Jackson Hole, Wyo.-Haven’t seen Man on Fire? Stop reading. Stop everything. Watch it. Then come back to this story about a real bodyguard who shared with JH Weekly what it’s actually like to protect clients – celebrities, political figures, dignitaries, CEOs – by every means necessary. High-speed chases, gunshots and explosions? Yeah, they happen. But the tedium of keeping people alive is not what interests Hollywood, or even many clients themselves.
Meet Dave Huffman. Hire him and he’ll do whatever it takes to keep you and your family out of harm’s way. It’s a cruel world out there, don’t leave home without him.
A pivotal scene in Man on Fire is one where 10-year-old Pita (Dakota Fanning) is snatched by bad guys in Mexico City right out from under the man hired to protect her – John Creasy (Denzel Washington). Creasy, an ex-CIA operative, uses his military background and training to put up a valiant gunfight. He takes out a few kidnappers posing as local police before he himself gets shot all to heck.
Huffman suggests that if Creasy came at the job of personal protection from a law enforcement background, he might have seen the wreck coming and avoided bloodshed to begin with.
“I’ve got some great friends that have been through Special Forces and my hat’s off to them,” Huffman states. “I think the world of men and women in that line of work and the job they do is phenomenal, but it doesn’t easily transfer into the corporate community because the military is generally a show of force. In the corporate world you just don’t operate that way. It’s a whole different mindset.
“Law enforcement provides a sound foundation to start from. There are some really good bodyguard schools but most of them try to teach you defensive tactics and shooting. Those are very seldom used skills, and if you’ve done your homework you shouldn’t ever have to get physical with anyone. Guns are always a choice of last resort. If you have to go to firearms, you have not done your job.”
And when bullets fly, you better start scanning the help wanted ads.
“There’s a standing joke in the EP community,” Huffman says. “The first class you should take in a bodyguard school is a ‘firearms and resume writing’ course, because if you ever have to use your firearm and you survive, you might as well get your resume out. You are going to be looking for another job. Even when cops discharge their firearms, everyone gets sued.”
Seconds before the gun battle in Man on Fire, director Tony Scott decelerates the scene until Creasy begins noticing little details in slow-motion. A squad car backs up to block the street exit. Then another black-and-white pulls onto the street at the other end. Upon closer examination, those don’t look like cops in the cars and they’re sporting powerful weaponry.
Some mighty real heroes aren’t afforded the same ‘time slowdown’ but the good ones are able to keep their cool and operate that way when things hit the fan.
“There is not any client that wants to get in the middle of a gunfight. I don’t blame them, I don’t either,” Huffman says. “As a law enforcement officer, I drew down on many people. I had guns pointed at me. Luckily I never got killed or had to kill anybody but, mentally and physically, I was prepared to do that.”
Creasy preferred to shoot his way out of trouble. As an imposing figure with firearms training, he was hired for his firepower and brawn. Huffman is the new bodyguard. In fact, it’s mostly called Executive Protection (EP) now. Huffman would have smelled trouble long before the kidnapping scene.
When Creasy’s client got pinched, he was picking her up from a piano class. It met at the same place, at the same time each week. Routine. Easy pickings for bad guys.
“There was a time, 20 or 30 years ago, where if you wanted to kidnap somebody you would have to do surveillance. That meant you would end up spending a lot of time on the same street in the same neighborhood trying to figure out someone’s routine. You took the risk of being discovered because you had to check these things out eyeball-to-eyeball. Now, with the computer and Internet and Google Earth with maps and street view, you can do the same surveillance and never get close to the person.
“So there has to be a good amount of counter-surveillance to protect people now because if you’re not looking behind you, you don’t know if someone is planning harm or not. Whether it be your kids, your grandkids, or your wife – if someone is not providing a counter-surveillance service to you, you will know at the last minute when all hell breaks loose.”
A new era
Hollywood has perpetuated a bombastic image of today’s bodyguard. Modern day executive protection specialists are less like The Rock and more like a Jason Stratham. You might not realize who the heavy is until the dust settles and the unassuming gentleman next to the guy in a $300 tie is cramming that man into a Mercedes and zooming away.
