Ex-policeman Offers Protection For Executives

December 04, 1990|By Robert A. Erlandson

A disgruntled employee at the Maryland branch of an international company finally worked up his resentment to the point recently that he threatened to kill his manager.

Worried executives called Robert L. Oatman, a former Baltimore County chief of detectives who is now an international security specialist. His team assessed the situation, and concluded the threat was genuine and should be dealt with immediately, before tragedy had a chance to strike.

The employee was fired, with the specialists on hand to support the company's security staff. "He saw a professional executive security team, and we warned him of the consequences if he didn't drop it," Mr. Oatman said.

The man went into psychiatric therapy. The Oatman team continued to guard various managers until the threat was considered defused, said Mr. Oatman, a 43-year-old Dundalk native who retired last year after 20 years on the county police force.

"Idle threats should be taken seriously. When an individual's behavior becomes erratic, someone should look at it. Maybe counseling should be offered," Mr. Oatman said.

The recent slayings of two employees at Fox Chevrolet by a discharged employee is an example of the kind of "erratic behavior by crazies" that Mr. Oatman said is increasing.

Several widely publicized mass shootings in the last few years also were symptomatic of the trend, Mr. Oatman said. Such sudden outbursts are hard to predict, he conceded: "If they want you, they can get you. But we say you can take precautions to lower the risk."

"Executive protection is a growth industry," said Mr. Oatman, who holds a degree in criminal justice from the University of Baltimore.

The threat of violence to Americans abroad and at home has increased dramatically in the last five years, he said.

Boyish-looking and always impeccably groomed, Major Oatman was a high flier in his police career, known especially for his work as head of the hostage negotiation team. He was credited with saving lives in several tense hostage dramas and also headed the department's executive protection unit for visiting dignitaries.

He retired last year to begin a full-time career in private executive protection as a consultant to an international security company and as founder this year of his own Towson-based security and detective agency.

The new job has already taken him around the world for Research Associates Inc., founded in 1979 by Theodore G. Shackley, retired associate deputy director of operations of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Mr. Oatman got his first taste of the international celebrity world in 1988, when a security agency operated by retired FBI agents invited Mr. Oatman to work at the Olympic Games in Seoul protecting such NBC employees as Jane Pauley, Bryant Gumbel and Robert C. Wright, the network's president.

"I've traveled around the world more times than I can count, to places I only read about before," Mr. Oatman said. "It sounds glamorous, but it's very demanding because you have to be on alert constantly."

Mr. Oatman, Mr. Shackley and Richard A. Finney, another retired CIA operative and consultant for Research Associates, recently co-wrote a book, "You're the Target: Coping With Terror and Crime," which describes the terrorist phenomenon and the threat of violent crime and discusses ways to cope with them on the personal and corporate levels.

All large companies, particularly those with a high profile in the United States and those whose employees travel abroad, should adopt a crisis-management plan in case, for example, an employee is kidnapped, Mr. Oatman said.

Business executives, as well as their security officers, are given training, he said.

"The whole terrorist threat in the last five years has given impetus to executive protection," he said. "American businessmen are going to be the targets of terrorism, but too many of them think, 'It can't happen to me.' "

The current Middle East standoff is a powder keg, Mr. Oatman said. "We're in the calm before the storm. There is great potential for a terrorist campaign," he said.

Intelligence estimates are that Iraq has "about 1,400 trained terrorists in Baghdad with the potential to strike Americans and the British and other countries that support the boycott," Mr. Oatman said.

His philosophy is to plan so carefully that potential trouble is avoided, and to have support services and escape routes set up just in case. The key to good executive protection is "out-thinking my opponent," Mr. Oatman said.

For example, he said, he recommends that executives who use commercial flights avoid U.S. airlines, especially in times of international tension, because they are likely to be terrorist targets. He said that because of threats, he would not have let a client board Pan Am Flight 103, which was brought down by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland two years ago.

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