The largest private security company in the world can’t keep track of its guns.
And the consequences are clear: One of their missing guns was held to a woman’s head as a man threatened to rape her. Another was used to pistol-whip a pizza delivery driver. A third ended the lives of two men playing video games.
Before they were used to hurt or kill people, each of these guns was assigned to a security guard whose job was to protect the public. Then they were stolen from G4S, a company that brings in billions of dollars with promises of “securing your world.”
For decades, G4S executives, managers and guards have failed to secure the company’s vast arsenal despite repeated warnings from federal regulators that its missing guns have been used in murders and other violent crimes, a USA TODAY/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation found.
Under a firearms license with the federal government, G4S is supposed to make sure its weapons are secure and accounted for at all times, like gun shops do. But the company saves time and does more business by shifting much of that responsibility to individual guards, trusting them to safely store the weapons at home.
Too often, they don’t.
More than 600 G4S weapons have been reported lost or stolen since 2009, according to figures maintained, but never publicly revealed, by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. For perspective, the Drug Enforcement Administration has more than twice as many guns as G4S but loses about five on average annually, according to federal audits.
Under federal law, almost all the information about guns used in crimes is kept secret from the public. Reporters reviewed thousands of pages of local law enforcement records from around the country to create the most comprehensive public accounting to date of how so many G4S guns had disappeared and where they ended up. The effort revealed details about 154 of the lost guns, uncovering shoddy record-keeping and a pattern of negligence. Some guards quit or were fired and never gave back the guns. Others pawned them for money. Three dozen guards broke company policy and left weapons unsecured in their cars, where they were stolen. One lost his in a drug deal.
The records also show where 60 of the missing weapons resurfaced: Inside a teen’s school locker. With a gun trafficker. In a string of armed robberies.
Many of the lost guns have never been located – either by reporters, law enforcement or G4S. Those guns could be anywhere.
The company’s inability to keep its guns off the street extends beyond its guards to the company managers and executives responsible for keeping tabs on the weapons. In at least six G4S offices, records show, weeks or months or even years went by before managers realized company guns had disappeared.
“A couple a times a month we’d get a call about a gun we never knew was missing,” said James Granan, who worked at G4S for 25 years before retiring as the corporate inventory weapons manager in 2011. “It was a surprise.”
In a November interview, G4S Chief Compliance Officer and general counsel Michael Hogsten said the company overhauled its weapons policies and digitized its paper gun records in 2012. The changes came as a result of an ATF audit that threatened to revoke the company’s federal firearms license after it lost 72 guns.
But records show the company has continued to lose guns at a steady pace, more than once a week. This year, G4S has lost at least 65 guns, according to the company’s own numbers. Each year, more than a dozen of the guns that had been reported missing are ultimately recovered by G4S before they wind up on the street, Hogsten said.
Hogsten blamed G4S employees who don’t follow company policy for most of the missing guns.
“Not one loss of a firearm is acceptable to us,” he said. “My goal is to get people to be more aware on a regular basis of the issues related to how important it is to follow these rules.”
An October USA TODAY/Journal Sentinel investigation detailed how G4S made questionable hires often driven by low wages, high turnover and pressure to sign and fill new contracts quickly. But Hogsten denied that the company’s hiring practices contributed to the problem of lost guns.
SHOW OF FORCE
This is an ongoing series of reports about G4S, the world’s largest private security force, which
provides guards for thousands of private businesses and government agencies across the nation. Reporters at USA
TODAY and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel spent more than a year gathering records and interviewing current and
former employees, as well as those impacted by violence associated with G4S guards.
Contact the reporters
Guards are supposed to use company-issued cable locks to secure their weapons at home and in their cars so the guns can’t be moved or fired. Managers are also required by law to report missing guns to the ATF within 48 hours.
“In the vast majority of cases that you’ve identified where there’s a big problem, it’s a failure of the local manager who didn’t follow process,” Hogsten said.
During its most recent federal inspection of G4S, in 2016, an ATF official cited the company for failing to properly document its guns.
