Crime Fighters Inc.

A gang of geriatric G.I. Joes takes the law into its own hands.

Motörhead Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Avenue 8 p.m. Friday, March 18; $21 advance/$24 day of show, 216-241-5555
Before Mike Gustafson started running from the law, he was the law. Or so he thought.

At 2 a.m. on December 17, the 50-year-old security guard packed his wife and dog into his '95 Crown Victoria. He headed down St. Clair Avenue, checking on alarm systems manned by his company, Old Brooklyn Security Systems. As he drove west, a red Ford Mustang came careening from the opposite direction. Gustafson was sure the driver was drunk.

He did a sweeping U-turn at East 79th, then tailgated the suspect, Michelle Witherspoon, for more than 30 blocks. "She was driving from one side of the road to the other," Gustafson says. "She ran traffic lights, and she almost ran a guy over who was crossing the street."

Finally, he activated his flashing light, signaling her to pull over. But Witherspoon kept going. An undercover narcotics agent, she knew cop cars, and Gustafson's clearly was not one.

She pulled into a BP station at East 110th and St. Clair, jumped from her car, and flashed her Cleveland PD badge. She identified herself as an off-duty cop. "She wasn't an undercover agent; she was just drunk," Gustafson says. "She was so intoxicated, she had to lean up against the car just so she didn't fall on her butt."

Gustafson told Witherspoon that he was a Holmes County deputy. He just wanted to know why she was driving so poorly. Witherspoon said it was because he was making her nervous.

(She later refused comment, but Cleveland Police Lieutenant Wayne Drummond insists that she was sober.)

As Gustafson was about to leave, a squad car arrived. He showed the officers his badge. But they would soon discover that Gustafson wasn't who he said he was.

He'd once been a Holmes County reserve deputy, an untrained civilian who accompanies cops on patrol. But he'd been fired for unspecified reasons "at least five years ago," according to the police report. Holmes Chief Deputy Nathan Fritz won't elaborate. "I don't know if I really want to talk about him," he says.

Moreover, Cleveland officers found that Gustafson's badge wasn't the type issued to reserves. It had, in fact, been stolen.

When they searched his car, they discovered the true extent of Gustafson's law-enforcement fetish. It contained a stolen Cleveland PD radio, an automatic pistol with 13 rounds, a box of 9mm ammo, and plenty of blank subpoenas from the Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, and federal courts. The cops confiscated everything, including his gun, which he wasn't licensed to carry.

Gustafson was charged with impersonating an officer, carrying a concealed weapon, and possessing criminal tools.

Though his friends know him as "Deputy," his police credentials were no greater than any average schmuck's. Still, he'd gotten away with playing a cop for years. And he wasn't the only one.

For the past two decades, Gustafson has worked for the Cuyahoga Valley Patrol. It's a private security company run by Kenneth Niedhammer, a tiny man with wire-rim glasses, who's often described as Barney Fife but fancies himself as Rambo.

According to former employees, Niedhammer pays his guards under the table and never bothers to check their credentials. Many are not licensed by the state, tending to be military fanatics fond of fatigues and firearms. Despite having no police powers, they've nonetheless been arresting people and conducting heavily armed raids, behaving like Marines in the Cambodian jungle.

And they're doing it all without the state's knowledge.

When the cops asked Gustafson where he got his car, he claimed he'd bought it from a city worker. It was a lie, he says, told to protect his boss.

Gustafson says he actually purchased it from Niedhammer, who's run Cuyahoga Valley Patrol for more than 25 years.

It's a curious business. Valley Patrol has no office, no listing in the phone book. Though presumably Niedhammer's interested in gathering new customers, it's not easy to reach him. Scene left him repeated messages, but Niedhammer's only response was a brief message of his own: Write about me, and I'll sue.

In Ohio, security guards are governed by the state Homeland Security Division. Yet its only information on Valley Patrol is Niedhammer's supposed home address at the Oak Park Motel on Pearl Road. "He kind of hides himself," Gustafson says.

The Homeland Security Division also has no idea what kind of work Niedhammer does, how many people he employs, or whether they're licensed. Nor does Cleveland's Department of Public Safety, which licenses local security guards for small firearms.

Former employees say Niedhammer claims to guard 1,600 sites around the city, including the Cleveland Public Library, Pleasant Valley Shopping Center, and Lakeside Scrap Metals -- in addition to M. Weingold & Co. and Harry Rock & Associates, whose owners were recently indicted for conspiring to rig scrap-metal bids.

