Wally's War

Joshua Prezant

Walter Philbrick cues the music, a symphonic piece on CD that has the verve of John Philip Sousa meets John Williams. He dims the lights in the small workout gym and urges Nelson Ricardo, one of his employees, to take a position on a foot-high platform. The gym lies deep in the bowels of International Protective Services, a security business on Hollywood Boulevard near downtown, a firm whose scope defies quick summation. Barely noticeable from the street, IPS is a warren of merchandise bins, hallways, cubbyholes, offices, a shooting range, a library, and display rooms.

Philbrick and Ricardo have spent the past hour this afternoon packing up rubber knives, plastic handguns, and info packets to ship to Atlanta, where Philbrick will soon conduct a weeklong SWAT training class for federal police officers. At the same time, they psyched up for this evening's counterterrorism class, which tutors laymen and professionals in techniques for identifying threats and disarming thugs and terrorists. The classes were born soon after the September 11 attacks, but Philbrick, ever restless and looking for a new twist, has written an over-the-top introduction for antiterrorism classes presented locally or on the road. Hence the music. In Ricardo, who joined the company in November, Philbrick believes he's found the ideal man for ratcheting up the rhetoric. Whether Philbrick is truly serious about melding the martial with the musical is anybody's guess, but this afternoon's "performance" is pure burlesque.

Ricardo would indeed be the perfect accessory in Philbrick's latest scheme. A handsome 36-year-old Cuban-American, Ricardo is an ex-Green Beret and has produced and acted in three low-budget feature films. He cuts an impressive figure as he steps up, dressed in all black, with short, black hair.

"On September 11, 2001, the world watched in horror, shocked," Ricardo booms in a rich baritone with William Shatneresque affectation. "But now, as time has gone by, we have grown stronger. We have united. We will not fall victim again. We will not fear the enemy anymore. We will look the enemy in the eye and say, no more!"

"What happened to the Irish accent you were going to use?" Philbrick screams. Ricardo cracks up, curses Philbrick for causing him to forget his lines, then picks it up again. "You will be trained by men who have looked at death in the face and came out laughing. We will teach you how to protect your home, your family, your work, and your country! Do you want to live?"

"I want to live!" Philbrick shouts.

"And now, without any further ado," Ricardo winds up for the finale, "right here, Hialeah police officer and 13-year SWAT member Wally Philbrick!" The music swells.

It's not hard to imagine Philbrick getting such a showbizzy intro for, say, his own television show called Wally World. After all, that is the nickname for Philbrick's collage of personalities, firearms, police gear, and surveillance equipment that routinely draws the likes of cops, bodyguards, detectives, military buffs, and, recently, plain civilians. Just what genre that show would be, however, is anybody's guess. Adventure à la The A-Team? Well, a Navy SEAL, a Green Beret, and a SWAT cop are in the ensemble. A sitcom like Cheers? Philbrick, a natural cutup, does seem to know everybody's name. And as a world-class judo expert, he can take a pratfall without breaking his neck. Reality TV would perhaps be the most apt category because the idea of self-defense and antiterrorism training isn't such an abstract concept for many after September 11. The denizens of Wally World have long known this, a knowledge that has both bound them together and isolated them. For the past four months, IPS has been inundated with regular folk who want to learn how to shoot a handgun or disarm a boxcutter-wielding assailant.

"Our gun-sales business has doubled," Philbrick says of post-9/11. "Our concealed-weapon classes have doubled, though they're kind of slacking off a bit now. Our bodyguard business has doubled. People are actually afraid now -- of everything, everybody."

Wally World's terrorism defense classes, including a four-hour, self-defense course for American Airlines flight crew members, have garnered international media attention. "I had so many TV cameras here one night that they were falling all over each other," he says. "From South America, a French station, a Spanish station, from Canada." The course has also gotten coverage from Time magazine, the major networks, and local daily newspapers. "I think they all fed off each other," Philbrick explains.

