Guerrillas in the Midst
The two police officers met for coffee, as they often did, at the Homestead Restaurant in Idaho Springs one cold afternoon in November 1992.
Gary Cunningham, who'd worked for the town's police department for two years, had recently married his fifth wife, Michele. She worked at the Homestead, and he liked to grab a bite to eat there before going on duty at 4 p.m. His sergeant, Dave Wohlers, was the son of the man now sitting across from him, state trooper Lyle Wohlers. Although the elder Wohlers had been in law enforcement far longer than Cunningham, the two enjoyed each other's company.
At forty, Cunningham was older than most cops with only four years' experience. Before hiring on in Idaho Springs, he'd worked in Minturn for two years. But before that he'd seen combat as a U.S. Army Ranger in Vietnam, then as an advisor to the Contras in Honduras and as a commando team leader for the Guatemala National Police Force. He'd spent most of his adult life looking for excitement, what he calls "the adrenaline rush."
By late 1992, he was already tiring of police work. Well, not the work itself so much as all that went with it, from the lack of budget for training to the lack of respect for cops who put their lives on the line every day. For the past few months he'd been thinking of quitting and starting his own company that would teach "tactical," or military combat, techniques to police departments and private security firms.
Since he'd returned to the United States from Guatemala in 1988, he'd witnessed activity that reminded him of the sort of terrorism he'd seen in Central America. In Guatemala the police had been out-manned, out-trained and out-gunned. And between the gangs, the anti-government militias, the religious fanatics and the racists--both black and white--Cunningham believed the same situation was developing here.
Cunningham had mentioned his business idea to Lyle Wohlers, but Lyle wasn't particularly interested in combat training. He would soon be retiring from the state patrol. In fact, after 26 years on the job, the 51-year-old trooper was already eligible to retire, but he'd stayed on to help show some new guys the ropes. To give them a good start in a dangerous business.
Lyle Wohlers was the sort of cop everybody liked. "Even people he'd arrested would go have coffee with him the next day," Cunningham says. "And he was a good cop, probably better at what he did than 90 percent of the state troopers I've met since."
That November afternoon, Wohlers and Cunningham talked and laughed about routine cop stuff, paperwork snafus and funny traffic stops.
Wohlers finished his coffee first and stood up to leave. "Watch out for yourself," he cautioned Cunningham, as he always did. "Meet you back here for coffee later."
The state trooper walked out the door and to his death at the hands of a fifteen-year-old car thief.
Like Dave Wohlers, Cunningham is the son of a cop. His father served as a county deputy in tiny Ely, Nevada, where the family moved in 1963 when Gary was eleven. Gary took a lot of ribbing from the other kids about his dad, but he was proud of him and the job he did.
Being a cop, his father told him, was a 24-hour-a-day job. "When you're a cop, you're a cop all the time, period," Cunningham says. "His philosophy was, 'Do something 100 percent or don't bother.'"
In those days, training for law-enforcement types, especially cops out in the boonies, was minimal. "They hired you, gave you a gun and put you in a car with another cop," Cunningham says. "You imitated the way he did things. Hopefully, he knew what he was doing, but it was just the luck of the draw."
Gary's father attended a few seminars sponsored by the Nevada State Patrol or the FBI, but such opportunities were few and far between. Mostly, he learned on the job.
Fortunately, much of his police work consisted of trying to keep the local teenagers, including his own son, on the straight and narrow. "He kept catching me," Cunningham says, laughing. "He'd say that every time he turned around, I was doing something stupid--mostly drinking and drag-racing out in the desert. I was sort of into excitement, and there wasn't much of that in Ely unless you were causing trouble."
His father was into judo and boxing, skills he shared with his son in none-too-gentle lessons. "That's where I first learned how to hit the deck," Cunningham recalls. "He'd pound on me, until one day he stopped and said, 'When are you going to learn to duck, stupid?' Well, I learned to duck, and it probably saved me more than once."
Always one of the littlest kids in class, Cunningham went out of his way to prove his toughness. The smallest member of the Ely High School football team--smaller, for that matter, than any member of opposing teams--he begged to play linebacker and played it well until he broke his shoulder.
