Wackenhut, George Russell (“Russ”)

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Wackenhut, George Russell (“Russ”)

(b. 3 September 1919 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; d. 31 December 2004 in Vero Beach, Florida), founder of the Wackenhut Corporation, a major security firm that pioneered the use of private security guards at U.S. military sites, power plants, airports, and correctional facilities.

Raised in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, a suburb west of Philadelphia, Wackenhut was the younger of two sons born to William Henry Wackenhut, a printer, and Frances (Hogan) Wackenhut. After graduating from Upper Darby High School in 1937, Wackenhut worked in the mailroom at General Electric while attending night classes at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He also played goalie for several semiprofessional soccer teams, attracting the notice of a coach at West Chester State Teachers College (later West Chester University). Wackenhut enrolled at the school in 1938 and was a successful student-athlete until his education was interrupted by World War II.

In 1940 Wackenhut was drafted into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and was stationed in Hawaii, where he narrowly survived a Japanese pilot’s strafing run during the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. He completed his bachelor’s degree at the University of Hawaii in 1943 and attended ordinance school at Aberdeen, Maryland, where he was promoted to second lieutenant. During the fall of 1943, while still in uniform, Wackenhut played goalie for the Philadelphia Nationals, a professional soccer team. On 8 April 1944 he married Ruth Johann Bell, with whom he had two children. Decommissioned in 1945, Wackenhut taught physical education at Haver-ford, a private high school near Philadelphia, and took graduate courses at the Teachers College at Temple University (later the College of Education). The next year he enrolled at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where he coached varsity soccer and wrestling and earned an MEd in 1949.

After working for a year as a physical education consultant for the army, Wackenhut applied for a post at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and was accepted in 1951. As a special agent under the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Wackenhut corralled check forgers and military deserters from posts in Atlanta and Indianapolis, Indiana. However, in need of more lucrative employment to support his growing family, Wackenhut resigned from the FBI in 1954 and the next year founded a detective agency in Miami with three other former FBI agents. The company, Special Agent Investigators (SAI), specialized in personal investigations but under Wackenhut’s guidance moved into the private security business, a strategy that resulted in disagreement—and a relationship-ending fist-fight—between Wackenhut and one of his partners.

In 1955 Wackenhut landed SAI’s first major security detail, a contract to provide guards for National Airlines in Miami. Other corporate contracts soon followed. In 1957 he won a bid to guard a privately owned chemical plant near Palm Beach, Florida. The plant, which produced liquid hydrogen for air force test rockets, required special security clearances and became the first of Wackenhut’s many contracts to protect classified U.S. military assets. In 1959 he won other high-security contracts to guard missile-tracking stations at the Eglin Gulf Test Range and the Atlas missile test site in Salina, Kansas. It was during this time that Wackenhut struck upon the idea of outfitting his private security forces in army helmets, paratrooper boots, gun belts, and gloves to give them an elite militaristic look. Wackenhut, who had been the sole owner of SAI since 1956, officially changed the company’s name to the Wackenhut Corporation in 1958.

Wackenhut’s business thrived during the 1960s with contracts to guard Titan missile sites at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota; several National Aeronautics and Space Administration facilities, including the Kennedy Space Center in Florida; and the Atomic Energy Commission’s top secret nuclear test site in Nevada. Wackenhut also moved into retail store security, which included the use of female “guardettes,” and in 1962 purchased General Plant Protection, a California-based security company, the first of many acquisitions as Wackenhut expanded his operations nationwide. By the end of the decade Wackenhut had contracts in thirty-five states as well as in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil, with annual revenues exceeding $48 million. Upon taking his company public in 1966, Wackenhut became a millionaire. In 1980 the company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

During the next several decades Wackenhut established his company as an undisputed leader in the security industry with contracts to guard the newly constructed Alaska oil pipeline and the Savannah River nuclear power plant in South Carolina. However, it was his move into prison management that proved most significant. In 1986, the same year in which Wackenhut’s son, Richard, was elected president and chief operating officer of the company, Wackenhut won a contract from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services to construct and run a Colorado detention center to house illegal immigrants. With the explosion of the U.S. inmate population during the 1990s, Wackenhut became a major player in the privatization of correctional facilities in the United States and abroad. Indeed, for critics of the burgeoning “prison-industrial complex,” Wackenhut became a symbol of government outsourcing gone amok. In 1999 the company’s reputation was marred by scandals at prisons in Texas, New Mexico, Florida, and Louisiana, where Wackenhut guards were charged with negligence and the physical and sexual abuse of inmates. In 2002 Wackenhut sold his company to Group 4 Falck, a Danish security conglomerate, for $573 million.

In addition to guarding military sites, public utilities, airports, and prisons, Wackenhut provided personal security for corporate executives and political dignitaries. He traded heavily upon his credentials as a former FBI agent and loaded his company’s board of directors with high-level military and intelligence officials, such as the former FBI director Clarence Kelly, the former defense secretary and deputy Central Intelligence Agency director Frank Carlucci, and the former National Security Agency director Bobby R. Inman. Wackenhut’s connections with such officials fueled rumors that his company was a front for the Central Intelligence Agency. He emerged as a lightning rod for public debate over the limits of privatized policing in 1967, when Florida’s Republican governor, Claude Roy Kirk, Jr., launched a high-profile “war on crime” involving the use of Wackenhut investigators. Wackenhut was also at the center of controversy in 1991, when he was called before a congressional inquiry to answer allegations that his company had conspired with the oil industry to spy on an environmental whistle blower.

A conservative Republican and a staunch anticommunist, Wackenhut was a hard-nosed businessman who built a huge business on his reputation for discipline and integrity. His obsession with security was reflected in the design of his home in Coral Gables, Florida. The estate, which he called Tyecliffe, resembled a fifteenth-century English castle, complete with turrets and an artificial cliff. The interior was decorated with medieval armor and outfitted with state-of-the-art surveillance and detection technologies. He later sold the property and moved to Vero Beach, where he died of heart failure. He is buried in Crestlawn Cemetery in Vero Beach.

For information about Wackenhut’s life and business, see John Minahan, The Quiet American: A Biography of George R. Wackenhut (1994). See Robert H. Bork, Jr., “Big George Wackenhut,” Forbes (21 Nov. 1983), for a profile of Wackenhut. Obituaries are in the Palm Beach Post (6 Jan. 2005), the Washington Post and Miami Herald (both 7 Jan. 2005), and the New York Times (8 Jan. 2005).

Josh Lauer