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Details emerge after Miller's 'security agents' detain journalist

Patti Epler

1019-millersarmy1The firm Drop Zone Security is apparently being investigated by the state Department of Public Safety in connection with its handling of a Joe Miller campaign event on Sunday where Drop Zone agents arrested and handcuffed Alaska Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger.

The DPS case comes as public attention remains focused on questions surrounding the incident, including why Miller employed private security guards, some of whom were active-duty military, and what led to the physical confrontation that ended with Hopfinger's arrest.

Al Patterson, chief Anchorage municipal prosecutor, decided no charges should be filed against anyone involved.

And on Tuesday, both Hopfinger and Drop Zone's owner, William Fulton, talked in more detail to Alaska Dispatch about the incident and its aftermath.

Hopfinger was detained after he tried to ask Miller questions about his employment with the Fairbanks North Star Borough. The Dispatch and other news outlets have been trying to get Miller's borough personnel file because, according to the former borough mayor, it contains an investigation into Miller's use of borough computers for political purposes in 2008. Miller has refused to answer questions from local media about the politicking and any disciplinary action that resulted from it although he told CNN on Monday that he had been disciplined for political activity. A Fairbanks Superior Court judge on Tuesday agreed to expedite the case and set a special hearing for this coming Saturday.

But on Sunday, Miller refused to answer Hopfinger's questions, and his security team stepped between the candidate and the journalist. The security guards told Hopfinger he was trespassing and physically blocked him. He pushed one away, was grabbed by the guards and handcuffed.

Anchorage police arrived and let him loose. They also refused to honor the private-person's arrest filed by Drop Zone agents.

Now, DPS spokeswoman Megan Peters says DPS is conducting an investigation based on numerous inquiries from reporters. She declined to say who or what DPS is investigating, just that "we deemed it appropriate to look into the matter."

Alaska Dispatch had called DPS Monday to find out whether Drop Zone was licensed as a security company by the state and whether Fulton, its owner, has a valid security guard license as would be required by the state.

Early Tuesday morning, Peters left a voicemail on a Dispatch reporter's phone saying the company did not have a security guard license.

A couple hours later, however, she said she couldn't say anything more about the company or the case because DPS had started an investigation based on numerous questions from reporters. And again, she won't say specifically that Drop Zone is the subject of the investigation.

State law requires any person employed as a security guard or a security guard agency to be licensed by the state. Applicants must fill out an extensive form with detailed background information and undergo a criminal background check. The guard or guard agency has to post a bond or insurance "to protect the state and its residents from damages arising out of the acts of the licensee," the statute says.

Armed security guards must have firearms training acceptable to the commissioner of DPS. And anyone who hires armed bodyguards must have written permission from the commissioner or could be charged with a misdemeanor.

On Tuesday, Fulton told Alaska Dispatch he is not a security guard and that Drop Zone is not a security guard agency, which is why neither he nor his employees are licensed by the state. He said the company is instead a "contract agency" and that he and his people are considered "security agents," not guards.

Fulton said he discussed his business with the state two years ago and is comfortable that he is operating lawfully.

Most of the work they do is for events, like the Miller campaign event Sunday at Central Middle School, or for licensed establishments. "We don't do anything covered under the security (statutes)," he said. "We don't do anything that the state has any authority to tell us what to do."

Fulton said his company does not do security work like patrolling or checking on building security.

And, in fact, the state law defines a security guard as "a person in the business of being a private watchman, providing patrol services, or providing other services designed to prevent the theft, misappropriation, or concealment of goods, money, or valuable documents."


A security guard agency is "a person in the business of furnishing for hire" the security guards, the statute says.

Fulton said he is a subcontractor and in turn hires people on a per-job basis when he needs help. "All of the guys are moonlighting, we don't employ anyone," he said.

Fulton says he started the business about three years ago as an extension of a retail military surplus business he owns on Spenard Road. The store caters mainly to a military crowd, selling uniforms, boots, belts, hats, packs, even gas masks -- sort of the typical Army-Navy surplus items. The store does not sell guns or weapons but does have parts for weapons, he said.

Fulton said he retired from the Army about six years ago with a 75 percent disability rating and that he started the shop because he was looking for something he could do as a disabled vet. "I found there were a lot of disabled vets, too, where they needed something to do," so the Drop Zone became a sort of haven as well, he said.

The security services business is "not our full-time thing," Fulton said, adding that he does about three or four jobs a month, and that a lot of work is for nonprofit organizations.

He started out doing concert security and it's grown from there, he said.

Fulton declined to name any of his clients and said he has a non-disclosure agreement with them. He told a Dispatch reporter on Sunday that he had worked for Miller at least once before and it was "many years ago."

But on Tuesday he said media reports quoting him as acknowledging he'd worked for Miller at the 2008 GOP convention were inaccurate.

"I didn't confirm or deny it," Fulton said, pointing to his non-disclosure policy.

Likewise, other reports in recent days saying that he provided security for Miller at the Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck event earlier this summer were wrong.

