her on a tour of the facility so she would be able to pass by our table unnoticed several times and snap pictures of us with her camera phone.

Next, while I roamed Sears at the mall checking out power tools and camping gear (in one of our spur-of-the-moment destination changes, Judy and Darren’s wife, Tracy, had split the detail to shop for shoes at Dillards) I decided to deviate from the plan myself. I spotted a woman in a ball cap and a Clemson sweatshirt and wandered over to kid her about the dangers of wearing Tigers garb in a Gamecocks town. We had a laugh and a brief chat and went our separate ways. It was her.

Finally, as I waited for the barista to fill our orders at Starbucks, Judy took a seat next to a lone, mousy-looking woman at a table for two. She later told me she felt sorry for the woman being all alone at 10 p.m. on a weekday night sipping a Frappuccino. Guess who?

When all was said and done, we and our detail alike had become aware that the “bad guy” might look less like a bomb-throwing anarchist, a jihadist or a garden variety thug and more like someone you might consider inviting over to have a glass of white wine and fill you in on what’s new at the PTA.

Lessons learned, and we really enjoyed and profited from our brief experience as dignitaries worthy of and needing protection. But, next time, we want to go back as the bad guys. It’s fun to be the “star” but it would be a lot more challenging to be able to be masters of disguise and infiltrate the motorcade while just looking like two more faces in the crowd. Or, maybe, paparazzi.

(Bill Farley moved to the Charleston area from Los Angeles after retiring from his position as vice president of marketing for Playboy Enterprises. He is a freelance writer living in Mount Pleasant.)

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