The Bodyguard: Securing Celebs in the Information Age
BY MARK MAYFIELD
Johnny Depp is held by a bodyguard as he leaves the May 2011 screening of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides in Cannes, France.
It has been 80 years since someone crept up a makeshift ladder, snatched the 20-month-old son of aviator Charles A. Lindbergh from his second-floor nursery, and disappeared into the New Jersey night. The 1932 kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby still stands as one of the most infamous crimes in American history. It happened in an era without computers, cell phones, and the Internet, yet it still serves as a stark reminder of the all-too-high price that can come with fame. Unfortunately, in the years since, there have been hundreds of reminders of the security threat that exists in a world where celebrity and wealth are accompanied by an obsessed public with instant access to information and media coverage that was unimaginable in Lindbergh’s day.
“There is a heightened sense of vulnerability,” says Sarah McNeilly, vice president of marketing and business development for The World Protection Group, Inc., an executive security firm with offices in Beverly Hills, New York City, Scottsdale, and Mexico City. “A lot of our clients are part of the one percent, and as much as they’re financially well off, they’re vulnerable to the excessive amount of information out there about them and the pent-up frustration people may have because of the economy, layoffs, and a feeling of unfairness.”
It doesn’t take a security expert to understand that the threats are real. While the 1989 stalking and murder of My Sister Sam actress Rebecca Schaeffer may have faded from the headlines, there are new threats almost daily. Consider Ryan Seacrest. To millions of fans, Seacrest is the upbeat host of American Idol and a national radio personality with a popular public image who has been free of controversy. But that didn’t stop a 25-year-old Army reservist, Chidi Uzomah Jr., from attacking one of Seacrest’s bodyguards and later showing up with a knife at E! Entertainment Television studios where Seacrest cohosts his E! News TV show. Uzomah was sentenced to two years in prison in 2010 after pleading no contest to felony stalking.
The threat to Seacrest is the same one faced by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Aniston, Madonna, Jewel, Sandra Bullock, Halle Berry, Charlie Sheen, Uma Thurman, Mel Gibson, and others who have been stalked recently by obsessed fans. ESPN’s Erin Andrews was followed into various hotels and videotaped naked through peepholes by 48-year-old Michael David Barrett. Convicted and sentenced to 27 months in prison, Barrett is scheduled to be released this summer.
While cameras, GPS systems, alarms, fences, and gates add to the layers of security at a celebrity’s home, venturing out even to get a latte at Starbucks can be a challenge. “It requires close protection accompanying a celebrity to an event, a restaurant, and sporting events like the Super Bowl,” says McNeilly. “There is no way to do that electronically. You need to have a person there, never looking at the celebrities themselves, but looking everywhere else. At the Super Bowl, it means memorizing 12 ways out of that building, where car No. 1 is stationed, where car No. 2 is. This is the kind of emergency preparedness that is not going away—even with modern technology.”
The same technology that has helped transform the private-security industry in communications and surveillance has also created new challenges. Online social media sites—Twitter and Facebook in particular—can make it easier for stalkers to track high-profile clients. “It’s a double-edged sword,” says McNeilly. “If you’re protecting a celebrity and that celebrity is tweeting their location or checking in at a restaurant or tweeting ‘I’m going to the Skybar this evening,’ those kind of things are difficult to work with. You try to minimize the threat, and one way is to make your movements very discreet.” Nevertheless, security experts also use social media to their advantage, monitoring possible threats to their clients via Twitter and Facebook posts, online forums, and chat rooms. “Social media is extraordinarily useful,” says McNeilly.
While rapidly advancing technology has changed the way people communicate with one another, it has not been able to eliminate the kind of brazen attacks that are now familiar in American history. Unlike in the past, when communication to a wide audience was possible only through the filter of the media, individuals can now reach millions instantly online. While the result can be extremely positive in bringing awareness to victims of natural disasters, for instance, it can also threaten to incite violence among already disturbed individuals looking for any excuse to act.
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s use of gun scope-type crosshairs on a website graphic targeting congressional districts was widely criticized after a gunman opened fire on January 8, 2011, at an event sponsored by former US Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona democrat. Six people were killed and 13 others wounded, including Giffords. Her district had been one of those included on the Palin map.
Social media didn’t exist when John Lennon and Yoko Ono left a recording studio and returned to their Dakota apartment building in New York City just before 11pm on December 8, 1980. Obsessed fan Mark David Chapman was waiting for them. He pulled out a .38-caliber handgun and fired five times at Lennon as the former Beatle walked toward the building’s entrance, killing him. Hours prior to the shooting, Chapman waited for Lennon outside the building and received an autograph from him. Afterward he waited at the scene until police arrived, reading The Catcher in the Rye, which he later said was his manifesto.
Lennon’s death came 17 years to the day after Frank Sinatra Jr., son of the iconic singer and actor, was kidnapped from his Harrah’s Lake Tahoe room. Frank Jr., 19 years old at the time, was released two days later after his father paid a $240,000 ransom. Three men were ultimately arrested and convicted for the crime.
An even higher-profile kidnapping case began on February 4, 1974, when a militant group called the Symbionese Liberation Army took Patty Hearst, granddaughter of legendary publishing icon William Randolph Hearst, from her Berkeley apartment. Two months later, she was photographed holding an M1 rifle during a bank robbery; she was arrested the following year and convicted of bank robbery. Hearst served 22 months in jail before former President Jimmy Carter commuted her seven-year sentence. Former President Bill Clinton, agreeing that she suffered from Stockholm syndrome during her captivity, later granted her a full pardon.
Two years after Hearst’s kidnapping, actor Sal Mineo was stabbed to death outside his West Hollywood apartment when he returned home from a rehearsal on February 12, 1976. A pizza deliveryman, Lionel Ray Williams, was convicted of the murder in 1979, sentenced to 51 years in prison, and released on parole in the early 1990s. Unlike so many other crimes involving public figures, Mineo’s murder appeared to be a random attack.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY VALÈRY HACHE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GETTY IMAGES ( SINATRA, LENNON); BETTMANN/CORBIS ( HEARST)
Fashion shoot: December 2013 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.