"I bought a ticket to the Palin-Beck event. I was there in civvies to see Beck, and Joe was there. He came up to say hi to me."

Fulton said he has been active in the Republican Party for years and that he went to the event just to have a great time.

Fulton said his agents generally wear black suits and ties, with radio pieces in their ears, even to the wine-tastings and other more formal events they've done, he said. "We're not some guy with a black T-shirt that says ‘Security' on it."

Fulton said his agents are not armed when they are working on events in Alaska.

"We carry weapons when we do our fugitive recovery," he said, but when pressed, said none of that work is done in Alaska.

Fulton said he hires people who have some security or military training, including active duty service members. "All the guys we use are professionals, and they act professionally and dress professionally," he said.

Two of the men helping at the Miller event on Sunday are currently in the Army, which is reviewing whether they had followed proper protocol in getting authorization for outside employment on their off time, said Maj. Bill Coppernoll, the public affairs officer for the Army in Alaska.

Coppernoll said Tuesday afternoon it was still unclear whether the Ft. Richardson soldiers, 22-year-old Spc. Tyler Ellingboe and 31-year-old Sgt. Alexander Valdez, had permission to work for the company.

He said he didn't know if the Army would go so far as to review whether the men did anything wrong in detaining Hopfinger, only whether they had authorization to be employed by the security company.

Fulton insisted Tuesday that the incident at Central Middle School involving Hopfinger "had nothing to do with Joe Miller and nothing to do with the fact that (Hopfinger) was a reporter."

"This was trespassing, plain and simple. We believed he'd gotten violent and he was arrested."

Hopfinger, however, questioned whether Miller had instructed security to keep the press away from him since he has continued to be pressed by reporters to answer questions about his borough employment.

Hopfinger said he approached Miller as the candidate was talking to a small group of people just after his town hall ended. As soon as Hopfinger asked a question about whether he'd been reprimanded for politicking on borough time, Miller pivoted and ducked out a nearby doorway and down a hallway.


Hopfinger said he followed Miller for a few steps and tried to ask another question and that Miller suddenly went another direction, leaving Hopfinger surrounded by campaign supporters and blocked by the security team.

"These guys were bumping into me," Hopfinger said, "bumping me into Miller's supporters."

Hopfinger said Fulton was the main antagonist and that Hopfinger pushed him away because "he was bumping into my face."

"He didn't take a step back and he didn't allow me to take a step back," Hopfinger said.

Fulton has said he was not the one who got pushed, and that Hopfinger "shoulder checked" someone else into a locker.

But Hopfinger said Tuesday he is sure it was Fulton whom he pushed. He also pointed out that no one else has come forward to say they were the one who was "assaulted," as Fulton has alleged.

Once the guards grabbed him and shoved him into a wall, where they handcuffed him, Hopfinger said, he did not resist because "these guys would have had me on the ground; it ramped up that fast."

They took him to the far end of the hall, away from the doorway back into the main event room, and kept other people, including reporters and Dispatch colleagues away from him. Hopfinger said he waited there with the other two guards -- Ellingboe and Valdez -- while Fulton called the Anchorage police.

Hopfinger said Ellingboe and Valdez refused to give him their names and would not identify their company or who they were working for. At one point they told him they were volunteers, he said.

Fulton said it wasn't the first time he or his agents had arrested someone for trespassing at an event, although he couldn't remember the last time it had happened. "We've done this many times before ... and have called APD to come deal with trespassers."

But Hopfinger questioned Fulton's judgment and experience in handling security for these kinds of events, especially political candidates or public figures who should be used to being questioned by the media.

"I was not assaulting or touching Joe, I was asking him questions," Hopfinger said. "I would certainly prefer to sit down with Mr. Miller and ask him the questions, but he drew a line in the sand a week ago and said he wasn't going to do that.

"That doesn't mean we don't go to functions or public appearances and try to ask our questions."

Hopfinger also doesn't put much stock in Fulton's contention that he is a security "agent" as opposed to a "guard."

"He certainly acted like an aggressive security guard and he may have broken the law," Hopfinger said. "It was an illegal detention and an illegal arrest."

Alaska Dispatch and Hopfinger are considering his legal options, he said.

Hopfinger also questioned why Miller feels he has to have bodyguards protecting him. No other political candidates have security with them, including Gov. Sean Parnell or Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

"It's poor judgment on Joe Miller's part to have Fulton and active-duty soldiers be his bodyguards," Hopfinger said.

For his part, Fulton says the incident has already had unwanted repercussions -- all the media attention that has been focused on his company.

"My phone has been ringing solid," he said.

He held the phone away briefly when a customer came up and asked if he was on the line. "I'll be on the phone for the next five days," he said.

He also said the incident has been mischaracterized and that he and his team have been called 'Nazis' and 'jack-booted thugs', among other derisive names. "Yes, we're all military and we all have short hair," he said.

Fulton said when he tries to explain to callers, particularly the media, his side of things, "they still only hear what they want to hear."

"We've never had to deal with this before," he said. "We're always the guys in the background."

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com.