Ten days after graduating from high school in 1970, Cunningham decided to join the service--knowing he'd end up in Vietnam. "I probably saw too many John Wayne movies growing up," he says. "But I wanted to see if I could handle it...and for the adrenaline rush."
The Marines wouldn't take him because he was too short, but the Army was eager. As Cunningham climbed on board the bus to basic training, his father told him, "Keep your head down."
At Fort Lewis, Washington, Cunningham completed basic training, then advanced infantry training. During advanced, he saw a film on the Army Rangers, an elite group that specialized in scouting missions. "I wasn't too bright," he says, "and it didn't dawn on me that it was a good way to get killed. I thought I could save the world." He volunteered.
Cunningham was supposed to go on to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, for jump school and then Fort Benning, Georgia, for Ranger training. But the Army needed bodies in Vietnam, and instead he was shipped off to southeast Asia and an intensive "in-country" school.
"In the old days, Ranger school was eighteen weeks. In-country, it was boiled down to three weeks, eighteen hours a day," Cunningham says. During that time, he learned to set up ambushes and to counter ambushes intended for him; he also learned specialized shooting techniques, particularly those designed to hit the target while the shooter was on the move.
"To graduate, you had to do an actual operation in 'Indian Country,'" he says. "If you survived, you passed."
He almost didn't.
For his graduation exam, Cunningham joined a six-man team on a seven-day patrol near the Laotian border. Their mission was to monitor enemy troop movements--even set booby traps--but to avoid contact otherwise.
The North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong were masters at making booby traps. There were hidden pits with sharpened "punji" sticks in the bottom. Grenades tied to trip wires. Deadfalls and logs imbedded with spikes. But often what looked like a booby trap was only meant to lure enemies into making a false step. Moving to avoid it, soldiers would trip the real trap, to devastating effect.
Carrying ninety-pound packs and their rifles, Cunningham and his comrades crept through the bush, sometimes advancing only a few feet an hour. In some areas, covering one or two "klicks"--kilometers--was judged a good day.
All things considered, the patrol was uneventful until the moment the men found themselves slipping and sliding down a steep hillside--right into a Viet Cong tunnel complex. "Our lead man was spotted by a sentry in a tree, who opened fire," Cunningham says. "We lay down suppressing fire, but six guys wasn't enough. Fortunately, we'd come in the back door; if we'd stumbled in the front, we'd have never made it out."
For once, he'd found more than enough excitement. "This wasn't television or a John Wayne movie," he says. "I couldn't yell 'Time out!' and make them stop shooting. This shit was for real."
But luck and adrenaline were with the U.S. soldiers that day, and they all made it out to the pick-up point where a helicopter waited. Gary Cunningham had passed Ranger school.
Like many other Rangers who were posted with regular troops rather than Ranger companies, Cunningham was assigned to several infantry units in different parts of the country, each with its own dangers. Much of the time he was out on patrol, anywhere from seven to thirty days at a time. He learned to hit what he was shooting at from a dead run. And he became an expert at spotting potential danger signs--though he did it the hard way, by walking into two booby traps. One left him with a split cheek, the other with a piece of plastic in the heel of his right foot.
He was constantly amazed at the ingenuity of the enemy, who worked their deadly game with the simplest of materials. "The good booby-trapper," he says, "is limited only by time and imagination."
That was just one of the lessons he learned in Vietnam. He also discovered the power of the mind when lives were literally on the line. "I knew guys who were shot in the arm, nothing too serious, but they just knew they were going to die...and they did," he says. "I saw other guys who were about cut in half, but they knew they were going to survive, and they would. I kept telling myself that I was going to survive. After the second time I got blown up, my faith was wearing a little thin, but then again, it taught me to watch where I walked...Surprising how that works."
He saw that the men who survived were those who learned from experience and didn't let repetition dull their awareness. "Sometimes things just got too routine," he remembers. "A guy wouldn't pay attention to what was going on and paid for it with his life--and often, so did the rest of his crew.
"You learned there was no such thing as a safe place. It was all dangerous."
