Too Heavy To Bear: How the Armored Car Industry Leaves Workers Unprotected
At 24, Ray Wauson was thrilled to land a job as an armored-car guard. But he was entering an unregulated world in which the people guarding the cargo are often defenseless against the cargo itself.
June 18, 2010, marked the end of Ray Wauson’s third week as an armored-car guard for Triple D Security in Victoria, and the first day they let him carry a gun. An avid hunter, raised in the country outside Yoakum, Wauson was thrilled to have landed a job where he’d be armed. At 24 years old, he also loved the badge, the chance to drive around all day and the constant sense of risk. He’d already learned to size up passing strangers, looking for anything unusual—some goon wearing a trench coat in summer or someone lingering too long too close to the truck. He made $8 an hour.
Wauson left home early that morning, kissed his girlfriend Amber goodbye and, when she followed him out the door, blew her another kiss from the bottom of their apartment steps. At the Triple D Security lot on Profit Street in a scrubby industrial pocket of town, Wauson signed in and bought a used belt and holster from another driver to hold his gun.
That morning was hot and muggy in Victoria, 30 miles from the Gulf. A state trooper’s report would later note it was 82 degrees by 7 a.m. Wauson’s excitement was dampened by the news that his driving partner for the day would be Jim Hopping, an old-timer with a reputation for speeding. Earlier that week, Wauson had come home ranting to Amber after he’d been told to follow Hopping on a run and couldn’t keep up. Now he’d been assigned to ride with Hopping all day, carrying a large amount of cash and coins to Houston. One customer needed extra cash for the weekend, so they’d been tasked with a heavier-than-usual load.
Hopping and Wauson packed more than $75,000 into the back of their armored Ford Econoline, and the van sagged under the weight. Hopping and other drivers complained to their manager, Stacie Martin, that the load was too heavy. Martin’s reply, according to the state trooper’s report, was short: “They all got to go.”
Before he jumped into the overloaded van with a driver he figured was dangerous carrying any load, Wauson rolled his eyes at the other guards. “Well, if I don’t die, I’ll see you when I get back,” he told them. A few minutes after 7 a.m., Wauson and Hopping were on the road.
Twenty miles up U.S. 59, they approached their first delivery stop, the HEB supermarket in Edna. Hopping braked for the highway exit, then heard a loud bang from his right and felt the van tug to the side. Realizing a tire had blown out, Hopping grabbed the wheel with both hands. The van swerved to the right, its bare rear wheel cutting deep grooves into the pavement, then careened left toward the median. For an instant, Hopping caught Wauson’s eye, and then the van began to roll.
Watch some action-movie heist, and you will understand why it’s dangerous to be an armored car driver. In the movies, anyway, they’re at constant risk of being robbed, having their truck blown open in some devilishly creative way, or getting lifted by helicopter to a criminal mastermind’s island lair. It truly is a dangerous business, but in reality the most common risks are mundane. Armored-car drivers can get hurt by simply dropping a box of coins on their foot—one $500 box of quarters weighs 25 pounds. News stories from across the country detail how much worse the damage can get when those coins start flying in a crash, particularly if the truck’s passenger, the “hopper,” is riding in back with the load. Sometimes a wreck leaves a driver unconscious, and the hopper may be trapped in the back, injured, for hours, because both guards must hit buttons to open the back door. Hoppers have been crushed to death by coins after their truck flipped. In California years ago, flying coins killed a hopper after her driver slammed on the brakes. Armored trucks are hard to stop, tough to maneuver, and if they’re loaded too heavy, they can blow a tire.
The modern armored-car industry began after World War I, inspired by armored tanks that debuted in France. In the mid-1920s, the Brinks company began transporting money in converted school buses with armored sides and roofs.
From there grew the industry that moves our cash to banks and refills our ATMs. As of the last U.S. Economic Census in 2007, there were 820 armored security carriers in the country with more than 31,000 employees. The business is just one piece of the private security industry, and is much smaller than the long-haul trucking business that moves most goods across the country. Armored trucking uniquely straddles both industries, leaving it in a regulatory gray area. Armored cars are too light to be regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation—you don’t even need a commercial driver’s license to drive an armored car—so nobody checks what the trucks weigh or what condition they’re in. Former armored-car drivers say state troopers are loath to pull them over, because they know the trucks aren’t supposed to stop for anything but scheduled deliveries.
Over the past decade, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has counted about four on-the-job deaths in the industry each year, but Jim McGuffey, a security expert with South Carolina-based A.C.E. Security Consultants who frequently testifies in court about the armored-car industry, says he has yet to see a comprehensive count that he trusts, because it’s “not a regulated industry.”