“It doesn’t matter if you are going to a tennis event, a kid’s soccer game, or a formal gala. You have to dress to blend in. If you stand out, you will instantly be recognized as security,” Hoffman explains. “There was a time back in the 1960s and 70s that if bodyguards had a shoe size bigger than their IQ, they fit the profile. There is this massive person taking up the doorway and everyone knew who they were. Primarily, it was more a show of force back then.
“In today’s world you have to blend in. Most CEOs and high-net-worth clientele don’t want you to stand out. The exceptions are the movie stars, the rock stars. That’s how they perpetuate their business. Those are extremely hard details to work because of the crowds that they draw. Versus if you were the CEO of NBC or a casino magnate out of Vegas; a lot of people will never know who you are … and that’s perfect.”
Huffman often sets up security systems in the homes of many clients. He’ll do background checks, interview and train staff members from the chauffer to the gardener on what type of things out of the ordinary to be on the lookout for. He’s often called in to handle employee terminations that have the potential to get ugly.
“I was working for a property developer five or six years ago,” Huffman recalls. “His wife took me aside at a dinner party and said, ‘I think our chef is going to poison us.’ It turns out he had written some article in a foodie trade about how easy it would be for a personal executive chef to poison someone.
He wrote it under a pseudonym but the employer had reason to believe it was their chef. They called me in and I conducted the investigation and found reasonable cause for termination. He did write the article and, while I don’t believe there was any intent there, it wasn’t a risk worth taking. I fired him.”
ON THE ROAD
Huffman could be a certified Hollywood stuntman driver. He’s received extensive training in both law enforcement, where it’s all about pursuing close but not too close, and in Tony Scotti’s Vehicle Dynamics Institute, the premiere protective driving school in the country, where the object is to evade using a combination of physics and footwork.
“EP training takes [police driving] knowledge and times it by ten,” Huffman says. “You are trying to be evasive using common techniques like a J-turn and a bootleg. Even with armored vehicles – and I have had to use them in Mexico, Asia, Europe – they buy you time but they’re not 100 percent effective. A stopped vehicle can always be penetrated.”
Smart drivers keep an eye out for “choke points,” those bottleneck areas like a bridge or a gate, through which all traffic must funnel. These hotspots are where hit men make their move.
So many potential threats can be diffused early if there’s time to scout locations and routes. Huffman stresses to his clients the importance of advanced scouting. He needs to know what his client’s plans are so he can be there one day ahead of them and one step ahead of trouble.
“That’s one of the most difficult discussions to have with a corporate client or high-net-worth individual who needs protection,” Hoffman says. “I have to be allowed to do the security advance. Whether it’s a business meeting or dinner or public event; I have to go forward long before they get there and talk to people, get the lay of the land, know where to go and where not to go. If it’s a real high-security threat I might provide a safe room where a principle can be evacuated to.”
EP experts will often meet with hotel security in advance of their clients’ stay. Aliases are commonly used for high-profile clientele. Huffman quizzes the staff on recent hires (they’re on the short list of suspicious people), surveillance cameras, and shift work hours. Oh, and he also prefers the freight elevator.
“I was doing a detail last summer in Salt Lake,” Huffman recalls. “The client and I were riding the freight elevator down to the kitchen where we cut through to the loading dock so I could put them in their vehicle and get them off to a business meeting. ‘You know,’ I said to him, ‘everyone thinks a guy like you lives the life of a rock star with glitz and glamour and a limo waiting out front. And that’s exactly why we are in a service elevator right now.’ He laughed. He got it.
He’s been doing it long enough to understand that if he goes down the public elevator, through the lobby and out the front door, and if he can’t immediately get in a car and drive off, he is exposed for a longer amount of time. Too long. My way, no one ever sees him.”
Huffman also takes precautions at airports. Many of his clients use corporate or personal jets but even then, they are vulnerable. “Anyone can Google the tail number off a Gulfstream. It’s not difficult,” he says.
Some clients believe Huffman’s excessive preparedness borders on paranoia. Eventually, most EPs lose their jobs when the client feels boxed in with security measures and nothing bad ever happens to them.
