NBC investigator Tony Pipitone has the details on how some armed security guards are using bogus certifications to be able to carry a gun.
Each day, more than 25,000 private security guards in Florida are authorized to pin on a badge, strap on a firearm and fan out to protect some of the state’s most sensitive facilities: courthouses, power plants, ports, chemical storage areas.
But the Team6 Investigators finds those places and the people at them may be at risk, as thousands of those armed guards are suspected of not being properly trained with their weapons.
Sources tell Team6 instructors and guards in the booming private security industry in South Florida are subjects of massive fraud investigation by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Division of Licensing.
Before being licensed, new armed security guard applicants are required by law to take 28 hours of training, including demonstrating firearms proficiency on a gun range – a process witnessed and certified by a state-licensed instructor.
But for more than a year, state investigators have been uncovering several licensed firearms and security guard instructors who the state claims have provided fraudulent firearms certifications to as many as 2,400 armed security guards, according to the department and public records.
In Miami, the Team6 Investigators have learned, the investigation took on new urgency in December, when the owner of a Little Haiti barber shop was shot and killed by an armed security guard whose certification was signed by one of about 20 instructors who was under investigation for providing bogus certificates to guards.
On Sunday Dec. 8, around 12:30 p.m., Ruben Pupo, 57, was on duty patrolling the strip mall that included Sabal Palm Barber Shop when witnesses say a dispute over a parking space led to an argument with shop owner Gerson Mieses.
A Miami police officer arrived, but, as his back was turned to Pupo, the armed guard drew his weapon and fired once at Mieses, killing the 37-year-old barber shop owner, according to Miami police reports and official statements.
The Miami police officer then drew his weapon and killed Pupo.
State investigators checking Pupo’s last firearms re-certification quickly learned the killing was connected to their investigation of bogus certificates, as it was signed by an instructor who was under investigation, according to a source close to the investigation.
Pupo’s Dec. 2012 re-certification stated he passed the firearms proficiency test on the gun range at Florida Gun Center in Hialeah.
But when the Team6 Investigators asked the range to check its records, the owner and general manager determined Pupo had never been in their gun range. Also, they said, the instructor who signed Pupo’s certificate was not training at the range on the day the instructor claimed Pupo completed his training.
Asked if the instructor is currently under investigation, a Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services spokeswoman said information about ongoing investigations cannot be released until they are complete. That instructor continues to have a valid firearms instructor license and has not been charged with a crime.
But in recent weeks, two other South Florida licensed instructors have been charged with felonies for their alleged involvement in fraudulent security certifications.
Jose Gonzalez, 54, was arrested at his Miami Beach home on April 1, charged with uttering a forged instrument – a firearms certification. A state agent told police Gonzalez is suspected of “illegally selling firearms proficiency licenses to over 110 individuals,” according to Gonzalez’ arrest affidavit. He immediately relinquished his instructor and other security licenses as a result of the investigation, according to department records.
This week, licensed security instructor Calvin Sweeting, 61, rejected a plea deal from prosecutors, who offered two years’ probation if he would plead guilty to issuing or selling a fraudulent training certificate, a third-degree felony. His instructor license has been revoked, while his trial is set for June, according to state and public records.
Both Sweeting and Gonzalez declined to comment to the Team6 Investigators.
In South Florida’s expansive private security industry, the bogus certificate problem is well known.
Applicants who lack either the language skills or intellect to pass the armed security guard test – or who simply do not know how to handle a firearm – can pay around $300-$400 for a signed certificate of firearms proficiency, allowing them to become licensed, several industry sources told the Team6 Investigators
“A lot of these schools are giving fraudulent certificates,” said William Lopez, head of Vista Security Services in Doral. “There’s a lot of this going on and I’m sure there’s some good schools out there, but I can’t depend on that. This is why I have to now train our own guards.”
Lopez said he teamed up with certified instructor Marcos Lopez to form VSS Security and Firearms Academy to make sure the guards VSS issues are properly trained.
He sensed there was a problem when interviewing a recent graduate of another school.
“This particular security officer was telling me he was having a hard time loading what we call a clip or magazine,” Lopez recalled, showing how the supposedly qualified armed guard was struggling to put bullets in his clip backwards.
Gun range owners tell Team6 Investigators state agents have seized gun-range records in recent months to try to confirm guards actually fired their weapons, as their certifications claim.
“They can put whatever they want in there and make believe they were here, but at the end of the day they were never here,” said Roberto Sanz, general manager of the Florida Gun Center, where Pupo claimed to have qualified with his 9mm Glock pistol.
Frank Abay, owner of Miami Guns and Range and SOS Security and Services, blames “a few rotten apples” for tainting the industry. “They might have gone to an instructor who may have taken shortcuts and for whatever reason the state found their training to be inadequate,” Abay said.
State investigators charged five people in Orlando last year with selling bogus firearms certifications to dozens of guards. Trials are set in coming months for those defendants, including a Miami firearms license instructor and a Florida International University police officer who is suspended without pay pending resolution of his case. Lawyers for several of the defendants did not return calls seeking comment.
Abay said instructors signing their names to certificates without doing the training are “despicable” and are creating an “extremely dangerous” situation – armed security guards let loose on the public without proper training.
Just how dangerous the situation may be is something the surviving family and friends of Gerson Mieses, that now-deceased barber shop owner in Little Haiti, are left to consider.