The scene is the midway point between my booth and theirs on the second morning of a jewelry trade show in a major U.S. city. The conversation usually starts out something like this:
Middle-aged male jewelry sales rep: “So, you’re out on the road?”
Middle-aged male jewelry sales rep: “Really? And you don’t have any problems with that, ’cause, you know, you’re an attractive woman?”
Me: “Um, so far, nope.”
Middle-aged male jewelry sales rep: “Hmmph. Interesting. What city are you based out of?”
Middle-aged male jewelry sales rep: “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR (insert expletive) MIND??? THE COLOMBIANS WILL SLICE YOUR THROAT AND DISMANTLE YOUR CORPSE! DIDN’T YOU HEAR ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED TO SO-and-SO FROM SUCH-and-SUCH IN JULY?”
Me (thinking to myself while listening to the MAMJSR’s tale of terror): “Here we go again. I have GOT to find a new line of work…”
* * * * *
Back in late October I took a two-day counter-surveillance class in Atlanta taught by a Southern-based security and threat management group called Skydas International. When it was first suggested that I take the course I thought to myself “what are they going to teach me that common sense hasn’t already?” The answer was… a whole hell of a lot.
Michael Bryant is a former police officer and military tactical commander specializing in protective security. He was recruited by the state department to train Afghani soldiers and worked in diplomatic security until 2012. Skydas is his company and he employs folks just like himself – women and men – with experience in surveillance, law enforcement, and military operations. These people are no joke. And they make it clear to you that they’re no joke from the moment you step foot in the class, but that doesn’t mean that the class wasn’t also fun, which I will talk about in detail a little later on.
I set up my laptop, as well as my camera, and started to type as Mike started to talk.
“South American Theft Groups. In this class and in your line of work you’re going to hear them being referred to as ‘SATGs.’ They are highly organized, operationally competent, military-trained, skilled in surveillance, and have financial backing. They are predominantly, but not all, Colombian nationals. They can be of either sex, and can look like any other American: black, white, or tan skinned. They mostly started out as street thugs and pick-pocketers and have been known to obtain legal identification from Puerto Rico so that they can live in the United States without the risk of deportation.”
I lifted my chin up off of the keyboard just in time because the next thing Mike did was show us a video of a jewelry rep just minutes after he’d shot the SATG members who tried to rob him, and I couldn’t stop the words from coming out of my mouth…
“Oh my God. That’s Steve.”
* * * * *
If you’ve been in this business long enough and you’re a Road Warrior like so many of us, you always know a guy who got hit. You either know a guy or you know a guy who knows a guy or in the most unfortunate of circumstances, you are the guy. Back in August, I met a guy, and his name was Steve. Steve’s a MAMJSR (see above) but one look at him and you can tell he’s special. Steve’s booth was near mine and like most reps at trade shows, you learn to make small talk during the lulls or after setup. Speaking for myself, I live for these moments. People intrigue me no matter what they look like or how they’re dressed. I’m forever a student in my mind, and what these older guys can teach me is still valuable, so I listen. Steve’s story on this particular day was worth paying attention to. It’s one I think of almost every time I’m on the road and it’s one that so many now – from Mississippi to New York to California – know a version of.
It starts out in a parking lot in Memphis. It ends with two dead Colombian gang members. Somewhere in between was a man doing his job; a job that he’s done for 40+ years that fills him with pride, and that’s put his daughter through college. This story in Memphis had a somewhat happy ending, although what can really be happy about it when two people are dead, right? I guess the upside is the lesson that it taught; that if you’re aware of your surroundings, you won’t be the victim. Steve was aware. He was hyper-aware. He tells me it started when he saw the black gloves. “It was the summer” he says. “I thought, ‘why do these guys have gloves on in the summer?’ But it didn’t even take me as long to think it as it just did to say it. In a heartbeat I felt the one stab me on the leg and the other one on my back, but my hand was already on my gun and I shot the one under my arm, and then the guy on my leg. That was it. It was over. That fast it was over. But for them. Not for me. They didn’t get me. They’ll never get me.”
To say I was amazed would be an understatement. This guy – in his sixties for sure – was standing here telling me this story like it was a scene from a late eighties Martin Scorsese movie that he’s watched on his VCR sixty or seventy times. Never did I think I’d see the actual footage from it with my own eyes.
* * * * *
“Oh, you know Steve?” Mike said.
“Yeah, well, no, not really. I mean, I met him about two months ago at a show. He told me the story though,” I responded.
“Well don’t say anything. Don’t want to spoil it for everyone else.”
“Agreed,” I said. “Okay. Roll tape.”