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which regulates workplace safety, has no specific rules for armored cars. When guards are injured, OSHA might pass the buck to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or local highway patrols, which say it’s a job for OSHA. “There’s lots of jurisdictional issues when you’re talking about over-the-road issues,” says OSHA’s regional director in Corpus Christi, Michael Rivera.
One place the agency has claimed clear oversight is the trucks’ rear cargo area, where flying coin boxes can be deadly if they’re not tied down. Before this year, Rivera doesn’t think OSHA had ever fined an armored car operator for carrying an unrestrained load. He thinks Triple D was the first.
Ray Wauson’s parents figure it was a small miracle that he made it to 24. Ray nearly died in childbirth and was born with a cleft palate that required more than a dozen surgeries to correct, one of which nearly killed him when he almost didn’t wake up from anesthesia. During another procedure, to remove his tonsils, Ray almost bled to death. Denis and Marsha Wauson planned hunting, fishing and beach vacations around their son’s trips to the hospital. When he was a little older, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. “We never could leave him with a babysitter,” Denis says.
Denis loves hunting—you can’t turn a corner in the Wausons’ home without meeting the icy stare of a mounted elk or deer—and Ray picked it up young. It was one of the few activities that didn’t seem to trouble his diabetes. “He was born with a gun in his hands,” Marsha says. Denis and Ray would go out early in the morning, Ray with his diabetes kit and his rifle, and wait for deer in stands on the Wausons’ land. Ray learned to cultivate his future kills, feeding young bucks and culling old ones, nurturing their antler growth until the day his deer were old enough to die. The walls of Ray’s room are lined corner-to-corner with antlers and dead-eyed deer heads.
They lived a few miles outside of Yoakum, the South Texas town of 5,800, where their family has lived for generations. Denis is a part-owner of Yoakum Grain, the company his father co-founded in 1954, which transports and sells feed to local ranchers. Ray worked for his dad through high school and planned to someday take over the family business.
Ray met Amber Machicek at a party early in the summer of 2006. She was still in high school, a few months shy of 18 and about to become a senior. She recognized Ray, the tough-faced, doe-eyed kid with a bowl of dark hair, from driving past his house on the way to school each day. They’d shared a “nonverbal conversation” on the road—one time he cut her off and she flipped him the bird—but hadn’t spoken before the night of the party. Two weeks later, Amber’s cousin turned up in her family’s pasture, riding four-wheelers with Ray. “I kinda noticed he was looking at me,” Amber says. “I called my cousin and asked for his number, and he was like, ‘He likes you.’”
Soon they were spending almost all their time together. From Ray’s house, they’d drive circles around town, and hang around Amber’s place after that. Ray had a classical sense of romance—in Amber’s MySpace photo, she smiles as Ray kneels, gazing up, and hands her a red rose. Ray liked to arrange for big occasions to fall on birthdays and anniversaries. When Amber turned 18 that October, she and Ray moved into a trailer home on Denis and Marsha’s land.
Green-eyed with straight brown hair, Amber was the Future Farmers of America president at school. She raised her show pig Tater in a patch of slop beside the Wausons’ barn. She and Ray enrolled together in a business administration program at Victoria College in the fall of 2008. They took all the same classes that first year and even worked together for a time at Home Depot. Ray had always been shy and slow to make friends, but at Home Depot he got to know Dan Garza, a veteran private-security man working part-time in the electrical department. They passed the work hours talking about hunting, and eventually Garza started inviting Ray and Amber to dinner at his house.
When Garza left Home Depot for an armored-trucking firm in town called Triple D, Ray was intrigued. He was tired of working weekends at Home Depot, and there was the unmistakable romance of a job with a badge and a gun. With Garza’s help, Ray passed Triple D’s 40-hour training academy and hired on for the standard noncommissioned officer’s pay, 75 cents above minimum wage. Other drivers groused about how the company treated them—no overtime pay, lousy maintenance on the trucks and vans—but Ray loved it. One time his truck door swung open on a training run—a door meant to be secure, so you couldn’t roll the windows down if you wanted to—so Ray bent a coat-hanger around a handle, tied it shut and drove around like that all day. “He came home happy,” Amber says, “like he did when he was working at Yoakum Grain.”
For Amber and Ray, at college in their early 20s and away from Yoakum for the first time, these were no wild times. They both worked to pay the bills—Amber as a bank teller—and they planned a simple future together after college. Ray and Amber had a house waiting for them on Denis and Marsha’s property, where they wanted to raise a family. They had a spot picked out on the Wausons’ land, across a wooden bridge by a pond, surrounded by cows and rolling hills, where they’d get married the next year on May 19, exactly five years after they first kissed.
