Threats expert seeks to protect those who serve
By Lee Romney | Los Angeles Times | Published: April 16, 2013
LOS ANGELES — Glenn McGovern joined the Air Force fresh out of high school and was plunged into a world of threats and intrigue.
Assigned to protect U.S. bases worldwide, he studied the tactics of Germany's Red Army Faction, the attack style favored by Hezbollah and the IRA's pattern of bombings.
He became enamored of the "Art of War," an ancient Chinese military treatise that counsels to know thyself, know thy enemy.
But it was after a civilian policing career, when McGovern joined the Santa Clara County district attorney's office as an investigator, that he found his passion — one that would turn him into an expert on attacks against law enforcement.
The whiskey enthusiast with Irish roots was part of a group charged with keeping prosecutors, as well as victims and witnesses, safe.
"I started looking, and there was just no training available," said McGovern, 44. "So I just started researching. I needed to know what we were up against."
McGovern, who by that time had earned a bachelor's degree, dug deep into threats against prosecutors, cops, judges and other officials worldwide.
He broke down the style, timing and location of attacks and studied the motivation behind them. His two books and more than a dozen papers have analyzed killings by the Sicilian Mafia, the use of motorcycle hit teams and more.
Now, in the wake of brazen slayings of a Colorado state prison official and two Texas county prosecutors, McGovern's most recent project has thrust him into the national spotlight.
That research analyzes 133 hits and plots to kill members of the U.S. law enforcement community from 1950 through 2012.
"I wanted to make something available to the people who are targeted and the people who do the protective work," said McGovern, who has led the Santa Clara County D.A.'s protection team for a decade.
McGovern's father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served in the military. After graduating from Irvine's Woodbridge High School, he followed suit.
As a member of the Air Force Security Forces, McGovern spent a lot of time answering domestic-dispute calls on base, with subjects sometimes turning to him for marital advice. "I was, like, 'Dude … I'm 18!' "
But the assignment tapped into McGovern's interest in history. He got hooked on the complexities of geopolitical treachery. He traveled through Europe and Panama, honing his knowledge of threat assessment.
Later, he worked as a jail deputy for the Orange County Sheriff's Department, learning to "control a pod of 118 guys by sheer demeanor … and by treating them with respect."
He moved to Pacific Grove in 1995 and served on the Police Department's SWAT team. He loved listening to the mournful sounds of the Pebble Beach bagpipers at sunset and watching the first traces of dawn mark the ocean as he sat in his cruiser writing reports.
Back on patrol five years later, McGovern sought a new challenge.
It was October when "a sergeant came up upon me and said: 'I think the pumpkin smashers are out. We need to get them,'" McGovern recalled. He applied for the Santa Clara County D.A.'s job the following day.
Appalled at the lack of focused training for protective details, he began gathering data on assassinations, contract killings and kidnappings of officials, arbitrarily selecting 1950 as a start date.
Published in 2010, his book "Targeted Violence" offered a statistical analysis of 900 such attacks and attempts, many by terrorist or criminal enterprises. Among them: a poisoning where a toxin applied to a victim's underwear soaked into the skin.
He isolated incidents by region, "so if you're a mayor in Italy, you can look at it and say, 'Where do I fall?' "
The book boosted McGovern's profile at a time when attacks were on the rise.
"It was very detailed," said Frederick Arons, an Idaho investigator and security consultant. "He broke it down to what type of vehicles they use and how they attack and when they attack."
McGovern next delved into domestic cases. His preliminary analysis of the 133 incidents shows revenge as the primary motive.
Take the case of former Marin County Dist. Atty. William Weissich. He had returned to private practice when, in 1986, Malcolm Schlette walked into his office and gunned him down. Weissich, it turned out, had prosecuted Schlette for arson 31 years earlier. Schlette killed himself by ingesting cyanide as police officers closed in on him.
The recent Texas slayings also may have been spurred by revenge: A former justice of the peace was arrested Friday in connection with the investigation and charged with making a "terrorist threat." Both slain Kaufman County attorneys had prosecuted him for stealing county equipment.
The second-most common motive, McGovern said, is a desire to derail a prosecution or investigation: Among those was a failed Mafia hit on an Ohio district attorney-elect in 1996 after he'd pledged to root out corruption.
Rivalry ranks third. One high-profile example: the contract killing orchestrated in 2000 by defeated DeKalb County Sheriff Sidney Dorsey of Georgia on victor Derwin Brown three days before Brown was to take office.
Crunching the numbers, McGovern learned that the majority of attacks occur at home on weekday mornings and evenings. Most are perpetrated by lone gunmen who are white.
In training sessions, he counsels prosecutors on "being aware, making yourself a harder target without being paranoid." That means paying attention while walking to and from the office, exercising caution when someone rings the doorbell and reporting anything suspicious to an investigator.
He stresses that the number of targeted attacks and planned hits in the U.S. is still relatively small — although the 17 so far this decade is putting the country on track to set a record.
Globally, there were spikes in Germany in the 1970s, in Sicily in the 1980s, in Colombia beginning in the 1990s and in Mexico in the mid-2000s. "Part of me is fearful," McGovern said. "Has it finally come to our country?"
Ventura County Dist. Atty. Gregory D. Totten, who brought McGovern in to train his staff last year, said the answer is yes.
"I think most of us are recognizing it's a new day and we're dealing with threats more regularly than we have historically," he said. "What Glenn offers is insight into how to respond to those threats, how to minimize the risk factors for your staff and yourself."
For his next project, McGovern said, he hopes to delve into the phenomenon of government-sponsored hits worldwide and the challenges they pose for local law enforcement agencies investigating them.
"Sometimes I think maybe I missed my calling and should have been a researcher," he said. "The digging, finding things that take forever to find, I do enjoy that part of it."