Niedhammer has at least one fan in Cleveland detective Tom Smith. "He's an impressive guy," says Smith. "Not too impressive when you look at him, but not a bad guy when it comes to this stuff. He's an aggressive investigator."

Smith points to an incident that occurred in 2000. Waiting at a red light at East 40th Street and Community College Avenue, Niedhammer witnessed the murder of Cleveland Police officer Wayne Leon.

Leon had pulled over Quisi Bryan for irregularities on the temporary tags of his Pontiac Grand Prix. As Leon turned his head to talk on his radio, Bryan pulled a gun from his coat and shot Leon in the face, killing him instantly. Bryan then jumped in his car and sped away.

Niedhammer turned on his siren and flashing lights and followed the suspect, who got out of his car at East 39th and started shooting at him. One shot hit Niedhammer's headlight. Another ricocheted off his forearm.

Niedhammer returned fire in a melee that sent bullets through a nearby apartment window.

Bryan jumped back into his car and sped off, with Niedhammer on his tail. Bryan finally lost control and crashed into a church van. He fled on foot, but was found later that day in Columbus.

Bryan would eventually be found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Niedhammer was proclaimed a hero.

Until recently, his de facto office was Bob-N-Sherri's 49er Restaurant on Broadway. It's a small, mint-green greasy spoon, with a jukebox that plays Confederate Railroad and Alan Jackson. Models of brightly colored classic cars line the wall. The clientele consists of salt-and-pepper-haired guys in Carhartts, who smoke non-filtered Camels while talking suicide doors and power steering over endless cups of coffee.

"Ken used to be in every day, all day," says Angie, a feather-haired waitress with long acrylic fingernails. "He'd sit down with his manila folders and do his paperwork. Since Deputy's arrest, he only comes in once or twice a day, for like 10 minutes or so."

Certainly Gustafson's arrest wasn't good for business -- especially for one that tries to keep such a low profile. Ex-employees describe him as Niedhammer's right-hand man and best friend. But Niedhammer soon began to distance himself from his former aide.

"He's telling everyone that Deputy never worked for him, he was just subcontracted," says "George," a former employee who doesn't want his name used. "It's very embarrassing for Ken. This guy has been spot-welded to him for the past decade."

But Niedhammer was having problems of his own. "He told me he was being investigated by the state," says Angie.

George has heard the same thing -- that past employees are being contacted by state agents. But the Homeland Security Division won't verify or discuss any investigation of Cuyahoga Valley Patrol.

Privately, however, Gustafson claims that Niedhammer promised to help him out. "I confronted him, and he says, 'Oh! I'd never abandon you, and I'll help you any way I can. Money, lawyers, whatever it takes -- I'll handle it,'" Gustafson says.

When that didn't happen, Gustafson fled. He also started talking.

Gustafson is speaking on his cell phone from an undisclosed location in Parma Heights. The evening news can be heard blaring in the background. He speaks slowly, in a grave voice with a slight twang.

After his arrest, he spent three days in jail, paid his bail, and then never showed up for his arraignment. There's now a warrant for his arrest.

"I just don't have the money to pay my bail to get back out," he says. "The first arrest left me flat broke. If I plead guilty, I'd be doing a lot of time."

Indeed, Gustafson could be sentenced to a maximum of three and a half years and a $12,000 fine, if he's found guilty on all charges. And since it was easy to verify that Gustafson wasn't a cop and that he had no gun license, county prosecutor Chris Wagner says he's almost certain to go down.

But Gustafson doesn't want to go alone. After all, he claims, he bought his Cleveland PD radio, his car, and all that was in it from Niedhammer. And since Niedhammer has no intention of helping his buddy out, Gustafson doesn't mind sharing a few details about his old friend's business.

The pair goes back more than 20 years. Gustafson did alarm response for ADT. Niedhammer used to work as a security guard for the Cleveland Board of Education. "Us guys kinda stay together, because we are out there at night by ourselves," Gustafson says. "We all hung around together and backed each other up."

He refers to his friend as "Kenny." The two bonded over their obsession with law enforcement. They exchanged security-guard war stories, nerded out on collecting police equipment, and kept each other's business secrets.