Late into the night at their apartment in Victoria, they practiced dancing to Alan Jackson songs from the dance class Ray had suggested they join. Garza remembers hearing about those classes at work, but Ray never got over his nerves to take Amber out dancing at a club. Some nights in his backyard, though, Garza coaxed Ray into showing off the steps they’d learned. Garza prefers old country singers to the new Nashville stuff, but one night he compromised and put on “Troubadour,” a George Strait song that was just a couple of years old. Under the night sky, the young couple danced to a slow lament about being older than you feel.
I was a young troubadour, when I rode in on a song.
And I’ll be an old troubadour when I’m gone.
Doug Hlavaty was headed south on U.S. 59 with a load from the Coca-Cola plant in Edna when a white van across the highway caught his eye. It was the only vehicle on the northbound side, he remembers, so it was easy to spot the puff of black dust when the van’s tire blew. Hlavaty came to a stop as the van swerved across the highway in his direction. The van flipped when it hit the grassy median and kept spinning toward Hlavaty, six or eight times, spraying what he thought were shards of glass from its open rear doors.
The crumpled van settled just before his Coca-Cola truck, spanning the southbound lanes, its undercarriage facing oncoming traffic and its driver’s side against the road. The bare rear wheel was worn and melted. As Hlavaty approached, he realized that what he’d seen flying were quarters, thousands of them, and only when he rounded the front of the van did he see the man lying face-up on the pavement in a khaki uniform shirt, blood pooling around his head.
Amber was finishing her lunch at work when two state troopers arrived to tell her Ray was dead. She gave them Denis and Marsha’s phone number, then collapsed in a chair in an empty room. She thought about the kiss Ray blew her that morning, how he’d never stopped at the bottom of the stairs to look back at her like that before. She drove to Yoakum, met the Wausons outside their home, and they all broke down crying.
Denis Wauson says he isn’t the same man today that he was before his son died. “I kind of based my life around him,” Denis says. “Now I’m kind of floating, don’t know where I’m gonna go.” Denis is the sort of lanky country guy you could imagine slapping backs and yukking it up with pals at the diner. But when he smiles now, it feels pained. He drifts around delicately. Marsha, with reddish brown hair and a soft demeanor, doesn’t speak much unless she’s at home. The happy anniversaries and birthdays they all used to celebrate—April 21 was both Denis and Marsha’s anniversary, and Ray’s birthday—have turned into melancholy events. Ray’s first communion and confirmation were both on June 21, Marsha says, and so was his funeral.
Those first days after Ray’s death, the family grieved for the son they’d lost, trying to make sense of the accident. Then they got the message that turned at least some of their sorrow to rage. Evan Nazareno, the state trooper investigating the wreck, told them the load Ray was carrying was 3,252 pounds heavier than the tires had been rated for, and 7,420 pounds more than what the van itself—a standard passenger Ford that’d been gutted and armored—was designed to carry. Nazareno’s report is conclusive: “I find the main causative factor in the single vehicle fatal crash to be the weight of the Triple D Security white Ford armored van. … The armored van was not equipped to carry the weight of 15,420 lbs.”
“That’s when we found out that Ray was really murdered,” Denis says.
Jay and Barbara Lack founded Triple D Security in Victoria in 1984. The Lacks were already a prominent family in town, thanks to the long-running family furniture chain that bore their name and spread across the state until its bankruptcy last year. For security industry know-how, the Lacks tapped Ken Armbrister, a former Victoria police captain who spent 20 years in the Texas Senate. Armbrister has gone on to become Gov. Rick Perry’s director of legislative affairs, one of the governor’s top advisers. Along with the Lacks, Armbrister is one of three signers of the company’s filings with the state, and he runs its training programs. When Ray Wauson finished his training, his certificate bore Armbrister’s signature.
After nearly 30 years in business, Triple D has expanded to offices in Houston, Dallas, Austin and Corpus Christi.
It has four divisions: alarms, armored car, answering service, and guard and patrol. Triple D earned $7.8 million in 2007, according to an audit. Along with HEB and ATM service customers, its clients include Harris County, Victoria Independent School District and the Texas Department of State Health Services. Triple D may be small next to national giants like Brinks, Loomis, and Garda, but there aren’t many players in the industry. The Independent Armored Car Operators Association—the trade group for all but the three biggest carriers—has just 40 members in the U.S. and the Cayman Islands. Seven of its members, and its president, are based in Texas.