“Some of the crimes that these firearms have been recovered in range from homicides, robberies, domestic violence,” the ATF report states. Other G4S guns were found at suicides or in the possession of convicted felons, who aren’t legally allowed to have them, according to the report.
From 2004 to 2017, the ATF issued eight violations against G4S for problems with its firearms paperwork. Allied Universal, G4S’ only major competitor with a federal firearms license, had no violations in its most recent inspection, and the ATF did not note any problems with missing guns, according to agency records.
Hogsten said he had not seen G4S’ full 2016 inspection report until reporters showed it to him and that no one at the ATF brought concerns about missing company guns to his attention during the most recent inspection.
“Their view is we’ve done everything they’ve asked of us and more,” Hogsten said. “And they believe our compliance is in line with what we should be doing.”
G4S is now developing a software system that will flag headquarters when a guard leaves the company so executives can track if guns are returned, he said.
ATF spokesman Wayne Bettencourt declined to answer specific questions about G4S. In general, he said, the agency can revoke licenses of companies that “willfully violated the law.” Although license revocations are rare, failure to account for guns is among the most common reasons they happen, he said.
Five current and former ATF officials with knowledge of G4S’ operations and the license revocation process told reporters the company should not have been allowed to keep its firearms license this long given its track record of inventory problems.
Steve Barborini, who worked at the agency for 25 years before retiring in 2011 as resident agent in charge of the West Palm Beach, Florida, office, said he and his colleagues frequently traced guns used in crimes back to G4S.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “How many times do you have to be warned?”
After his shift on Christmas Eve 2009, G4S guard Edwin Prado stuck his company-issued revolver into a bag with another gun, stashed the bag in a closet and left town for the holidays.
When he got home four days later, the gun was gone. Police discovered that a screen had been cut and suspected burglars, according to police reports.
The next night, about 70 miles away, three men crept through the fence and into a backyard shed behind a home in Brandon, Florida, police and court records show. With the revolver stolen from Prado’s closet, they fatally shot two young men playing video games inside.
One of the victims was 22-year-old Tony Black.
Black’s mother, Shardretta Williams, woke up that night to the sound of pounding on the door of her home.
Two police officers stood on the porch. Tony’s been shot dead, one of them told her. Williams shook her head and lay down on the couch, convinced she was having a nightmare.
Her other son, just 9 years old, was listening at the top of the stairs and called his aunt, who rushed over. Williams realized then she wouldn’t wake up from this.
“I just screamed and screamed,” she recalled in an interview. “I screamed because now I know this may be real.”
Black’s killers were sentenced to life in prison.
The police didn’t realize that the gun G4S had issued to Prado was the murder weapon until journalists alerted them nearly a decade later. An officer who investigated the homicides had written down the wrong serial number on some of the reports. A USA TODAY reporter noted the correct serial number in other documents from the case and matched it with the weapon that was stolen three counties over.
G4S executives also weren’t aware the gun they assigned to Prado was used to kill two people, according to Hogsten.
“Whenever we hear things like this … this is terrible stuff,” he said. “And that’s why we put so much effort and time into trying to find a way to stop thefts of firearms.”
Prado said in an interview that his bosses had reprimanded him for losing the gun and transferred him to an unarmed position. He worked for G4S for three more years before retiring, he said.
Told his stolen gun had been used to kill someone, Prado sucked in his breath.
Really? he asked in Spanish. De verdad?
Williams also didn’t know a gun intended to keep people safe took her son’s life until she spoke with reporters. She was incensed that neither Prado nor G4S was held accountable.
“If I had a gun, and I have a 5-year-old and he shot somebody, guess what? I’m responsible. I’m either going to jail or they’re taking my child,” she said. “But if you have a security guard who’s supposed to be trained with a weapon, who has permission by those authorities above him to have a gun and it shoots several people, who’s responsible?”
For 40 years, G4S has benefited from the same federal firearms license that gun dealers possess, even though it’s in the business of providing security, not selling guns.
The license saves the company time by allowing it to buy guns in bulk directly from manufacturers and ship them across state lines.
