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Viewpoint: Can a Determined Assassin Be Stopped?

​Of the many challenges that executive protection specialists may face, one of the most harmful is not one presented by potential attackers. It is the belief systems of the executive and those around him or her. Specifically, it is the belief that you can't stop a determined assassin. The "If they want to get you, they will get you" syndrome. 

I cringe every time I hear these words because they are so untrue and so damaging. This notion was stated most famously perhaps by President John F. Kennedy, who said, "Anyone can kill a president. All he has to do is be willing to trade his life for the president's." The problem is that, despite his intelligence and wide knowledge of the world, Kennedy knew little about security. 

While his words may sound profound, the notion that one cannot stop an assassin is ridiculous. In reality, much more than a willingness to die is required to assassinate a president or other famous person. In the case of a president, one must overcome the numerous obstacles set in place by the highly trained, well-prepared, well-staffed Secret Service. 

Consider the case of would-be presidential assassin Arthur Bremer, who was ready and willing to trade his life for President Nixon's. He wanted to become famous by killing a famous person, whether he himself lived or died. Nor did he fear going to jail; he only feared that he would fail. 

Bremer described his several-week pursuit of Nixon in a diary. He wrote that he visited several of Nixon's public appearances, armed with a .38 caliber revolver. Like most public figure pursuers, Bremer paid particularly close attention to security and the accessibility of his target. His observations of security dominated his writings, as the following excerpts show: 

"Three men in reflective orange overalls and carrying flashlights (it wasn't really dark yet) searched the road the President would travel for bombs, wires, strange diggings nearby, etc. I guess. Had heard that snow-banks were watered down to nothing to destroy a hiding place for bombs.... All the homes and businesses along the route were questioned by Secret Service men and asked to be on the look-out for strange movements in the bushes, strange cars, etc. I saw a trench coated guy, an obvious SS cop, leave a home along the route and go into his car, he looked at me as I passed him. 

"A young handsome cop with a mustache took down all the license plate numbers of the cars coming into the lot.... Mr. Mustache stopped cars from leaving the lot too soon—possibly joining the motorcade. Fatty in the orange vest stopped cars too. A neatly run operation." 

Though Bremer pursued Nixon for weeks and visited several public appearances, he was never able to get the opportunity he wanted. Thus, due to the physical security precautions, Bremer moved on. 

Bremer then focused on another famous person, one who was less difficult to encounter. Bremer chose a governor who was running for the presidency: George Wallace. 

He attended Wallace's public appearances as well, assessing his chances. Referring to Wallace's security detail at an appearance in Cadillac, Michigan, Bremer noted: "These SS men are a different crew than was in Dearborn. No suspicions. Another security breakdown. And no cops to hold back the crowd from stepping in front of his following cars!" 

Two days after making these observations, Bremer attended a Wallace rally at a shopping center in Laurel, Maryland. Having abandoned a target he perceived as too well-protected (Nixon), Bremer shot George Wallace with a .38 caliber revolver. 

Bremer's display of target transference is actually quite common. In fact, most would-be attackers move from one target to another, assessing accessibility and vulnerability. 

After murdering actress Rebecca Schaeffer, for example, assassin Robert Bardo described in an interview how he had at first pursued another public figure, a young singer. He told of how he attempted to encounter her several times, but could not due to the security measures in place. Then, he said, he pursued a second singer. Stalking her at a concert, he noted that the stage was protected by guards and that she was escorted by security as she moved about. He abandoned his plans to kill her as well. Finally, he selected Rebecca Schaeffer, and, finding her an easier target, he carried out his assassination plan.

The cases of Bremer and Bardo illustrate not only how pursuers begin with more than one target but also how, in each case, the candidates are interchangeable in terms of basic desirability. Because the targets are interchangeable, public figures, in a sense, compete for the attention of attackers, just as they compete for fans. 

Of course, the goal is to lose the competition for attackers. Unfortunately, there are plenty of them to go around. Our office maintains a database of over 24,000 individuals who have pursued or sent inappropriate communications to our clients. Most of these pursuers have also sent communications to other public figures. 

Would-be attackers are discouraged primarily by one factor: inaccessibility. Yet some public figures (or their publicists) believe that it is bad for a person in the public eye to be perceived as unapproachable. For example, when Gavin de Becker, Inc. (my company), is on an assignment, uninformed publicists and other assistants often attempt to weaken the protective details (asking us not to stand too close or not to use two people) because they fear that security will be visible. In fact, visible security can be a valuable deterrent. Most normal fans and supporters expect famous people to be protected and will not be offended. 

The way famous persons live, what they do, and where they go will all be explored by journalists. What those around the executive or celebrity must determine is how these media stories can be presented so that they do not reduce safety or attract unwanted pursuers. Reports that a guard answered the gate at the residence or that a guard stood quietly outside the dressing room, as well as other reports that indicate a public persona with boundaries, make a public figure less attractive to pursuers. Conversely, reports that a public figure shuns security precautions, lives like a regular guy, or enjoys morning walks alone will encourage and empower pursuers. ​

That's not to say that executives and public figures cannot live normal lives. They can. But they must also take sensible precautions, appropriate to their circumstances. 

In an interview following the Versace murder, a well-known "security expert" said (on TV, of course) that the Versace murder was random and that it could not have been prevented. Subsequent investigation proved that the incident was not random and, as for whether it could have been prevented, it seems clear that Versace could have simply driven a car and entered his estate behind the existing security gates, rather than walking. 

In addition, didn't Andrew Cunanan gain advantage by Versace's having observable and predictable patterns, frequenting the same establishment, and walking to and from that establishment along the same routes? It is now known that Cunanan surveilled and followed Versace, leading to the reasonable conclusion that Versace or someone charged with his protection could have detected it and taken precautions. 

My company has been involved in many cases where a pursuer has shown up at a location with the intent of harming a client but was deterred by our efforts or by the visibility of precautions. And there are many such times we will probably never know about. 

Despite much proof to the contrary, many people continue to believe that an assassin is like a force of nature and that fate determines which targets are selected. The reality, however, is that successful assassinations require that hundreds of factors play out a certain way. Even the smallest snag in an assassin's plans will make the difference between success and failure. Knowing that, attackers tend to choose targets well in advance, not suddenly or at random. They carefully weigh security and other variables. 

They leave nothing to fate. And neither should potential targets. 


Jeff Marquart is director of the protective security division for Gavin de Becker, Inc., in Studio City, California.