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Cutting Costs, Bending Rules, And a Trail of Broken Lives
"We tried to be 110 percent legal in everything we did," Chapman said, adding that Crescent was licensed by the Iraqi Interior Ministry.
Picco said the team leader that day, John Young, 44, an Army veteran and carpenter from Lee's Summit, Mo., made the decision to leave a team of Iraqis behind without the company's knowledge and went into Iraq with just seven Western guards to protect the 37 trailers. "I think complacency set in," Picco said. "Why would you leave a complete team behind?"
But Andy Foord, a Crescent guard from Britain who was left bound inside a truck as the kidnappers fled, said in an interview that none of the Iraqi guards had reported for work that morning. He said Young informed Crescent's operations center in Kuwait City that the undermanned convoy intended to proceed into Iraq. "They knew, because John called them from the Iraq border," Foord said.
Several former Iraqi employees of Crescent were spotted among the kidnappers, according to Foord and a written report by Jaime Salgado, another guard who was left behind and later freed. Foord said he believes the attack was set up by an Iraqi interpreter who had advance knowledge of the mission.
Crescent is "blaming these boys, and they're not here to answer about it themselves," said Sharon DeBrabander, the mother of Young, the missing team leader. "I don't think that's right. They're covering up their butts, that's what they're doing."
'I Only Came Over Here For the Money'
"War is inevitable. You cannot cancel it. You can only postpone it to your advantage." That message was scrawled on a dry erase board in Picco's Kuwait City office.
Picco, 38, who was born in Italy and reared in South Africa, formed Crescent in 2003, initially to protect trucks belonging to his shipping company, Mercato del Golfo.
"Everyone knew when Iraq opened up there was going to be money to be made," he said.
As business boomed but security deteriorated, Crescent expanded. The company gained a reputation for traveling to the riskiest destinations, often for half as much as its competitors. At its peak, it earned $600,000 to $800,000 a month providing convoy protection, according to Picco, and was profiled in a 2006 book on private security contracting, "A Bloody Business," by Gerald Schumacher, a retired U.S. Special Forces colonel.
"We protect the military. Isn't that mind-boggling?" Picco said in an interview last November. "And I'm talking about escorting soldiers, as well. Isn't that frightening?"
Most of Crescent's employees were military and law enforcement veterans willing to accept extreme risk in exchange for fast money and adventure. Crescent handed out monthly pay in envelopes stuffed with Kuwaiti dinars. The guards took the money to currency exchange houses, which transferred the funds into their bank accounts.
"All you're thinking about is the money," said Chris Jackson, 28, a former Marine from Salem, N.H. "You have $50,000 in the bank, and all you're thinking about is, 'Another month and I'll have $57,000, another month and I'll have $64,000.' " By the end of last year, Jackson said, he had saved $55,000, even after splurging on Las Vegas vacations and a $5,000 Panerai watch.