Somewhere on YouTube is the video of the moments immediately following the attempted robbery of Steve the MAMJSR. It’s a news segment that shows the two SATG gang members on the ground in pools of their own blood. At the time the video was shot – apparently there was a news van in the area of the attempted robbery – the two suspects were still alive and writhing in pain. They interview Steve who seems only slightly shaken. They also interview the neighbors of the jewelry store that Steve was visiting. One said that the store had brought violence to the area. Another said they’d like it moved away from their home. You can see the police questioning the suspects clearly before the ambulances arrived. It was surreal to watch and even more disturbing to know that the men you saw on screen would die from their wounds that very same day. As much as I’m not a fan of firearms I’m even less of a fan of having my throat sliced and my corpse dismembered. I’m sorry for the graphic description, but I think it’s important for you to know what you’re up against if you do a job like Steve and I do.
Needless to say you could hear a pin drop in the room which, in Mike’s mind, was the perfect time to break for lunch.
We walked outside to find an extremely large black SUV with tinted windows waiting to take us to a nearby mall food court. We dined on Chik-fil-A and Mike walked us around, showing us how to lose someone if you think you’re being followed (and always assume that you ARE being followed). Duck into a corner here. Put your back against the wall there. Stop and tie your shoe. Talk to a sales associate about a random power tool question you just made up. Enter the mall through a major department store. Hang out below a security camera for a few minutes. Assume it’s that guy. Think it’s that lady. Just because she has a baby doesn’t mean she’s not the perp. Just because he’s carrying a shopping bag doesn’t mean he’s buying a juicer. Don’t keep your head down. Make eye contact. Stop texting. Be aware when you get out of your car. Don’t park near a tree or a structure. Park where you can’t be blocked in. Circle the lot, looking for shady people sitting in their vehicles. Look across the street. Is there a hill? Is there a place where someone can watch you? Be aware. Be aware. Be aware. BE FREAKING AWARE.
When we returned to our classroom Mike checked his email and sure enough, there we all were. He had his team following us the entire time; taking our pictures and being well within reach of our personal items. One picture was of the back of my neck, close up, which meant that the person following me was directly behind me in line. It was violating, to say the least, but more importantly, it was eye-opening.
I… had not been aware.
The next several hours of the course involved tips on how to spot the outlier. It was filled with snippets of what we should all be looking for and thinking: Neutralize the threat, or get away from the threat. Trust your gut. Every active shooting event, act of terrorism, or violence has signs. Find the signs. Every social setting has a behavioral norm. Figure out the norm. Context is the key in violent situations. Don’t focus on a cause or a weapon but rather on the person. Every event follows a sequence. Know your exits. Know when to get out. Dissuade your potential attacker with eye contact. Run. Find shelter. And if you have to, fight for your life.
I couldn’t type fast enough and found myself breathing heavier. I wanted to find someone following me and ram my car into their kneecaps. I also had had about four cups of coffee at that point which made for some really painful Q&A for my classmates. We studied the different types of GPS devices available, went over procedures for future travel planning, and learned the best and quickest way to map out more than one route when we’re on the road and using GPS, and then, Mike asked us to go outside again.
As a group we all hopped back in the SUV, but individually, Mike had us take turns behind the wheel with the emphasis on spotting the perp and then losing the perp using local roads, both major and minor. This is where the fun began. One of our classmates was an active police officer so even if we sped or broke the traffic rules a little, we were covered. When I found my guy I called it out: “Red Chevy Impala” to which Mike then responded, “Okay, now lose him.”
Ever watch Starsky and Hutch? Not the stupid Ben Stiller remake, but the 1970’s original television series? You have? Well then you’ll know what I mean when I say I was pulling a Starsky and Hutch on this guy. I’m pretty sure the lady in the back seat almost vomited from motion sickness when I made that last U-turn that resulted in a 360 degree skid. It was awesome. And memorable. And I can’t thank Mike and Skydas Group enough for teaching me the things they did; I’m pretty sure the skills I now have will, at some point, keep me out of danger and may even one day save my life.
If you’d like more information on Skydas Group International, visit their website or call and ask for Mike: http://skydasgroup.com. If you’ve never taken counter surveillance training before, I suggest you look into it, whether you are a rep, or a jeweler, or even a designer. The SATGs have caught on to the fact that we reps don’t carry live merchandise any longer, and so crime on our end of the biz has gone down, however, crime against sales associates and store owners has risen as a result, so a course like this benefits everyone in our industry, no matter what position you hold, or path you take.
Whatever it is that you do in this business, remember this: your life is not a dress rehearsal. Remember that no phone call, text, or email is important enough to distract you from your surroundings. Remember that your kids expect you home, and that your spouse never stops worrying. But most importantly, just remember to be aware, because if you follow that one simple reminder, everything else will fall into place.