“I’m not paranoid, I’m very prepared. I live in a ‘what if?’ world,” Huffman explains. “Police will respond, they won’t prevent. You can’t rely on waiting for them to save you. You are responsible for your own personal safety everywhere you go. And I’m responsible for yours when you hire me.”
Even when allowed adequate planning and security advance, Huffman is often vexed by last minute changes.
“There are three time zones in the world: Greenwich Mean Time, my time by my watch, and the client’s time. ‘Client time’ is all that matters in this line of work and if you want to do business with them you are going to hang around regardless of your schedule. Many of my clients don’t own a watch or can’t read one. They are never on time. Never.
“Also, one of the most time-consuming parts of what I do is dealing with how often plans change. I could be planning something for the last two months and all of the sudden that gets dropped. You’ve got to be quick on your feet and very flexible. It’s sometimes very, very difficult to keep up.”
Not all glitz & glamour
Huffman is meticulous. When he checks his client into his hotel room, he makes note of the emergency exits. He counts how many doors down, on the right or left, the staircase is in case he has to crawl there on his belly though thick smoke in the dark during a fire.
Huffman says, “I’ve been in a fire. I know what that’s like. It is a terrible experience.” As a cop in Indianapolis he once rushed into a three-story apartment building to rescue trapped victims in a building fire. His head ached for days afterward.
Huffman remembers he’s not on the force anymore and that takes some getting used to. Let’s say he’s eating lunch with his client and two masked robbers bust in the front door waiving shotguns. Huffman won’t try to be a hero. Not anymore. He’s headed out the backdoor with his patron. “It’s one of the hardest things to teach in EP school,” he says. “You are not a cop anymore. Don’t get sucked into being a cop. At the first sign of trouble your concern is your client. Grab and go and get to safety.”
But as a former police officer, much of what makes Huffman successful is his investigative experience. Predicting disaster is simply solving a crime backwards, looking for clues before a kidnapping or assassination attempt. And there are long hours behind the scenes.
“You have no personal life. You’re working nights, weekends, holidays,” Huffman admits. “You’re running their personal errands, picking up friends of the family, filling a prescription, circling the block for hours in DC or New York City while waiting for the boss who stated, ‘I will only be a few minutes.’ And my personal favorite: bagging dog poop every night for over a week in Central Park at midnight in sub-zero snowy conditions. Is that executive protection? It is if that’s what the client asked you to do.”
Huffman has also had to exercise extreme discretion. As a guy who spends most of his time close to a principle or his family members, he hears a lot. He’s been used as substitute therapist on numerous occasions.
“A lot of bodyguards have written books. I find that very troubling because it casts a dark shadow over the profession,” Huffman says. “There are so many things I could tell you right now but that would betray the trust and confidence of a client.”
Huffman is eagerly anticipating his next assignment. He’s between details. His work has taken him around the world and back. An expert skier, he’s schussed the slopes in Colorado and Sun Valley with clients. He’s helped business tycoons with their fly-fishing cast while keeping an eye out for bears and brigand. He is a trained pilot, scuba diver, and can dismantle a bomb in the dark.
Huffman holds a black belt in two martial arts disciplines and has extensive defensive tactics training. He can fight his way out of most situations and when he needs a little extra he has a concealed carry permit good in all 50 states. In his 30 years on the job, Huffman has worked details with the U.S. Secret Service, helping to protect then-VP George H.W. Bush while attending the Pan-American Games in Indiana in 1987. He has also protected celebrities and dignitaries like His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Katie Couric, Tony Blair, and Bobby Kennedy, Jr.
Huffman’s latest expertise is tourist extraction for American’s kidnapped or otherwise trapped in a foreign country.
“In my experience, Consulates and Embassies are little help. They don’t care,” Huffman says. “Now a paid mercenary would be illegal, but if I was working for you and you gave me some title and I travelled for you on a business venture, like under the guise of oil speculation or something, then I could start snooping around. I would arrange their release.”
Dave Huffman currently resides in Idaho Falls. He can be contacted at 208-450-9500 or by email at [email protected].