Whether an alarmed public continues to flock to IPS probably depends upon the terrorists' next move, but the routine of the regulars isn't likely to change much. "All the bodyguards come here, the arms instructors, martial arts guys, the police instructors, SWAT-team guys," Philbrick says matter-of-factly. "We shoot or have coffee. Talk about the old days. They hang out for a long time. They leave, go to work. Maybe they buy something."  

International Protective Services holes up a few blocks west of the railroad tracks in downtown Hollywood. You might overlook the store itself, but you can't miss the cop cars parked out front. During business hours, an imposing, black, steel gate hangs open. A pistol-wielding Statue of Liberty wordlessly proclaims the Wally World perspective in a poster taped by the front door. Uniforms, bulletproof vests, badges, holsters, and incalculable amounts of security minutia pack the front shop from floor to ceiling. Gas masks overflow from a large box. ("After 9/11, we sold all our gas masks that morning -- 60 of them. Then I went out and bought 150 a week later, and I can't sell them," Philbrick recalls, then laughs raucously.)

Philbrick's office, like all of IPS, is cluttered, yet it has a theme that he joyfully points out. Philbrick is sitting by his large, V-shaped desk in the corner that holds stashes of paper, a computer, and printer. The phone rings constantly. He's wearing a long-sleeved, double-knit shirt, sweatpants, and white sneakers. He's short and powerful-looking but with a noticeable middle-age-size belly. Judging by his eyes, he looks in need of sleep, but his animated style belies that. He has none of the stoic demeanor common to police officers. He aims a finger about the room. "Look around this business and all you see is... look, a warrior there," he says of a statuette of a knight, then moves on to other figurines, artifacts, and drawings. "Swords for killing. Samurai who kill. SWAT guys who kill. Warriors who kill. General Grant -- killing. I buy it because that's what I do... or did."

He's alluding to his belief in reincarnation, which he describes without self-consciousness. "I believe that in a past life, I was a warrior. I was probably a knight in the medieval days. I want to save people, do the right thing. I want to carry a gun or a sword. I'd love to chop heads off and whack people and stab them and kill them. That's what warriors do."

Regardless of his avowed blood lust, the 50-year-old Philbrick has been a kinder, gentler warrior in this life. He's never killed anyone during his 22 years on the Hialeah police force, he says, despite the chance to do so during his 4 years on the homicide squad and 13 years on the SWAT team. (He's still technically on the force as a reserve officer and is required to work twice a month.) The closest he came to killing was breaking down a bathroom door once during a drug raid. A suspect who was flushing cocaine down the toilet turned and pulled a gun on Philbrick. "I could have shot him, but my first instinct was to whack him across the head with my pistol. Crack!" he recalls with relish.

His past lives have been considerably bloodier. Take, for instance, the event that he believes is clear evidence of his reincarnation. About five years ago, he traveled by train to Ocala to visit his parents, who'd recently moved there. He'd never been to Ocala or its old train station, built early in the 1900s. He headed for the station's restroom, and several steps into the foyer, he experienced a flash. "For a second, I saw it all: To my right was brand-new luggage, new wallpaper. Ladies sitting on the right in pink and blue dresses waiting for the train. Over here a kid. I take one step and a guy runs toward me and puts a knife into my stomach. Like, awwrgh!" Standing in his office, he grabs his stomach and pantomimes a face twisted with pain and surprise. "To keep from getting stabbed again, I hug him tight, push him... and wedge him between the urinals. Pull out my .45 Colt, put it in his face, pull the trigger, and blow his brains all over the place. Now, this I visualized" -- he snaps his fingers -- "that quick. I walked out, and my dad says, "You look really white.'"

Philbrick lifts his shirt to reveal a three-inch scar in the middle of his belly -- which is a freaky sight until he explains, "I had surgery a couple years ago, and now I have a stab wound myself."

He has had similar but much less intense images while listening to what he calls "monk music." He bounces to his CD player and pops in what turn out to be Gregorian chants. "I visualize myself being carried through a church on a silver shield, with a stab wound in my stomach. And I don't make it. I die. I see myself laying there, the priest coming over and giving me last rites. Blood gushing out. I got stabbed in battle somewhere."  