Gustafson claims that Niedhammer has 10 other cars just like the one he sold him. It's not illegal for security cars to have sirens and flashing lights, just so they don't resemble official patrol units. However, former guard George says that Niedhammer's cars are near-replicas. He supposedly keeps them at the Oak Park Motel, where the receptionist says Niedhammer resides.

Gustafson isn't exactly sure where Niedhammer gets his equipment, but he thinks he buys most of his stuff at swap meets. "You can get pretty much anything from a swap meet," Gustafson says.

Niedhammer appears to get his employees from equally unlikely sources. George says he never had reason to believe that Gustafson wasn't a real deputy. He wore the uniform, bore the badge, and talked the talk. "A lot of these guys talk about being ex-cops and sheriffs, but they're just schmucks scooped off the corner," George says.

Most of Niedhammer's hires come from word of mouth. Though the state has specific guidelines for hiring guards, Niedhammer doesn't always follow them.

During an interview with Scene at Waterstreet Grill, George pulls a green photo ID from his wallet. It's his state guard license that shows he's registered to carry a firearm.

"All he has to do is ask to see this card to know that you're licensed," he says. "But he doesn't. There are no fingerprints, no paperwork -- he has nothing on file. If you get caught while working for him and you're unlicensed, he can just claim he doesn't know who you are."

No one knows how many guards Niedhammer employs. There's no payroll or work schedule. Everyone's paid in cash. Sometimes, employees aren't even sure if they're employed or not. "He won't call you for two weeks, then he'll call you at 2 a.m. and say he'll need you in three hours," George says.

"He doesn't know anyone's last name," adds Millard, another former employee, who doesn't want his last name used. Everyone goes by a nickname, like Deputy, Constable Tony, Sam, G.I. Joe, Vic, and Falcon.

Many are middle-aged men who secretly fancy themselves as ninjas and Navy SEALs. Some work dressed in all black, while others prefer full camouflage. And since no names are used, it's hard to tell who has a gun license and who doesn't. According to the state's online database, not even Niedhammer is licensed.

You can even be an ex-con and still get hired.

Millard, a soft-spoken 30-year-old, was once a licensed guard. But in 2002, he was convicted of a felony after he threatened a car salesman, who Millard claims cheated him out of $6,000.

Since felons are barred from working as guards, his license was revoked. Still, Millard heard he could get work from Niedhammer, no questions asked. "Other places fingerprint you and check to see that you're licensed, but he doesn't do any background checks," says Millard. "He just takes you at your word. He gave me a taser, a nightstick, and Mace. I could have been a serial rapist, for all he knew."

Millard decided to leave Cuyahoga Valley Patrol when Niedhammer asked him to carry a gun. Not only is he adamant about not carrying a gun (his father was a firearms instructor), but Millard knew that if he got caught, he'd be sent to jail for violating his probation. "I knew what I was doing was wrong, and I didn't want to get caught," he says.

"It was a bad scene, with all these unlicensed guards running rampant in scrap yards, going after homeless people, cuffing them like they were actual police or something. I wanted nothing to do with it."

On a windy February afternoon, George drives past the damp brick warehouses that line Woodland Avenue. As he talks, he enunciates with the matter-of-fact gravity of a TV cop. He keeps his hair crew-cut short.

"To me, this was just a job. It's not about being Rambo or a ninja or any other fantasy some of these idiots have," he says.

As he turns off Woodland, he winds through a maze of gravel alleys and padlocked loading docks, toward the Harry Rock scrap yard.

When he turns onto Crayton Avenue, the landscape abruptly changes into an apocalyptic wilderness -- hills of twisted metal and brown grass, lined by narrow dirt paths and abandoned railroad ties. "There's a whole other microcosm out here -- a whole other set of rules," he says.

To the average eye, it's just a decaying mound of junk. To a scrapper, it's a gold mine.

During the summer and fall of last year, this is where George took part in a series of raids, ridding various East Side yards of illegal scrappers, who make their money by stealing ragged pieces of aluminum and selling them off.

The business of scrapping is as old as prostitution. It's a multimillion-dollar industry that turns trash into cash. Scrap yards buy industrial and obsolete metals to sell off to steel mills, secondary smelters, and brokers for as much as $375 per ton.

Thanks to the rise in demand from East Asia, scrap metal has become all the more valuable, making scrap yards even more vulnerable to theft.

"It's an ongoing problem," says detective Tom Smith, who works with Cleveland's financial-crime department. "You catch one scrapper, and three guys are there to take his place -- especially with the prices the way they are. They're making a lot of money. They also steal a lot."

