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The Bodyguard: At arm's length | John Sacco

Former Criminal Investigation Department Inspector John Sacco can today boast of a specialised security organisation, Oscar 7. Apart from having been assigned to protect celebrities including Brad Pitt in 2003 while in Malta, his team was also involved in the close protection of foreign dignitaries and high-net-worth individuals both in Malta and abroad

Duncan Barry
21 May 2012, 12:00am
John Sacco's team comprises mainly of personnel who hail from a police and military background.
John Sacco's team comprises mainly of personnel who hail from a police and military background.
This is not a scene from The Bodyguard movie. It's an individual who served in the Police Force for 13 years with an added 11 years experience in the real world of the VIP security industry.

Oscar 7 has also been engaged by and worked in conjunction with Khiron Security to protect celebrities such as Eros Ramazotti, Roger Waters and Elton John, and film director Steven Spieberg, among others, while also providing security in high-profile events and music concerts Malta has become synonymous with.

So where did Sacco get the agency's name Oscar 7?

"Oscar 7 was my radio call sign while I served in the Police Force as a criminal investigator," Sacco says, adding "that it was a natural progression after leaving the force and having entered the world of security immediately after. However, a disadvantage is that in the world of security, you don't have any executive authority as in the police force."

While in the police force, Sacco, a plain-clothes inspector, had dealt with many high-profile criminal cases. He always shied away from the press due to the nature of his job, however in a country as small as ours it's near to impossible not to be recognised.

Sacco has undergone special security training both in the UK and Dubai. One of the courses he attended was at Protector Services Group - a highly recognised international security agency.

And one minute he's in Malta and the next he's in some big city protecting a VIP or high-net-worth individual.

Sacco says: "I have a sole trading agency licensed by the Commissioner of Police to provide the services of close protection, a layman's term for bodyguarding, cash in transit, i.e. the transfer of cash or valuables from A to B, and private investigations such as suspicious insurance claims."

Has Sacco protected anyone on foreign soil?

"Yes, I have protected a number of high-net-worth-individuals however I cannot really comment on who they are. Sacco recalls one particular security detail his team was assigned to take care of.     

"Through a security VIP network based in the UK, members of my team were assigned to protect an Italian woman whose husband sought the custody of their child at all costs. Since she feared for her life she requested a security detail to accompany her during her case at a Rome court. Her husband had maltreated her before the custody case had even gone to court."

"And how does his agency differ from other security providers on the market?

"Oscar 7's Securities human resources include former police and military personnel and who have been tasked with the close protection of Heads of State and government officials, among other dignitaries and celebrities. We also employ highly experienced VIP protection personnel from the civilian sector, who have also worked with A-list celebrities and high net worth individuals of note. Former prison wardens also seem to be attracted to the profession.

So what does the protection of a high-net-individual comprise?

"The term 'high-net-worth individuals' is a type of protection that normally entails close protection of an individual who could be or feels under threat. This could vary from kidnapping to assault and invasion of privacy to protecting their children or anything that is of high value to the person requiring the service," Sacco says.

Sacco also points out that prior to engaging in an assignment, his team always carries a risk assessment on every individual they are assigned to protect to identify the risks related to the client, get to know of any medical conditions the person may suffer from, and also study the environment and nature of and in which the individual requests to be protected in.

"Technically any person could be at risk however the risks a celebrity or dignitary may have in Malta is different to certain other countries. In Malta, a celebrity or high-profile individual risks being involved in a traffic accident since they spend most of the time in transit to and from locations whereas the same person in Mexico would be at risk of kidnapping for instance - quite a difference."

One may remember the incident back in 1997 when Yasser Arafat was in Malta for a EuroMed conference. He was involved in a traffic accident which he his security men thought was an attempt on his life! In fact Arafat's armed security guards sprang out of their vehicles only to find a delivery man in his van.

What is the most fun and challenging part of Sacco's job?

"Protecting the children of the principal concerned. This is quite challenging and rewarding at the same time. When our principal trusts you with his or her children, one feels extremely honoured.

(A principal is the term used when referring to a person being protected).

"While also having to stand at arm's length from a person we are protecting we must also know when we are to step away while maintaining a relatively close watch in order to give the individual the necessary space he or she may require to go along his or her private life - quite a paradox in itself.

