US: 'America's private army' under fire for Illinois facility
Strangers rarely venture onto the twisting gravel roads in this corner of the state, and those who do sometimes get lost amid the rolling hills.
So it came as a surprise to many locals when the expert marksmen of Blackwater USA -- a controversial military contractor that provides armed security guards in the Iraq war -- took over an 80-acre rifle range and opened up a new training center this past spring. Blackwater North, as the North Carolina-based firm calls its new site, is designed primarily as a tactical training ground for domestic law enforcement and contractors, not for security missions to Iraq or Afghanistan, Blackwater officials said. Using civilians schooled in military warfare, the site offers training in weaponry, hostage dealings and terror reaction.
Still, the sudden appearance of Blackwater is attracting criticism and questions from miles around.
Wary residents fret about noise, expansion and the more distant possibility that low-paid local police might end up working lucrative jobs for Blackwater overseas.
Meanwhile, peace groups from as far as Chicago, 150 miles to the east, plan to stage a major demonstration here next month protesting "America's private army."
"We're tucked away here in a no man's land, and to have Blackwater come in is quite unsettling," said Conrad Iandola (the name as published has been corrected here and in subsequent references in this text) , a neighboring landowner. "Most people have farms and homes. That's it. Now we have Blackwater here and we don't know what they will attract."
In a recent tour for a Tribune reporter, Blackwater officials displayed gun ranges the size of athletic fields -- bermed to absorb stray bullets -- along with a building used for hostage training and a pro shop that sells ammunition as well as key chains, shirts and shot glasses emblazoned with the company logo.
Since April, the company has trained some 200 people, most from 40 law-enforcement agencies from as far away as New York and California, company officials said.
"We're not the mercenaries come to town that some people paint us out to be," said Patrick Sergott, a former Marine and suburban police officer who is Blackwater North's director.
But Iandola is one of a group of citizens so concerned that they have resorted to surveillance techniques seemingly out of a Blackwater handbook. Iandola rented a small plane and flew over the site snapping photographs that show Blackwater moving earth, which, Iandola worried, could be a sign Blackwater might be expanding.
Blackwater officials say the company has no plans to expand, and Jo Daviess County officials promise not to allow Blackwater to expand significantly without public hearings.
Dan Kenney, a teacher from nearby DeKalb, played like a prospective trainee, getting a tour of the facility. He later posted lengthy Internet notes of his clandestine visit claiming Blackwater talked of grand designs for warfare training. Blackwater officials confirmed Kenney's visit but denied any plans to train for warfare.
Kenney is part of a newly named opposition group, Clearwater, which is organizing a 160-mile protest walk from downtown Chicago this fall and is planning other demonstrations. One of Clearwater's leaders, a longtime Illinois peace activist who has taken the name Martin Hippie, stood before the Blackwater gates recently shaking rattles and meditating to ward off "the evil Blackwater spirits."
"To have an unregulated rogue war operator coming into Chicago's back yard is mighty creepy," he said.
Blackwater was formed in 1997, and its most-publicized business is providing private paramilitary personnel for America's war on terror. Blackwater tumbled into the American consciousness when four of its workers were killed and their bodies mutilated in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. Since then, Blackwater has become a lightning rod for antiwar passions.
In addition to its sprawling North Carolina headquarters of some 7,000 acres, used for mercenary and law-enforcement training, the company is looking to open Blackwater West on an abandoned chicken farm in rural San Diego County. That project is drawing a firestorm of controversy. About 10 times the size and scope of the Illinois site, at 800-plus acres, it would include a mock battleground.
In Illinois, Blackwater tried to keep the deal low-key, leasing property operated as a shooting range for two decades, so that it needed no zoning revisions. The company says it spent "a considerable sum" making safety and design improvements on the ranges but declined to say how much.
Located down a steep grade on Skunk Hollow Road, the site is protected by a row of trees and hillside brush. A no-trespassing sign at the red metal gate warns that any unauthorized photography will be confiscated. The company says it's simply trying to protect the privacy of local law enforcement.
Recently, four men finished a five-day marksman course at the site.
Two of the trainees were federal law-enforcement contractors. Another was a computer technician who said he is thinking about war zone work. The last was a private businessman wanting to work on his sharpshooting skills.
The men, who declined to identify themselves, said they paid about $750 for the course with lodging nearby extra.
On a shooting range, they practiced firing semiautomatic rifles from behind pieces of wall barriers. They fired at targets while standing, kneeling and crawling.
Several companies offer similar training in Illinois. But most private facilities, including Blackwater, are not certified by the state.
The Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board operates five major training centers statewide, including one in Chicago for city police, where candidates receive certification needed to become sworn law officers.
Blackwater, though, apparently hopes to cash in on its brand name by teaching small law-enforcement agencies that otherwise could not afford or find such supplementary training, analysts said. Leo Hefel, sheriff of Jo Daviess County, said Blackwater's Mt. Carroll campus has already been a godsend for his tiny department of 38 workers. Most of his eight command officers and 11 deputy sheriffs lacked rifle and anti-terror training, he said. Blackwater provided the training at a steep discount, he said, as a gesture of in-county hospitality that has included an open house for county officials.
"They want acceptance," Hefel said. "They are no threat to any civilians."
Blackwater was hoping for that kind of welcome in a county where landowners are fiercely independent and the sound of a gunshot draws little attention.
"I can hear them shooting from here, and it makes me well-pleased," said neighbor Donna Miner, who owns 21 acres and moved from the south suburbs a dozen years ago so her son could more easily pursue his horseshoeing business. "Having Blackwater here means we have a foothold on the war on terror."
Blackwater has also pleased local business owners who struggle in this economically depressed region a few miles from the Mississippi River, where an Army depot closed several years ago and a proposed state prison deal collapsed.
"We should be welcoming them, not harassing them," said Fred Paschke, owner of Mt. Carroll Home Center Inc., which has sold construction goods to Blackwater.
But peace groups plan a vigil outside the Blackwater gates Aug. 11, complete with drumming and singing. Blackwater seems resigned to the protests.
"The problem is that Blackwater brings a much bigger issue than just having a gun range around," said Dan Caswell, the elected supervisor of Berreman Township, population 174.
"They bring with them so much attention," he said. "People didn't move in around here to get all that attention."
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