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."

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Steve Jackson