One major challenge a security detail can face is when the principal chooses to mingle with crowds, increasing the risks considerably.

"When Silvio Berlusconi, back in 2009, was attacked with a miniature statue of the Duomo di Milano, hurled at him by a person who stood in the crowd where the Italian Prime Minister was, his security guards must have got a grilling after the incident. On the other hand, the Italian Premier doesn't help reduce the risks involved since he enjoys mingling with people - a nightmare for the security detail."

I ask Sacco to describe what makes a good bodyguard.

Sacco says that first and foremost, one does not have to come from a law enforcement or military background but this definitely helps. The ideal person would have attended special protection training, ideally in the UK or Israel, because having been in the police or military doesn't always qualify you to be a good bodyguard unless having served with special units dealing with close protection such as members of the Special Assignment Group (SAG) or members serving within the Armed Forces of Malta 'C' Company, who would have the knowledge and background of VIP security protocol.

"Being fit and polite, well-dressed, and flexible due to the amount of odd hours and waiting time involved in close protection, are highly important requisites.

"Hygiene also plays an important role. Remember that when you are constantly working at a client's close proximity, one should always maintain cleanliness while also refraining from going to the other extreme: that of using high-scented colognes that could also bother the individual you are protecting.

"This is especially the case when travelling in the same vehicle the person you are protecting is in for a long stretch of time, the security protocol of which requires drawn up windows. A subtle or unscented balm would be the right choice.

"One has to consider the risks involved, the environment of which the client is in. If an ambassador needs to travel from one city to another for instance, his security detail would, through intelligence gathered, avoid areas which may pose a risk to the client. Weather will be one of the issues the security team considers in terms of risk due to the considerable time the principal generally spends in transit.

"One should also take note of any medical condition the client may suffer. But the most important thing is intelligence - the power behind every specialist operation."

Does Sacco think security guards (private guards) in Malta, which he refers to as door supervisors, are trained enough to execute a job, and is there a place where one can undergo more than basic training?

"The regulation of a Special Private Guard license is commended as long as one gets the necessary training beforehand. Where to turn to for such training in Malta is a totally different issue altogether. But this is an area that doesn't really interest me."

A number of people assume that door supervisors, aka bouncers, are all brawn but no brains. Does Sacco agree that an image of a tall or well-built man acts as a deterrent in itself?

"In the past, personnel often had to rely on their own common sense and physical street instincts to control aggressive behavior from an intoxicated guest. Like the situation with Strait Street, when the military used to get involved in bar brawls.

"Senior officers were generally more well-trained and educated than officers in other ranks but they both executed the job in the end.

"In this day and age, a problem that may lead to such men entrusted with the job of security officers is that certain companies opt to pay less, particularly within the door supervision sector. And this may attract a certain level of people to apply for such jobs who may have inadequate experience/training. In other words, you generally get what you pay for."

How important is image in a job like yours?

"The image is very important. I'd rather have a tall, well-built officer than a shorter one as the image is a deterrent in itself, however it's not a requisite to be tall. If the bodyguard is overweight for instance, this could affect his performance and is detrimental to his image.

How is the level of security at a high-profile event different from a typical day on a security detail with a celebrity, I ask Sacco?

"During events such as concerts, one would manage logistics, a considerable amount of security officers, health and safety issues.

"Circumstances are different because you would have to manage a number of issues and personnel in a short time-frame and the agency's team would have gone over the planning stages a number of weeks prior to the actual event - which generally lasts around three hours.

"In the case of a celebrity it's a different kettle of fish. With a celebrity it's ongoing. You would generally manage a much smaller team."

Due to the high security risk, a security detail would generally use a certain level of speed when transferring Heads of State or other high-profile individuals from one place to another in a vehicle.

But is this necessary, I ask Sacco, whose agency invested in an armoured XJ8 Jaguar in order to provide a holistic security solution, manned by highly trained security drivers? Doesn't this tactic attract more attention and endanger the life of the principle?

Sacco says that "driving at a high speed can be detrimental to the principal while attracting unnecessary attention, unless there's a blue light motorcade leading the way".