After his tour, Cunningham returned to the United States. The Army sent him to Fort Carson, south of Colorado Springs. He'd hoped to be placed with a regular Ranger outfit, but with the war winding down, he was assigned to train recruits. And when that stint ended, he found himself washing vehicles three times a day.
"Some guys liked that," he says. "But I wanted to do something. The only thing I knew about the world outside of Ely was war. I missed the excitement, but the Army wouldn't let me do anything but wash APCs [armored personnel carriers].
"I went to the JAG [judge advocate general] and said, 'If I can't do what I want, then I want out.' He said, 'Be gone for 31 days and we'll throw you out.'" So Cunningham took off for Florida and didn't return to Colorado for three months. That earned him an "undesirable" label and a discharge in March 1973.
"I went downhill from there," he says. "The Army had no use for me, and I had no use for myself. I couldn't get a job. I became self-destructive and couldn't have cared whether I lived or died."
Cunningham bought a Harley and began hanging out with outlaw bikers. He drank heavily and looked forward to fighting with rival gangs. "I woke up in a few dumpsters," he admits. "It wasn't good. My family wouldn't talk to me for four years."
By then he'd married his first wife and had a child. He supported his family by driving a truck but still partied with his biker buddies. Small wonder that his marriage went sour.
"I was always on the run," he says. "I had to find somewhere new to go, something new to do. I was still into the adrenaline rush, but I had nowhere to channel it that wasn't self-destructive."
One day he was at a biker friend's house when the police raided it. They found a stolen motorcycle and arrested everyone present. "All of a sudden, I was facing felony charges," Cunningham says. "I knew then that I had to get my life back on track or I'd end up dead or in prison."
His first attempt was short-lived. Cunningham got a job at the Garfield County Jail, but when the sheriff left three months later, his replacement let many of the deputies go, including Cunningham.
He was wondering what to do next when an old Army buddy called and asked Cunningham to join other vets working for something called the Civilian Military Assistance Command. They would be helping the Contras in their war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. "This time we were going to win one," Cunningham remembers thinking. "I still thought I might be able to save the world. And then there was the old excitement of going into a war zone."
For their services, the men received expenses, room and board, "and that was it," Cunningham says. They may have been labeled mercenaries, but they weren't rich ones.
"All that stuff about mercenaries getting all the women and money and leading a great life--it was bullshit. Still, I was in it for the rush," he says. "It was exciting...more fun than being normal."
In fact, it was a lot like being back in Vietnam. Even the terrain reminded him of his tour over there. Only this time, he was on the side of the guerrillas, teaching them the tricks he'd learned from the Viet Cong.
"The Contras thought we walked on water," Gary says. "But I'd look at these sixteen- and seventeen-year-old kids and realize they'd been fighting since they were thirteen and fourteen years old and actually had more combat experience than I did. They'd come to us in Honduras for twenty-day training sessions, get something to eat and go back and fight."
The vets in the CMAC never knew who paid for the supplies and training they provided the Contras at their bases in Honduras. "Speculation was that it was from the [Central Intelligence] Agency," Cunningham says, "but they kept it pretty quiet."
Occasionally he worked as a bodyguard for Contra leaders Adolfo Mario Calero and Enrique Bermudez, accompanying them to a Soldier of Fortune convention in Las Vegas and later a big rally in Denver. "We never got paid for any of it," Cunningham says. "In fact, I can't remember any of the Contras ever paying for anything. Association members would kick in to cover expenses and things like airline tickets."
Cunningham thought he was doing the right thing. But he was increasingly disturbed by reports that the Sandinistas weren't the only ones capable of terrorism. "I began to wonder if we were the good guys or the bad guys," he says. "It woke me up like a slap in the face. I learned you couldn't save the world if the world didn't want you to."
Cunningham worked for the CMAC off and on for four years. By the time he was finished with the Contras, he was on his fourth wife.
Through his contacts with the Contras, he found a new cause: working for the Guatemalan National Police Force, which, along with the Guatemalan Army, was locked in an undeclared war with leftist guerrillas.
Once again, there was encouragement--but no official funding--from the United States and the Guatemalan government. So he volunteered his services for free and was made a captain. As such, he was in charge of setting up special-weapons and tactics training, as well as patrolling with his officers on their daily assignments in Guatemala City.
