Unlicensed armed guards booted from controversial mine site in Wisconsin

An employee of Bulletproof Securities at the Gogebic Taconite test drilling site in northern Wisconsin. Rob Ganson

A dispute over the use of masked, camouflage-clad guards armed with assault rifles at a controversial mining site in northern Wisconsin was temporarily defused Wednesday when the mining company announced it was pulling the guards because they are not licensed to work in the state. 

But Bob Seitz, a spokesman for Gogebic Taconite, said that the Bulletproof Securities personnel would return when the Arizona-based company was properly licensed. “(We have) suspended use of this company’s services at our site until the necessary approvals have been granted,” he said. “We have been utilizing multiple security arrangements and will rely on those other assets until this vendor is licensed.”

The mining company, which has leased thousands of acres of publicly accessible forestland in Iron County for a potential open-pit iron mine, hired the security firm to patrol its test drilling site last week, after a June 11 incident in which environmental protesters allegedly raided the site and did $2,000-worth of damage to a drill rig and a camera. One activist currently faces a felony charge of robbery and three misdemeanor counts.

“We were attacked on our first day of drilling,” said Seitz. “Twelve to 15 masked people came onto the site and barricaded the road.” Seitz says the purpose of the security team was to prevent further attacks and keep company employees safe.

On Monday, two local officials sent a letter to Gogebic demanding that the company remove the guards. Sen. Bob Jauch, who coauthored the letter with Rep. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, told NBC News he found the presence of the camo-clad guards “offensive” and said they were meant to intimidate.

“They truly look like mercenaries,” said Jauch. “They look like they’re about to stage a coup in Latin America.”

Before the withdrawal of the Bulletproof guards, Jauch also questioned why Gogebic had brought in security from out of state instead hiring a local company, and whether the company even had the right to conduct business in Wisconsin. Jauch’s office forwarded NBC News a list provided by an official at the state’s Department of Safety and Professional Services of the licensed private security and private detective firms in Wisconsin. Bulletproof Securities was not among them.

When NBC News contacted Seitz Tuesday to ask if Bulletproof Securities was licensed to operate in the state, he said he believed that they were. But when NBC News contacted Bulletproof President Tom Parrella Wednesday morning, he said he did not know if his company was licensed in Wisconsin because he did not handle compliance for the company.

On Wednesday afternoon, a spokeswoman for DSPS told NBC News that Bulletproof had contacted the agency about licensing. 

“Bulletproof Securities has contacted the Department and has indicated its intention to submit a license application,” she said. “Typically, the processing time for a Private Detective/Security Guard Agency license is two to three days provided all requirements are made.”

Shortly afterwards, Seitz announced that Gogebic would remove the guards from the site temporarily.

Sen. Jauch blasted Gogebic, also known as GTAC, in a statement that said it had been using the services of Bulletproof “illegally.”

“These actions demonstrate that GTAC has no respect for the public and no regard for the law,” said the statement. “Had GTAC not been in such a hurry to hire a militia that’s armed more for war than defense of property, they could have hired a legally licensed Wisconsin firm.”

Parrella said that Bulletproof’s decision to come to Wisconsin had been made very quickly. “This was a very last-minute operation. The team left within a few hours of getting the call, literally packing up the trucks and going.”

However, he said, the governor’s office, the Department of Natural Resources and the sheriffs of Iron and Ashland counties were informed that the guards were coming. “The state was notified that a private military contractor from Arizona was coming in,” said Parrella. “The state was notified at the highest level.” Once the Bulletproof team arrived in Wisconsin, he said, it met with the game wardens of Iron and Ashland counties and the sheriff of Iron County. Neither sheriff immediately responded to requests for comment.

State environmentalists have strongly opposed the mine, saying it threatens the water in a thinly populated and thickly forested slice of the state near Lake Superior. “This mine is being proposed for one of the most ecologically sensitive areas in the state,” said Shahla Werner, director of the Wisconsin chapter of the Sierra Club. “It would be very difficult to site a project in that area without causing devastating damage. We all live downstream from it.”

Protesters have been camped nearby for months, and because of the terms of the mine property’s lease, they have regular contact with Gogebic employees and security personnel. Under the lease, members of the public still have the right access to the land for hiking, fishing and hunting. Both hikers and activists can walk straight up to the drill site and to the armed guards. Under Wisconsin law, the guards may not use violence to protect property, but they may defend themselves if they are under physical attack.

Parrella defended the way his guards were armed and dressed. The camouflage uniforms are “standard protocol when going into a remote area not really knowing what to expect. . . . The guys can blend into the environment and be able to defend themselves.” The only reason some guards have worn masks, according to Parrella, is concern for anonymity should their pictures turn up online: “These guys have families.”

According to Parrella, activists continue to sneak onto the site and that none of the people his employees had encountered on the property was just out for a walk in the woods. “Every one of them has been an activist,” he said.

He also noted there had been no incidents of vandalism and no physical confrontations since his company arrived in Iron County. Parrella said that in the past few days some of his guards have begun keeping their carbines in their vehicles “because they realized they wouldn’t be necessary.”

Sen. Jauch, who characterized the June 11 incident as the work of a group of “overzealous misfits,” said the quiet is due in part to “a strong effort by anti-mine protesters who would prefer to have peaceful opposition.”

Iron County District Attorney Marty Lipske confirmed that there had been no additional confrontations on the Gogebic land, and said most protesters seemed to be peaceful.

Lipske said, however, that he still hopes to file additional charges in connection with the vandalism.

“We would love to identify other suspects,” said Lipske. “But they were all masked.”

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