Critics say the industry’s small size, and the critical service it provides, have helped it avoid strict regulation. In Texas, industry oversight is up to the Department of Public Safety. DPS keeps tabs on licensed armored-car companies and guards, as it does for the rest of the private security industry, but its accident records are slim. A DPS spokesperson said collecting companies’ accident reports is up to the Texas Department of Transportation, but TxDOT began categorizing crash data by company only in 2010. Its statistics for the last three years are surely incomplete. TxDOT recorded 10 crashes for Brinks in 2010, and none in 2012. It has records of two Triple D crashes in 2011, but none in 2010, the year Ray Wauson died.
Steve Rachael has spent the past 20 years crusading for the safety of armored-car guards and has become an unofficial industry watchdog. His particular obsession has been the way coins are often unrestrained in the cargo hold, where the hopper usually sits to guard the loot. After 38 years as a guard and a manager for Wells Fargo, Loomis and a handful of smaller companies, Rachael blew the whistle on the industry’s dangerous practices in 1993 with a letter to then-Congressman Austin Murphy of Pennsylvania. Murphy wrote a letter to the Department of Labor, and Rachael’s follow-up correspondence with the department, including OSHA, has consumed two decades.
Rachael even designed a new truck he hoped would revolutionize the industry, with built-in cages to safely contain coins. He sold a few, but the trucks never caught on—operators have been too cheap to replace their armored fleets, he says—and his patent expired in 2010. Today Rachael gathers news clips online from his home in Savannah, Georgia, looking for armored-truck drivers injured or killed in wrecks by unrestrained coins, and for families who might join his cause. From 1986 on, counting only the wrecks where loose cargo was a factor, he found almost 40 before he read about Ray Wauson.
As they grieved over their son’s death and steamed at the thought that it was so easily preventable, Denis and Marsha Wauson waited for another call, from the Texas Rangers maybe, about investigating Triple D Security for sending Ray out in that overloaded van. That call never came. (DPS did not reply to an emailed question from the Observer asking if the agency investigated the accident further.) Steve Rachael did call. Rachael had seen a report on the wreck in the Victoria Advocate, and a few weeks after Ray was buried Rachael called the Wausons to ask if they would consider complaining to OSHA about the conditions Ray had been working in.
Ray’s co-workers, who recognized that the wreck was more than an accident, shared details with the Wausons. Even weeks later, the eerie sight of the damaged van, with rolls of quarters embedded whole into the roof, greeted workers on the lot. Nathan Lill watched Ray leave Triple D the morning he was killed and was later tasked with cleaning blood, hair and loose change from the wrecked van. He says one overworked mechanic tended to all of Triple D’s trucks and vans in Victoria. “Every time we turned around, he was piecing parts from one vehicle on another vehicle,” he says. Lill says doors separating the cargo hold from the cab were held in place with string, and that he’d spent whole shifts smelling exhaust in the truck cab. He’d file a maintenance request, he says, “and nine times out of 10 it would not get fixed. We’d have to keep reporting it every day.” When he complained that his tires were low, he was given a dollar to inflate them at a gas station. Dan Garza recalls one trip to San Antonio when his tires were in such bad shape that he had to stop for new ones along the way. Below the newspaper story about Ray’s death, online commenters said they weren’t surprised to hear about the wreck, given the lousy condition of the Triple D trucks they saw on the roads. (The Lacks and Triple D refused an interview request for this story.)
The Wausons and Amber shopped Ray’s story from lawyer to lawyer, looking for help filing a complaint with OSHA and hoping to hear they had some recourse in court. The Wausons had accepted Ray’s $20,000 workers’ compensation payout, which limited their right to sue. Since Amber and Ray weren’t married, her rights were limited as well. Denis says they were turned off by most lawyers, whom they could sense were out for a quick settlement. Denis wanted a long, awkward airing of Triple D’s business in court.
The Wausons filed their complaint with OSHA in December 2010. The complaint was two-fold: that the coins in the back of the truck weren’t restrained, and that the truck wrecked only because the company had overloaded it. In July 2011, the reply came from OSHA’s regional director in Corpus Christi, Michael Rivera: OSHA had inspected a Triple D truck on a run and found a guard riding in back with unrestrained coins. They proposed a $4,500 fine. Rachael was thrilled—it was the first time OSHA had cracked down on an armored-truck company for carrying loose cargo. As for the complaint about overloading the trucks, Rivera wrote, “At the time of the inspection, a violation of OSHA standards could not be substantiated.” That may be because OSHA doesn’t, in fact, have any standards about the weight of armored trucks.