Philbrick is inundated with phone calls as he talks. To one caller, he says, "I can do some handwriting analysis, but not as an expert in court, no. If they forged the checks, I could tell you most likely looking at the documents if this guy wrote that. That's a big case, $400,000. Give me the documents. I'll look at them and try to forward them to somebody. All right. Bye." Later, another caller asks Philbrick if he knows anyone who can build a wall to disguise a walk-in vault. He does, of course.

IPS had its genesis in 1984 in the same town not far from its current location. As a sideline to police work, Philbrick offered women's self-defense courses, which included knife and gun defense. Clients began asking him about buying a knife or gun for defense, so he began dealing in weapons. "It evolved from trying to help people, then selling them products to help them defend themselves. My concept here is that you walk into IPS: You want security? I can give it to you. Want to buy a gun? Fine. Want training for the gun? I'll train you. Want a bodyguard who carries a gun? No problem. Want a bullet-proof vest to wear while you go to work? Boom. Want a security guard? I've got him. Want someone killed? Got it. Kidding, kidding," he stresses. "Want security cameras? Got it. Want someone investigated? Will do. Want to carry a gun? We can get you licensed. It's a full-service security company."

Wally World nicely complemented his seven years as a SWAT trainer for the Hialeah Police Department. "What happens is, you go from warrior to teacher," Philbrick explains. IPS moved to its current digs about five years ago, shortly after Philbrick went into semiretirement from the force at age 46. "The reason I left SWAT was, I had no fear anymore, which is dangerous," he says. "What that means is that no longer did the adrenaline pump when called. Know what I mean? No longer did I get excited breaking down the door and going through the house and arresting a guy with a shotgun and trying not to kill him. After so many calls in so many years, you lose the edge if you're not a little bit afraid.

"Plus, my body was all broken up from judo -- bad knees, bad shoulders, torn biceps, surgery on my stomach. When you compete in judo for 25 years, your body's an absolute mess. Also, when we were going to serve a warrant, I'd have trouble getting over a small fence. The team's going, "Let's go, Sarge.' And I'm going..." He flips a leg sideways comically into the air, looking like a pro wrestler surmounting the ropes in the twilight of his career. These days, he gets enough exercise chasing after his one-year-old son, Ryan, at home with his wife in Davie.

A couple of years ago, Leslie Stahl, a correspondent with 60 Minutes, enrolled in Wally World's two-hour concealed-weapon course as part of a segment dealing with the proliferation of people arming themselves. "I charged her, and she got pissed," Philbrick recalls gleefully. "I said, "It's $45.' She said, "What?!'" She pointed to someone in the film crew. "Go talk to him. He'll pay you," she told him.

IPS has continued to expand in its new location. The company's International Biohazard Services offers crime-scene cleanup. "If you shoot yourself, we'll clean it up," he says as though talking about yard care. "Best thing you can do is put $200 on the table and write, "Call IPS to clean up my remains.' In advance. That's good. We tried to advertise that. But how do you advertise that? "If you kill yourself, call our company.'" Is he being flippant? He ignores the question and plows forward. "I said, "Save this ad, because we do crime scene cleanup. Call us rather than see your loved one's brains scattered all over the walls.'"

When anthrax contamination hit South Florida in October, Philbrick was quick to parlay his knowledge of hazardous materials into yet another IPS extra. Standing beside his white van parked in the IPS driveway, Philbrick opens the sliding side door and pulls out two magnetic signs that read Anthrax Decontamination.

"People thought I was fucking nuts," he says. "My staff said, "You're going to kill us. You're going to bring diseases back here.'" He responded to ten reports of anthrax contamination, but all proved to be hoaxes. "I thought it was going to be a multimillion dollar idea, but then it died," he says wistfully. But the operation did add to the general public hysteria. "When I pulled next to people at stoplights, they'd see the sign, and I'd go..." He puts a strangle hold on his neck, tongue out like he's suffocating. Another time, while he was teaching judo at the local YMCA, the loudspeaker announced: "Could the owner of the anthrax vehicle come upfront?" He recalls, "They thought it was full of anthrax. They wanted to know what was in the van. So I took the signs off."  