Enter Valley Patrol. Niedhammer was hired by various scrap yards suffering at the hands of small-time scrappers, who roamed their lots like hungry crows. "The scrappers used to be out here 24-7, carting off pickup trucks full of metal and selling it elsewhere," George says.

Niedhammer ordered his men to arrest anyone they saw wandering around the yards. "For some of these guys, they were hunting," George says of Niedhammer's guards.

In pitch blackness at 2 a.m., Niedhammer would drop off a dozen men at the yards. They'd split into groups, some dressed in camouflage, others all in black. They were armed with everything from automatic guns to knives and tasers. They'd hide in abandoned buildings, behind dump trucks and hills of scrap, waiting for the foragers to arrive. "It was a total clusterfuck," George says. "Total chaos."

They were supposed to wait for scrappers to actually carry metal off the yard before detaining them, but most guards jumped the gun and simply grabbed the first scrapper they saw. They'd tackle them and hit those who wouldn't cooperate. "Scrappers would panic and run, because they didn't know who these guys with guns were," George says. "You have some crazy guy dressed like a mercenary running after you -- who knows who they are?"

One night, they arrested 13 men.

Guard Don Demeo carried an assault rifle on one raid, say ex-employees. "That is clearly illegal, even if you shot someone in self-defense. It clearly unnerved me," George says.

Demeo, a guard with Tenable Security, declined to speak to Scene. His wife, Debra, also a guard, denied that he ever worked for Valley Patrol.

George gets out of his car and walks to a series of brick buildings that line the perimeter of the scrap yard. He pulls his sturdy frame into an abandoned warehouse littered with mattresses, soft-drink cans, clothing, and empty potato-chip bags.

He begins to tell the story of a raid that took place last summer. He was paired with a guard we'll call "Rob" and another, known only as Constable Tony, whom Rob describes, in a later conversation with Scene, as a half-witted 500-pound Hawaiian.

"He said he was a police constable," says Rob. "I have no idea what that means. He was just a bragger to me."

They were in search of Andre Randolph, who they believed was a particularly successful scrapper. George had a hunch that Randolph and his girlfriend, Vera Brown, slept in the abandoned warehouse.

As they stepped up onto the loading dock and walked into the cavernous concrete room, they found Randolph and Brown sleeping in a corner. Constable Tony drew his gun. "He stuck it in [Brown's] face and started screaming uncontrollably -- like a woman -- with his hand on the trigger," says George. "His hand was shaking so bad. It was totally unnecessary."

George and Rob jumped between Tony and Brown and calmed him down. Randolph asked if he and his girlfriend, who was wearing only a nightshirt, could have a moment to get dressed. George and Rob went to cover the entrances, until they realized that Tony was nowhere to be found.

They headed back inside, only to find Tony holding a flashlight and a gun on Brown, who was getting dressed. "What if something were to happen?" George says. "The guy was creepy. What if he shot that girl? We would have all been in deep, and Ken could just pretend like he didn't even know us, because there was no paperwork that said we were his employees. I felt incredibly unsafe."

As George finishes his story, he walks across the alley toward the scrap yard's dinky chain-link fence.

Brown and another scrapper, Noel Green, appear from behind a mound of metallic debris. Brown's cocoa cheekbones stretch into a soft smile above her mud-caked sweat suit and snow boots. Green, a slender man of 55 with a slightly graying Afro, removes his gloves to shake George's hand.

Behind them sits a wheelbarrow full of jagged aluminum, copper, and iron. Around their necks hang magnets given to them by JBI Metal Processors, which buys their scrap.

Brown and Green were both homeless until they made enough off scrapping to get places of their own.

Green remembers the Valley Patrol guards dressed in camouflage, toting guns and tasers. Niedhammer's men detained him several times over the course of the summer. Green says that since Valley Patrol started the raids last summer, most of the big scrappers have left the area.

Detective Smith is grateful. "He does a heck of a job," he says of Niedhammer. "He catches a lot of these guys and doesn't hesitate to arrest them. He'll stake out a place forever."

Whenever an arrest was made, Niedhammer demanded that he be called to the scene, even if he was in bed. He always filed police reports in his name.