Triple D contested the fine, and Denis looked forward to the hearing OSHA set for January 2012. But the day before the hearing, his lawyer told him that Triple D had settled with the government instead. He learned later that the company had negotiated a reduced fine of $2,000 and an agreement to put cargo restraints in its vehicles. When Wauson appealed to OSHA’s regional director in Dallas about the company’s overloaded trucks, he was told that fell under Texas DPS’ authority.
Denis Wauson went back and forth with the government, sucked ever deeper into the rabbit hole that had consumed Rachael for 20 years. He wrote to state agencies, which said they couldn’t help. He hoped to interest a district attorney or the Department of Justice. He tried to replicate the load Ray’s van had been carrying, stacking salt pallets four feet high in the back of a three-quarter-ton truck, feeling the steering strain as he drove it onto the scales at Yoakum Grain.
Amber, who’d been living with the Wausons since Ray’s death, finally decided she couldn’t spend her life pleading for justice by bureaucracy. She left town, moved in with friends and these days doesn’t even speak with the Wausons. “The words Ray always told me were, ‘I want you to be happy,’ and I told myself that I was going to do what he wanted me to.” She has a boyfriend now, and a five-month-old daughter, and though she drives by the site of Ray’s wreck often, she doesn’t want to say where she’s living. “Amber probably did what I wanted to do,” Denis says. “Her only way to survive was to run.”
Three days after Amber’s daughter was born, Denis called to tell her he’d found a lawyer who would take the case—if she’d be the plaintiff. Since she and Ray had been living together so long, he explained, she could claim standing as Ray’s common-law wife, if she would agree to venture back to the painful life she’d left. She recalls talking it over with her boyfriend, “and he uttered those same words, ‘whatever makes you happy.’ And it was like, all right, Ray, I get it.” She filed the lawsuit in June, alleging that Triple D had been grossly negligent in sending out the overloaded truck. The case is pending in Jackson County district court. “Nobody should have to sit here and go through all this if all they had to do was change a truck,” Amber says.
In October, Rachael celebrated another milestone when a regional OSHA office in West Virginia fined Houston-based Loomis after a truck carrying loosely restrained coins flipped, injuring one guard. Rachael says OSHA is limiting the scope of its investigation—if one Loomis branch is sending out trucks with loose cargo, he figures they should investigate the company’s other branches too. He hopes that two fines against the industry in the same year may signal a long-awaited engagement by regulators.
Rivera, the OSHA director in Corpus Christi, says so far Triple D is complying with its agreement. “We followed up and, as far as we know, Triple D has followed through and installed the restraints,” he says. But Denis and Marsha aren’t taking Rivera’s word for it. Marsha times her trips to the supermarket so she’s there when the Triple D van arrives. She says the “restraints” they’re using for coins are nothing more than cheap cargo nets. By now, she’s sure, the drivers recognize her.
As much as Ray loved the prestige and the excitement of working in armored cars, Denis has realized that the workers he sees are just low-paid folks running beat-up vans down the road. “I think that gun and that uniform is misrepresenting that they’re a transportation company,” Denis says. “It’s just like us hauling corn. It’s not no honor.”
Denis has come to blame Jay Lack personally for Ray’s death. “I want him to feel like it’s not over,” Denis says. He regrets agreeing to let Lack pay for Ray’s funeral and seems happiest imagining the man’s downfall. If he can somehow take Lack’s company away, he figures, the man might know something of what he feels losing Ray. “I based my life around him and so did Marsha. And so did Amber. So they destroyed everybody. And they killed him for money,” he says.
“Everybody said, it’s just gonna take time,” Marsha says. “But to me the more time that goes by, the worse it gets.” The two of them pile up books on how to deal with grief, and Denis has found some solace in his struggle with regulators. “About the only fun I’ve had since Ray died is with OSHA,” he says. “Once this is over, there is no place to go.” They swear it will be worth keeping their wounds fresh if they can help another family avoid what they’re going through. He’s waiting for the day Triple D has another accident, which he might use to get the company shut down. “I don’t deer hunt anymore—I accident hunt,” Denis says.
Denis still takes care of Amber’s pig—Tater weighs about half a ton these days, he figures—hosing him down in summer and feeding him every day. He keeps Tater’s feed in the barn, next to the tools gathering dust and the four-wheelers he won’t ride. Two chairs sit in front of the barn door facing each other, where he and Ray used to sit and watch the sun set on the land they used to share. “The only thing I can feel good about,” Denis says, “is the fact that I didn’t let it go.”