When Cunningham and another Vietnam vet signed on, the 450 commandos, both men and women, were in disarray and demoralized. They'd been working in what amounted to a war zone for several years and were poorly paid. They were also poorly equipped--armed with .38-caliber revolvers and World War II-vintage rifles. Ammunition was limited to "as needed only," which didn't include any for practice.
They were fighting guerrillas who supported themselves through drug dealing, bank robbery and terrorism. The most common act of terrorism was kidnapping--both for money and for political purposes. Businessmen and government officials were often the victims, but so were police officers, whose bodies were left in public places as warnings.
Cunningham taught his commandos how to recognize and avoid booby traps. He'd go out with them on their regular patrols. In two years of working with the police force, he had two jeeps shot out from under him and lost a number of good officers.
"My men and women didn't get paid much, but they were putting their lives on the line trying to make their city safe for regular citizens," he says. "War isn't pretty, and it's human nature to do anything to help your side win. But I was proud of these men and women, proud to serve with them."
Discouraged, Cunningham returned to Colorado in 1988. But he was alarmed by what he read in the newspapers about crime in this country.
Cunningham himself wrote an article for The Tactical Edge, a magazine for SWAT officers, in 1989. "As I have studied the news and other reports since my return to the U.S.," he wrote, "I have noticed a very definite pattern forming in this country, leading me to believe that more of the things I have seen in Central America are showing up here...and will continue to move north as drug trafficking continues to move into the U.S.
"The criminal methods I encountered in Central America are becoming an everyday event here in the U.S., so keep in mind that you may increasingly find yourselves coming up against this type of criminal and the tools of their trade.
"Start preparing for the possibility of coming up against these tactics before you are surprised by them. As we all know, complacency can be a lethal mistake in SWAT."
The article didn't draw much response. "I wasn't a cop," Cunningham says. "What did I know? If it hadn't affected them yet personally, it didn't exist."
In 1989 Gary Cunningham graduated from the Arapahoe Community College police academy. He hoped to get on with a large urban police department and eventually work his way onto a SWAT team, where his combat experience would be an advantage.
That hope quickly evaporated. Most urban departments said he was already too old; the maximum age for a rookie was 36. And many departments wanted a four-year degree, not the two-year one he'd received.
"Those were the reasons they gave, anyway," Cunningham says. But he thought there was another reason.
He finally got a job as one of two officers for the town of Minturn, just outside Vail. He stayed until a spot opened up with the Idaho Springs Police Department. It was a bigger operation, but he was still disappointed with the lack of money for training programs.
"While I was a cop, I spent $12,000 of my own money for training," he says. "At the most, I got $50 from one of the departments. I took whatever classes I could get; I figured it was my life that was on the line, and I wanted to know as much as I could."
He took classes on bombs, on bikers and cults; he attended seminars offered by metro-area gang units. He'd return to Idaho Springs and report what he'd learned, even give free classes on booby traps and combat techniques. "But nobody would attend," he says. "It was like, 'We don't have a problem with that here. Why bother?'
"If something did happen, they'd call me instead of taking a class themselves."
Frustrated, Cunningham began to think about getting out of police work. He'd heard that other military veterans were teaching classes on booby traps, tactical rifle use, even terrorism awareness; he began to think that he should do the same.
On November 4, 1992, he was still trying to decide what to do when he met Lyle Wohlers for a cup of coffee. "Watch out for yourself," Wohlers cautioned, then walked out into the cold.
On Interstate 70 near Georgetown, Wohlers pulled over a car for not having a front license plate. There were two young men in the car: Marcus Fernandez and Thomas White Jr., both fifteen years old. He asked Idaho Springs dispatch to run the rear license plate.
Cunningham was in his squad car, listening to the scanner, when Wohlers reported that the license plate didn't match the car registration. He asked for another police "cover" car. A few minutes later Wohlers called out again, but his message was garbled.
Cunningham radioed that he'd go to the scene, but dispatch said a Gilpin County deputy was closer. A few minutes later that deputy was screaming into the microphone: "Officer down! Officer down!"