Green recalls one evening when Niedhammer's men detained a kid who was simply taking a shortcut through the alley next to the yard. The guards pulled their guns and slammed the kid against the hood of a car. "He wasn't a scrapper, but if you were anywhere near the yards, even if you didn't have metal on you, they'd cuff you," he says.

When George asks Brown and Green to describe Niedhammer, they look confused.

"Oh, you mean Barney Fife," Green finally says.

Ask anyone to describe Niedhammer, and you get Barney Fife.

"That's exactly who he reminded us of -- Barney Fife," says Josh Kaufman, owner of Monarch Steel.

Monarch had a long-standing alarm-response contract with Niedhammer that dated back to the late '80s. Though Kaufman didn't see much of Niedhammer, one particular night sticks in his memory.

Kaufman says they'd been having a lot of trouble with their alarm system. He was getting calls at all hours of the night before he realized that Niedhammer's guards, who were patrolling the area, were idiotically tripping the alarm when they'd stop in to use the bathroom.

One night, Kaufman stopped by the office after hours to find Niedhammer decked out in fatigues and a black skullcap. "It was so weird, like he was right out of a Navy SEALs movie," he says.

When asked if he ever visited Niedhammer at his office, Kaufman sighs. "He didn't have an office, did he? I should have known."

Last November, Kaufman had to let Valley Patrol go when $10,000 worth of equipment disappeared. "I needed security just to watch the security," he says.

Computers, digital cameras, and a new cell phone came up missing. Soon, Kaufman was receiving hefty phone bills.

He began calling the numbers on his bill, only to get Niedhammer on the line. "Ken called me back and said that he'd pieced together who'd done it, and he wanted to come talk to us. He said the guy he thought did it was a 20-year-long employee going through mental-health problems, who'd hospitalized himself a month ago," remembers Kaufman.

It turned out to be Gustafson.

Niedhammer and Gustafson showed up at Kaufman's office to resolve the issue. Gustafson claimed he'd been dumpster-diving behind Monarch when he found a broken cell phone he was going to use for parts. When he realized it still worked, he claimed, he threw it away. "So I said I might be less inclined to pursue this if he'd tell me exactly what he took and showed remorse," Kaufman says.

Gustafson denied stealing. "If you accuse me of stealing, I'll sue your ass," he told Kaufman.

Kaufman promptly fired Valley Patrol and made a police report. "The sad thing is, as of a couple weeks ago, the police hadn't even filed the actual report yet," Kaufman says.

When Gustafson was arrested in December, Kaufman was told that his case against Gustafson would be tried along with the new charges, though prosecutor Chris Wagner isn't aware of any such addendum.

But Gustafson never showed up in court.

Though Valley Patrol may seem like a comical crew of harmless military nuts, prosecutor Wagner doesn't find their antics funny. "These aren't just a bunch of goofballs running around like cops," he says. "This is severe, because the problem you have is that it breaks down the public's trust of law enforcement."

No one knows whether Gustafson's arrest sparked a state investigation into Valley Patrol. But since then, Niedhammer has made himself scarce.

When Scene contacted the owners of Weingold scrap yard, they said that Valley Patrol's contract had been terminated. Weingold wouldn't comment on Niedhammer's work, except to say it was satisfactory. The Cleveland Public Library still works with Niedhammer and has no complaints about his performance.

If you step into the 49er Restaurant today, there's an air of tension among his ex-employees and old friends.

Niedhammer told Angie that he was planning to sell Valley Patrol. His friends and employees were given strict orders to contact him only by pager.

George got a panicky call from Niedhammer last week. If George received a call from the state, Niedhammer instructed him, he should claim that he was part of a "block watch." Niedhammer also claimed that he was launching an investigation of his own to determine who the snitches were.

Meanwhile, local authorities seem to know almost nothing about the firm's armed adventures. Lieutenant Drummond had no idea that Gustafson had never shown up in court, and he knew nothing of Valley Patrol. Public Safety Director Sanford Watson said that he was "not familiar" with the company. "But, certainly, if someone is aware of a company operating outside of the law, we're interested in knowing more about that."

No complaints against Valley Patrol have been filed with the Homeland Security Division, and Niedhammer was recently reissued his guard license. "In this state, they are very slow about getting on top of these guys," says George. "They don't do a great job of keeping up on the legitimacy of agencies."

Still, ex-employees are sure that Valley Patrol's unconventional ways will catch up with its owner. "These guys always get caught -- maybe not the first time, but they keep doing it, and eventually, they will be caught," George says.

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