Most firearms licensees are gun stores or collectors, which are heavily regulated. Anyone who buys a gun from a licensed dealer must fill out a form that addresses criminal history, mental health and other issues that could bar them from owning a weapon. The shop must then contact the FBI, which verifies the information by checking its database. When sending guns across state lines, a licensee may only ship them to licensed dealers, not to other businesses or individuals.
The system is meant to ensure that guns don’t fall into the wrong hands, and if they do, that the ATF can hold the gun dealer responsible. But G4S gets the benefit of a license without following those same regulations.
The reason stems from a legal interpretation handed down by government lawyers in 1979, after a Florida guard working for G4S’ predecessor, Wackenhut, killed a man with a company gun. The guard had been hired despite a history of serious mental illness and a police record for rape and robbery, ATF files show.
State regulators fined the company for arming the guard, who didn’t have a Florida firearms license. The ATF opened its own investigation into whether the company had violated federal law.
But company executives said federal firearms laws didn’t apply to them because they were lending guns to employees, not selling them. ATF attorneys agreed, and the agency ended its investigation.
The distinction came up again in 1999, amid ATF concerns that Wackenhut had become “a major trafficker of firearms to the criminal element,” according to an ATF investigator’s report. But the agency again ended its investigation after its attorney reaffirmed the 1979 legal position that the company didn’t have to comply with the laws gun shops must follow because it was essentially shipping the weapons to itself.
The same issues resurfaced after G4S purchased Wackenhut in 2002. The ATF expressed concerns following inspections in 2004 and 2005 that the company wasn’t keeping track of guns, but it only issued citations and made no attempt at license revocation because the guns were on loan.
Hogsten disputed the idea that G4S is exploiting a loophole that allows the company to be less responsible than other licensed gun dealers. The company screens potential employees thoroughly, he said, and most states also require security guards to be licensed. The state licensing checks are often more rigorous than the laws placed on gun shops, he said.
Some security companies make employees turn company guns in to a field office after their shift. Others operate more like police departments, providing a list of approved sidearms employees buy on their own with the hope personal ownership will lead to more accountability.
Hogsten said holding a federal firearms license and issuing guns to its guards allows G4S to better manage its inventory. If the company sold guns to employees or required them to buy their own weapons for work, G4S managers would lose their ability to control what workers do with the weapons, he said.
“I can’t get involved in what you did with your gun off duty,” Hogsten said. “I don’t know when you lost your gun. I don’t know when it got stolen.”
In an ideal world, Hogsten said, guards would lock up the weapons at the locations where they work. That’s what they do at nuclear sites, which are generally on military bases with armories.
Of the missing G4S guns tracked by reporters since 2009, none disappeared from those sites.
Unfortunately, most clients don’t want the guns stored on site, Hogsten said.
“They see that as our responsibility,” he said.
Most of the information documenting where and how G4S guns go missing is reported to the ATF by the company. But those records are kept secret because of laws championed by the National Rifle Association that prohibit the agency and police from releasing gun trace data to the public.
To break through the secrecy, USA TODAY and Journal Sentinel reporters reviewed thousands of pages of documents from 450 police and sheriff’s departments in the 48 states where G4S does business. The first batch of reports, obtained via public records requests, described the circumstances under which G4S guns were lost or stolen and included the serial numbers of the missing weapons.
Journalists made follow-up requests to law enforcement agencies that recovered missing G4S guns. Those reports yielded details of where guns were found and whether they had been used in crimes.
That yearlong effort uncovered breakdowns in G4S’ gun inventory system around the country. The results provide the first public accounting of what has gone wrong.
In 2011, a G4S manager in Florida told police he couldn’t account for 18 guns, according to police reports. In 2012, a newly hired supervisor in New Mexico reported six guns missing, telling police “prior management not keeping track of the firearms” was to blame.
In 2013, another Florida police department dropped an investigation into a G4S employee suspected of stealing a company gun after discovering “there was no consistency to their policies or guidelines that were in place.”
The next year, after a G4S manager in St. Louis noticed a gun was missing, a former manager at the site told police he wasn’t surprised.
