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Cutting Costs, Bending Rules, And a Trail of Broken Lives
The guards have not been seen since the Jan. 3 airing of a video made by their captors. Picco said he is convinced that the men are still alive. He said he has spent more than $300,000 seeking information about their fate and blamed U.S. and British authorities for failing to follow up leads that he believes would have led to their release.
"Alive or dead, I will bring them back," Picco said during an interview this month in Kuwait City, where he continues to run logistics and catering businesses. "Whether it takes me 10 years or a month. That's just the moral thing to do. . . . These guys are part of me."
Relatives of the missing men have begun to speak out publicly, providing some details about them and the ambush in newspaper articles and on Web sites. The families have offered a $150,000 reward for information leading to release of the men.
U.S. officials in Baghdad said the investigation is still open. "We have no information to indicate they are not alive, but we are concerned about their health and welfare," said U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker. "Efforts toward their safe recovery are a high priority for the United States."
There has been no communication from the captors, according to U.S. officials, Crescent and the families.
The attack and seizure have spotlighted Crescent's low-budget approach to private security and raised questions about whether the company was vulnerable to such an attack. Another missing guard, Jonathon Cote, now 24, a former Army paratrooper from Buffalo, N.Y., described Crescent as "ghetto" because of its relatively low pay, its minimal hiring standards and what he and other guards described as management's willingness to bend rules and cut corners.
"I've worked for a billion companies, and this is the worst I've ever worked for," said Brad Ford, a former Crescent guard who now works in Afghanistan for another security firm. "I couldn't believe how they were getting away with all the stuff they were getting away with."
Crescent crafted its own military identification badges to enable its employees -- including unscreened Iraqis -- to gain admittance to U.S. bases, according to several former guards, two of whom provided copies of the badges. Some guards smuggled weapons and liquor across the Iraq-Kuwait border in secret compartments they referred to as stash boxes, the former employees said. As attacks became more frequent and lethal, Crescent continued to armor its gun trucks -- black Chevrolet Avalanches with belt-fed machine guns mounted in back -- with steel plates welded inside the doors, even though some guards had requested additional protection.
The company often hired guards with little or no experience. Reuben, the company medic, was a self-described alcoholic who was not certified as an emergency medical technician and had resigned as a suburban Minneapolis police officer in 2003 after a drunk-driving violation. David Horner, 54, a truck driver from Visalia, Calif., said Crescent hired him over the Internet in 2005 and put him to work immediately, even though he had not served in the military since 1973 and had never picked up an AK-47, the automatic assault rifle used by many of the company's guards.
On Nov. 16, Crescent's trucks pushed into Iraq without any of the firm's Iraqi guards, leaving the ill-fated convoy severely undermanned. The company also had not filed paperwork with the ground-control center in Baghdad that monitors nonmilitary convoys, according to those authorities, who still do not list the Crescent hostages among their casualty figures for killed, wounded and missing because the convoy was unregistered. That oversight limited Crescent's communication with the command center responsible for coordinating the military's emergency response to attacks on civilian convoys.
Security experts described the lapses as unconscionable. "It's insane. I don't know how you could sleep," said Cameron Simpson, country operations manager for ArmorGroup International, a British firm that protects one-third of all nonmilitary convoys in Iraq. ArmorGroup normally assigns 20 security contractors to protect no more than 10 tractor-trailers.
Picco said employees such as Reuben, who had previously worked for two other security companies, were presumed to have been vetted before joining Crescent. He said the company shunned fully armored trucks, not to save money but because guards preferred vehicles that allowed them to return fire and maneuver more easily. Picco's deputy, Paul Chapman, said the Italian military, which held the contract, was responsible for monitoring the convoy, even though private companies provided the trailers as well as security.