His latest brainchild is twofold and seems far afield from breaking down doors, arming people, or cleaning up bodily remains. "I'm dead serious: I want to be a motivational speaker and a magician. I want to entertain people. I always want to do more, achieve more." He pulls up on his computer an outline for a discourse on leadership. (Stirring music and Nelson Ricardo's baritone might end up playing a part in this.) Then he snatches a deck of cards from a shelf. "Pick a card, look at it, put it back," he orders. It's the jack of diamonds. He stands the deck upright in a silver goblet and shakes it gently up and down. The jack rises. "Now that's impressive, isn't it?" the former medieval warrior whoops. "I can make people happy with magic."

The heart of Wally World is the gun room and shooting range, which are nestled off a small hallway behind the front store. Pistols, rifles, and shotguns hang like fierce artwork on racks or are crammed in display cases. Robert Kennedy, a laconic ex-Navy SEAL, oversees weapon sales. He's a slight-framed man (he was 140 pounds when he completed SEAL training in the early '70s), with reddish hair and mustache and huge rimless spectacles. His voice is gravelly with a slight drawl, and when he says, "I believe in peace through superior fire power," he sounds as if he coined the oft-used phrase.

"I think everybody should carry a gun for protection," Kennedy offers while standing outside with a cigarette. "I think every law-abiding American citizen should have a gun at home because it's what made this country what it is. You know what started the revolution, don't you? The British tried to take our guns. All the people stood on the street: "No, you can't have them.' If not for that, we'd still have a queen."

Kennedy and Philbrick have their differences. "He's ex-law enforcement. I'm ex-military," Kennedy says. "Sometimes we clash a little bit, but that's what makes the world go around. Know what I mean?"

Kennedy doesn't press the hard sell. He knows that every gun buyer has a story to tell, and he's ready to listen.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Kennedy is prepping a new .40-caliber Glock handgun for Dave, a Hallandale Beach police officer. (Dave declined to tell New Times his last name.) While several other customers mill about the small room, Dave launches into a story about a call from a hospital he'd responded to that involved a Russian man who'd been shot in the foot. The man was adamant that he'd been shot when he foiled an armed mugger who'd approached him from behind on the beach. The story, however, didn't check out when Dave talked to witnesses in that area. When Dave showed up unannounced at the man's home, his wife and a friend were cleaning up blood in the house. "Now the light bulbs went. Now I'm getting pissed," he recounts. "Then I look down, and there's a perfectly round hole in the tile, the size of my finger. And guess what's in it? Fresh spackling compound, and it's still wet."

Philbrick pops his head into the gun room and interrupts the tale. "He's a model police officer," he announces loudly about Dave. "You know what a model is, right? A small imitation of the real thing." The room breaks into laughter. It turns out Philbrick knew the Russian at the time of the incident; in fact, he'd employed him until he fired him for screwing up a surveillance job. "I always figured he shot himself in the foot," Philbrick announces.

Down the hall 20 feet from the gun store, muffled shots routinely ring out from the three-lane firing range, which is steel-plated and soundproofed. Philbrick had wanted a much more public firing range when he'd asked the city in the summer of 2000 for permission to build it as an accessory to his business. City commissioners, however, balked at the idea, fearing that approval would eventually lead to firing ranges on every block. Philbrick got the go-ahead when he agreed to limit the range to customers only and to not advertise it with outdoor signs. All ammunition used is "frangible," which means the bullets are made of copper and tin and shatter into small particles when they hit the steel.  

