The Boehner Case Speaks to the Need for a Threat Management Plan
The recent arrest of a country club bartender who threatened to kill House Speaker John Boehner makes a strong case for the need for organizations to design and implement an effective threat management plan. After Michael Robert Hoyt was indicted this past January, details of his life, mental health, work history, access to weapons, and regular proximity to a public figure have become available that present a situation in which an established comprehensive threat management plan might have avoided. An effective threat management plan is constructed and implemented by multiple parties with different, but complimentary backgrounds. An experienced investigator, mental health physician, human resources professional, and protective security expert are examples of the applicable skill sets required to build the plan.
Often serving drinks to Boehner and other high profile members, Hoyt worked as a bartender at the Wetherington Country Club in West Chester, Ohio for five years until he was fired last October after several members complained about him. After his arrest, police searched his home and found an assault rifle magazine, ammunition, and a notebook containing “John Boehner” and “Ebola” among other writings, as well as lists of country club members. Arrest reports state that Hoyt was visibly upset about being fired, which might have prompted him to send an 11-page blog naming Boehner as the devil to his ex-girlfriend, neighbor, and father as well as emails to Debbie Boehner that mentioned his firing. In these communications, he claimed that he had the access and opportunity to poison Boehner’s wine if he had chosen to do so.
Other recovered documents state that Hoyt had been hearing voices though his car speakers telling him that Boehner was evil, eventually leading him to call 911 and ask the operator to tell his father he was sorry. When police went to his residence, he volunteered to be taken to the hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Hoyt had been previously treated for a psychotic episode two years ago and prescribed medication, which he stopped taking after six months.
As part of its protective responsibilities, my former employer, the United States Secret Service (USSS), has long held the view that the best protective strategy is prevention. In keeping with that tactic, their threat management efforts identify, assess, and control persons who have the interest and ability to mount attacks against USSS protected individuals. The Exceptional Case Study Project (ECSP), the USSS’s first operationally relevant study on assassins and near-assassins, was completed in 1998. The ECSP was a five-year operational analysis of the thinking and behavior of individuals who assassinated, attacked, or approached to attack a prominent person of public status in the United States. It employed an incident-focused, behaviorally-based approach consisting of a systematic analysis of investigative reports, criminal justice records, medical records, and other source documents, as well as in-depth interviews with subjects.
The ECSP determined assassinations and attacks on public officials and figures are the products of understandable and often discernible processes of thinking and behavior. Most people who attack others perceive the attack as the means to a goal or a way to solve a problem. An individual’s motives and selection of a target are directly connected. Ideas of assassination develop over weeks, months, even years, and are stimulated by television and newspaper images, movies, and books. Potential assassins seek out historical information about assassination, the lives of attackers, and the protectors of their targets. They may deliberate about which target—and sometimes targets—to choose. They also may transfer their interest from one target to another. After selecting a target, attackers and near-lethal attackers develop plans and sometimes rehearse before mounting an attack.
When conducting a threat assessment, protectors and investigators must also pay attention to the individual’s choice of a potential target, assuming the individual has selected a target. The following questions should be addressed:
How well is the target known to the individual? Is the individual acquainted with the target’s work and lifestyle patterns?
Is that information readily available, as in the case of many public officials or highly visible public figures?
How vulnerable is the target to an attack? What changes in the target’s lifestyle or living arrangements could make attack by the individual more difficult or less likely?
How sophisticated is the target about the need for caution?
How concerned about safety is the target? How concerned are those around the target (such as family or staff)?
Let’s see how these individual characteristics, investigative questions, information analysis, and management options apply in the Boehner case. First, the potential attacker had an evident process of thinking and behavior—he blamed the target for the loss of his job and the Ebola virus. Second, the investigation uncovered two red flags—history of mental illness and access to weapons. Third, he communicated with friends, family members, and Boehner’s spouse about his interest in the target. Finally, and the most concerning, the management component was missing because nothing was done to “manage” Hoyt until after the plot was revealed.
We can all learn from this incident and apply it to our own particular situations. We don’t have to fear an imminent assassination to understand the danger of a disgruntled employee and the importance of performing our due diligence in background screenings, proper investigative processes, and assessment capabilities that identify the initial signs of potential threats. When you recognize that a threat management plan must be in place to prevent harm from being done, have access to these resources, and are knowledgeable to the required multi-disciplinary acumen, you have a strong foundation upon which to build your own threat management plan.