Cunningham drove straight to his sergeant's home. Dave Wohlers was heading to Denver that evening, and he wanted to catch him. "I knew it was something bad," he says.
Later it was determined that Lyle Wohlers had made contact with the driver of the car, Fernandez, who didn't have a license. Following then-current state patrol procedure, Wohlers had the teenager follow him back to his car, where he placed him in the front passenger's seat. He then got in the driver's seat.
Fernandez pulled a handgun and shot Wohlers in the head.
The deputy found Wohlers in his car. He was dying. The car that the state trooper had stopped--and never described--was not around.
A little later, a gas-station attendant who'd been listening to a police scanner noticed two teenagers hanging around, waiting for friends to pick them up. As they drove off, the attendant took down the license plate number and called the police.
The car was spotted heading east on I-70. A state trooper and another Gilpin County deputy ran them off the interstate at the Fall River Road exit. Cunningham and a deputy were waiting.
The gun used to kill Wohlers was found the next day in a garbage can at the gas station. The stolen car had been abandoned in Georgetown. Fernandez eventually was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. White, who testified against his friend, received 32 years for accessory and car theft. White's sentence was recently cut in half.
"I was just mad, more than anything, and wondering how it could have happened," Cunningham says. "Did Lyle forget to pat the kid down? I don't know, and it's hard to second-guess. He was a good cop, a safe cop, but we all get lulled to sleep by routine. The national statistics say that the most dangerous time for cops is their first three years and their last five. But maybe it was just one of those unpreventable things, and no matter what he did, it would have turned out that way."
In January 1993, Cunningham quit the Idaho Springs Police Department and started TAC-ONE, Inc., a company offering "tactical operations training" for police departments and security firms.
TAC-ONE's brochure quotes Ayn Rand: "A desire to live does not give you the knowledge required to live."
Last spring, a half-dozen members of a Colorado SWAT team moved cautiously down a trail through the woods. They were clad in black-and-gray camouflage fatigues, their bulletproof vests bulging beneath their shirts, their eyes watching for signs of danger.
The officer leading the patrol motioned for the team to stop. He'd spotted some disturbed vegetation and dirt on the trail, possibly indicating some sort of booby trap. Anti-government militia groups were known to be operating in the area, and it paid to be careful.
The team stepped off to the side of the disturbed area, and suddenly the mountain air was pierced by a loud bang accompanied by a blinding flash of light. One of the group's members had tripped the real booby trap hidden next to the diversion in the trail.
When the smoke cleared and the cussing quieted, a small, compact man who had been tailing the group stepped forward. "You're dead," Cunningham told the sheepish-looking man who'd just set off the Universal Propulsion Company Model 1750 Distraction Device. "You just tripped a claymore mine and killed the whole team."
The officers were in the midst of a three-day TAC-ONE booby-trap program that Cunningham had set up for the Delta Police Department and some other officers.
Although Cunningham started his company with the idea of keeping cops safe, TAC-ONE offers other services. "Asset recovery," for example, which can mean people or things. "Say Coca-Cola has an executive kidnapped in Colombia--we'll go get him," Cunningham explains. "Or we had a case of a freighter run aground in foreign waters. The company worried that the foreign country would hinder their salvage operation and wanted us to provide security.
"In the end, they felt the salvage would cost more than the ship was worth, so the deal fell through. But we were ready to go."
So far, though, most of TAC-ONE's business has been closer to home, with police departments across the country. It's one of several such companies springing up in what has become a billion-dollar business.
Lieutenant Kelly Shea of the Delta Police Department came in contact with Cunningham through the instruction he offers for one factory's products, including pepper spray, a non-lethal gun that shoots rubber bullets, and diversionary devices. Delta's department then hosted Cunningham's booby-trap course, whose students included officers from Shea's department, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the state patrol.
"My officers thought it was outstanding," Shea says. "We're in a rural area and have meth labs and marijuana growers who have been known to use these things to protect their cash crops. I wanted us to be prepared. I feel a lot better about sending my guys into the field with the knowledge that Gary gave them about what to watch out for and how these things are put together.