Not that the range hasn't raised a bit of controversy anyway. Early last month, WHYI-FM (100.7) broadcast a Monday-morning program from the shooting range, announcing that at show's end Philbrick would shoot the host, John "Footy" Cross, at point-blank range while Cross wore a bullet-proof vest. Philbrick claims that Footy grew increasingly uneasy about the stunt. ("I was getting more interested in staying alive as the morning went on," Footy admits.) At one point, Philbrick passed Footy a yellow sticky note that read, "If you are a little nervous, I can shoot myself." Footy scribbled a reply beneath: "Blow me." In the end, Philbrick shot him with a .22 caliber pistol, the baby of handguns.

About 10:30 that morning, Philbrick got a call from Hollywood police. "Wally, we need to stop over and talk to you," he recalls an officer saying. The officers approached Philbrick gingerly -- they were, after all, well-acquainted with him -- and said officers from a Miami-Dade County police department had heard the radio show and reported the shtick. Philbrick says the Hollywood officers basically told him not to repeat the stunt because, well, it's against the law to shoot someone, vest or no vest.

Didn't he know he'd get in trouble? J.B. Cherkas, the company's chief private investigator, overhears the question and can't resist jumping in. "I told him, but he wouldn't listen to the voice of reason!"

"I didn't give a shit," Philbrick snorts.

"See?" Cherkas says incredulously.

Beyond the range are hallways stacked face-high with boxes of merchandise, mainly shoes, but also boxes holding ammo magazines, badges, and blue and gray shirts. Thorogood Footwear and Lawman Public Safety Shoes boxes rise precariously to a framed 1981 Time magazine cover, "Terrorists' Target," in which Pope John Paul II is writhing in agony after being shot.

At the end of this hallway is a room bearing a placard that reads Dome of Silence. A lengthy, L-shaped, overstuffed couch crowds the small, windowless room, giving way only to a TV set and a couple of hundred videos stacked around it. Visitors or employees plop down here for some peace and quiet. On a recent day, one of the firm's private detectives has sequestered himself in the room after a 14-hour surveillance stint. After a few hours of sleep, he would pull a similar shift. Sergeant, a rotund Maine coon cat who roams Wally World, begs to enter the Dome of Silence until a passerby opens the door.

Just outside that room against the hallway wall stand two regal wood-and-leather thrones. Several times a day, Philbrick drops into the larger one, eyes shut, King Lear-like, power-napping through the mayhem.

Wally World is chaotic because its master is unruly. Philbrick hams it up all day long in loony bursts. After meeting privately with a buyer, he comes running out with the customer's receipt, yelling, "This is a great fucking name: Killing. His last name is Killing! I think I'll change my name to Walter Philbrick Killing. No, no, I'm changing it to Iwana Kill!" He laughs maniacally.

Still, he expresses disdain when he thinks he's losing control. When Cherkas consults with Philbrick about an investigation case one afternoon, he learns of the outstanding invoice and bellows, "Is it over $10,000 now? I wouldn't let my wife owe me $10,000, let alone one of my fucking clients. Jesus Christ! I'm fucking pissed."

And all he could do was shake his head after once noticing a bullet hole in the wall of the small library attached to his office. It's a common wall with the shooting range, but Philbrick was baffled that a bullet could have gotten through the steel plating. On closer exam, however, he saw that the bullet had actually come from the library. Then he noticed that the carpeting had been frayed in one small spot under the desk. "I flipped over a covering that was on top of the table, and there was a perfectly round bullet hole," he says. "I figure it was one of the guys who was here for a bodyguarding class, came in the room to put a clip back in his gun, and it went off."

"In this room are five potential threats to your lives," Nelson Ricardo says urgently to the dozen people seated behind desks arranged in a U-shape during antiterrorism training in the seminar room. "Identify them within one minute. Start now."

Given the post-tornado décor of the place, there is a host of possibilities. No one says anything as the seconds quickly pass. "They're right around you. Right in front of you!" Ricardo shouts. One man points to a small, black, vinyl satchel on the tabletop. Another points to a ragged and bulging manila envelope on a desk.  

"Five, four, three, two, one. You're out of time," Ricardo says just as someone yells, "Book."

"Good observation," Ricardo says as he picks up a hefty hardcover off the edge of a table, "but it should have been made more quickly." He flips it open to reveal pseudo TNT and wires inside hollowed-out pages.