“He witnessed on multiple occasions firearms left unsecured on desks, even while new hire classes would be in training with three to five new employees in the office,” according to the police report. “He also stated the files maintained were not always kept current and he discovered some files were missing while he was employed by G4S. He commented it was ‘sloppy.’ ”
The gun has not been found.
At least one gun disappeared twice. In 2015, G4S managers bought it back after an employee pawned it in Boca Raton, Florida. In 2017, they issued it to a new guard, who later would tell police a drug dealer stole it during an after-hours deal. It still hasn’t been recovered.
In February 2016, a G4S manager in Portland, Oregon, reported four guns gone from the inventory. He told police “that possibly sometime over the last two years they became missing.” The next year, a different manager at the same field office reported another five weapons missing that were last seen with former employees.
G4S later found five of the nine guns, but the other four are still missing.
The company has done little to enforce its own policies in recent years, former employees and managers said in interviews.
“We issued employees a cable lock and a case for the firearm and gave them specific instructions for how to store it in a vehicle,” said Jim Reynolds, who was a G4S manager in Virginia for five years.
“But I’d say following the guidelines was a 50-50 call,” he said.
At least six off-duty guards have killed themselves or others with company guns since 2009, according to a review of police reports and state oversight records.
In 2010, G4S guard Lawrence Davis, armed with the company’s .38 Smith & Wesson revolver, accosted his roommate, Lawrence Brown.
A neighbor watched in horror as the argument spilled into the courtyard of their Fredericksburg, Virginia, apartment complex. He pleaded with Davis: Put away the gun.
Go inside, Davis warned him. Then he shot his roommate in the head. Brown fell to the ground, dead.
Security giant G4S has lost hundreds of guns. Here’s where we found them.
Before they were used to hurt or kill people, each of these guns was assigned to a security guard at G4S.
Davis was convicted of homicide and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.
In a written statements to the judge, Brown’s mother said she buried her child in a cemetery plot she’d bought for herself, expecting it to stay empty for years into the future. His father wrote this: “I don’t have my son no more. Only memories.”
G4S spokeswoman Sabrina Rios said although the company is always looking for ways to improve its hiring process, it is sometimes impossible to foresee that an employee will become involved in a crime.
“G4S used all the tools at its disposal to confirm the fitness of these individuals to serve as security officers, including criminal background checks and psychological screenings, yet still had no way of knowing these individuals would be capable of future criminal acts while employed with the company,” she said in a statement.
G4S hired Andre Beadle in 2011. He’s now serving 27½ years in prison for sexually assaulting two women, and records show that police suspect he victimized at least four others.
That summer, G4S stationed Beadle at a Publix supermarket in South Florida and allowed him to take his company gun home after work. More than once, police and court records show, he used it to threaten the women he raped.
Beadle invited a woman and her 3-year-old daughter over for dinner. The woman could see Beadle’s company gun on the counter as he placed his hands around her neck.
In a deposition, she said he told her he had killed before and had no problem doing it again. He raped the woman as her daughter sat on the bed beside them, crying.
USA TODAY does not typically identify victims of sexual assault.
Another woman said she thought she could trust Beadle because he worked as a security guard. Eight years later, she said, she still thinks about the rape every day.
“The company should be liable that it happened in their uniform with their gun,” the woman said in an interview. “I feel like if he would have had to lock that gun away that night, I would have been safer.”
“How many more times are they going to allow for this to happen? How many more?”
Reporter Kevin Crowe contributed to this story
The team behind this investigation
REPORTING AND ANALYSIS:
Brett Murphy, Gina Barton, Nick Penzenstadler
Chris Davis, Matt Doig, Sam Roe, Brett Blackledge
GRAPHICS AND ILLUSTRATIONS:
Ramon Padilla, Kyle Slagle, Mitchell Thorson, Shawn Sullivan, Javier Zarracina
Jasper Colt, Chris Powers
DIGITAL PRODUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT:
Spencer Holladay, Annette Meade, Ryan Hildebrandt, Dan Alegria
SOCIAL MEDIA, ENGAGEMENT AND PROMOTION:
Cara Richardson, Elizabeth Shell