"His expertise in all these areas is just phenomenal," Shea adds. "He can adapt to anything. We're all very impressed."
These days, Cunningham gets most of his excitement teaching classes and volunteering with the Central City Fire Department. He and Michele have been married eight years. "A record," he laughs. "I've gotten a lot calmer, and I don't go away from home for months at a time anymore. Guess that's why she puts up with me."
Cunningham's no longer trying to save the world--just a small piece of it, one cop at a time.
"People tend to think of the bombing of the World Trade Center or in Oklahoma City as isolated incidents," he says. "Arab terrorists or homegrown lunatics. But it's just part of a pattern. You got the militias, the religious fanatics, the gangs, the race fanatics, the anti-tax and anti-government groups, the cults...What's going to happen when they all decide to get together? It won't be because they like each other, but each for their own ends."
The world is changing, he worries, and we're not ready.
Donn Kraemer, president of the Rocky Mountain Tactical Team Association and a 26-year veteran of the Lakewood Police Department, agrees that metro-area SWAT teams don't receive enough training to deal with more advanced weaponry, much less terrorism. The National Tactical Officers Association, a clearinghouse for SWAT organizations, suggests that to be effective, even part-time SWAT teams should practice no fewer than twenty hours a month. "In Lakewood, we get ten hours," Kraemer says. "Most get just one day."
Unlike most jurisdictions in the state, Denver and Aurora both have full-time teams. But unlike Los Angeles, where its full-time teams practice "90 percent of their time and spend 10 percent on missions," Kraemer notes, "Denver SWAT doesn't have the money or the time and actually spend a good deal of their duty hours serving warrants and other miscellaneous duties.
"It's no coincidence that hanging on a wall in the Denver SWAT room is the saying 'Training to minimal standards produces minimal results,'" Kraemer says. "SWAT teams actually shoot perpetrators less than the average street officer. Our goal is to resolve the situation without deadly force. But we have to hit what we shoot at when we do shoot, and the more practice, the better chance there is of doing that."
And the cops have to have the right weapons. Kraemer points out that Denver patrol cars weren't equipped with tactical rifles until after Officer Bruce VanderJagt was killed with an assault rifle last November; today the Denver Police Department has eighty.
While some police departments have in-house experts on combat techniques, including former military personnel working as officers, few have in-house experts who can cover all the bases. Kraemer says that's why a company like Cunningham's fills a vital role.
"The expertise is out there, mostly military guys who served in these elite units like the Navy SEALs or the Rangers," Kraemer says. "Gary is only one of a couple of guys in this area that I know of with his expertise in booby traps. But agencies need to avail themselves of that expertise, and a lot just won't until there's a need, which may be too late."
Increasingly, police are running into situations where military expertise comes in handy, Kraemer adds. Members of the patriot movement and other militant groups are proficient at booby-trapping, as are drug dealers. "A police officer has to be really careful in a 'no-knock' drug raid that you're not going to trip a wire and get a shotgun blast in the face, or pull the pin of a hand grenade, or something as simple as have a bottle of acid tip over on your head," Kraemer says. "The only limits are the imagination of the perpetrator and their willingness to set up and use it."
In contrast, the public seems unable to recognize the threat. "People don't want cops or government intrusion," Kraemer adds. "We go along like lemmings until something goes wrong, then we'll do anything to have someone step in to save us. You would think that what happened in Oklahoma City would have changed everybody's thinking. But really, we just say, 'That's horrible...glad it didn't happen here.'"
Look around, Cunningham says. Terrorism is much closer than you think. It's a booby-trapped militia house in Aurora. Or a couple arrested in Boulder whose van held a couple of dozen guns--half of them stolen--and a collection of newspaper clippings about slain police officers. Or two survivalists on the run in the Four Corners after killing a cop.
Police officers need more training; SWAT teams need better equipment. The ultimate responsibility, Cunningham says, lies with administrations that won't put up the money to equip and train officers--and a public that doesn't think it's necessary. "It's always, 'It's never happened here, so why do we need it?'" he says. "They never get their heads out of their asses until some officer or some citizen dies. It's complacency that kills.
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