The course moves on to a hypothetical scenario about a possible bomb in a restaurant. Once the course is completed, Ricardo says nonchalantly, "You know what? There's a potential threat that I forgot to tell you about."

In a flash, one of the students leaps to his feet and shoves the table across the floor. "Don't anybody move or I'll blow myself up!" he screams while pulling open his loose jacket to reveal a bomb strapped to his chest. There is a moment of stunned silence, not that anyone in the class believes there's a threat of being blown up but that one of them has become the threat.

"That was a little surprise for you," Ricardo chuckles. "How many of you realized beforehand that he had a bomb under the jacket?" No one. "How many of you suspected he had a bomb on?" One fellow says he'd noticed the jacket but figured he had a vest on underneath.

"You noticed that, but you shrugged it off," Ricardo concludes. "Well, we lied. We told you there were five things, but there were six, because terrorists don't play by the rules."

Earlier that day, Ricardo had summed up the future of terrorism in America this way: "It's far from over, definitely far from over. We're not going to see terrorism go away. They'll just change their methods. I want to help people to at least have a fighting chance to survive." Indeed, a week later, Richard C. Reid tried to light explosives in his shoes during American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami. Fast-acting crew members and passengers foiled the attempt.

Philbrick also expects more trouble. "Right now, terrorists are walking onto buses and into restaurants in Israel and blowing themselves up," he says. "Why aren't they doing that in Florida yet? The FBI has their thumb on everyone now, keeping them down. They do that in Israel; they'll be doing that here. Absolutely, positively."

That sentiment is shared by many, and it's an outlook that spurred Ellen Dyer, a middle-aged Broward County school teacher, to attend the class with her husband, J.J. He'd enrolled in self-defense courses at IPS in the past, but his wife had resisted his suggestions that she join him. "After September 11, I felt I needed to do something," she says during a break in the seminar. "I felt that I couldn't wait for someone else to lead."

Later in the evening, she's sitting in a makeshift airplane cabin in a front seat of two parallel rows, the rest of the pupils seated behind her.

"Tonight, we'll learn how to survive a terrorist hijacking of an airplane," Ricardo tells the group. "If you choose to use it, it might make the difference between living or dying, fighting or submitting, surviving. Know that you have options."

Suddenly, Fernando Gallego, the mad bomber from earlier that evening, yanks Dyer from her seat and puts a rubber knife to her throat.

"What do you do?" Ricardo asks the passengers.

"Wait and observe," says one man.

"Look around and assess the situation," another man chimes in.

"Wrong, wrong, wrong," Ricardo lashes out. "How many of you have kids?" Most raise their hands. "What would you do if it was your kid up there? Would you get up?"

"Absolutely," asserts one man who has 2- and 3-year-old kids.

"If you're going to react at all, it's got to be immediately," Ricardo instructs. "You know what the real killer is? Time. Fear gets worse as time goes on. The minute they take a hostage, you're going to do something." Ricardo moves toward Gallego and taps two passengers on the way, instructing them, "Let's go!" He stops and says, "What I've done is become a leader. People will act when they're led."

Philbrick watches some of the self-defense exercises from the back of the room, at other times answering phone calls and talking to customers. After one conversation, he can't resist approaching a New Times writer who is observing the course. "This is the kind of stuff I get," he says. He hands over a memo that an acquaintance living in Hollywood had just delivered to him. "He thinks his neighbor is a terrorist because he fits the profile." The memo points out that the neighbor, among other things, is a foreigner, pays rent and bills in cash, and has gotten checks from a Texas-based outfit called the Homeland Foundation -- which is suspiciously similar to the Holy Land Foundation that the federal government claims is a front for terrorist fundraising, Philbrick points out. Residents have handed him three similar reports about other individuals this fall.  

"I'll have to call the FBI in the morning and tell them about this," he says, sounding more annoyed than anything else. "I can hear them now. They'll say, "Philbrick, what is it this time?'"

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