Prepping for the Apocalypse at a Doomsday Training Camp
I learned how to cut through zip ties, pick locks, and lived through a fake kidnapping—all in the name of girding myself for the lawless world to come.
This article appeared in the August Issue of VICE Magazine
The young one is shouting again, in Arabic. "La ilaha illa Allah!" The Muslim profession of faith: There is no God but God. His partner, who sounds older, keeps one hand clamped around the nape of my neck. He whispers in my ear, "You're in for it now." Then louder: "Convert or die!"
It is September 10, early morning and hot already, and I am in Los Angeles, seated cross-legged on the grime-caked floor of a white work van as it careens through the industrial vastness surrounding LAX. Shoeless and handcuffed, I huff for breath as the older man stuffs another bag over the white pillowcase already cinched tight around my neck. "This is going to be fun," he says.
One of the four other hooded men with me refuses to convert, which is, apparently, a bad choice. The older man orders his partner to throw him from the van. The back door jerks open, sunlight suffuses the muffling layers of my hoods, and I hear the roaring wind and the screaming tumult of other cars, the two men laughing. Then the door snaps shut and everything goes dark and quiet again.
My turn comes and I stutter something about being an atheist, which is true, foxhole exception notwithstanding. I'm anxious and stressed, the sweat streams from my body, and I can't think clearly. Even I don't believe me. The Arabic speaker wants to know whether I'm married, and I decide to say nothing, just hold up my left hand and waggle my ring finger. He takes this as defiance and smacks me, promises worse once we get to the "secure location."
I sit in silence after that, head down, brooding over my answer, wondering what comes next. Suddenly, the kidnappers shout "drone attack!" and the older one knocks me to the van floor. We shudder to a stop, the back door swings open again, and our captors flee, slamming the door behind them. We are suddenly, and somewhat eerily, alone. Nothing happens at first, our response times slowed by the data overload and the adrenaline still roiling our emotions.
Then I snap into focus and rip off my hoods, gulp hungrily at the fresh air. I get to work on the handcuffs: Smith & Wesson, police-issue, nickel-plated, double spring lock. I've hidden a few metal hair clips, the kind schoolgirls use, pink with sky-blue polka dots, in the bottom of my socks and have a couple hooked onto the slit of my boxers. I fish one out, snap off the top, fold the central clip bar back and forth until it breaks off. I am left with a thin strip of metal. Starting with my right hand, I insert the strip into the space between the cuff's single strand of teeth and the check plate, tightening it a couple of clicks to help work my jury-rigged shim in more deeply. Then, pushing my wrist slightly upward, I pull the shim out and release the cuff. I have the other one off in seconds. I look up and the other men have freed themselves as well. No one says much, but we are laughing, in relief and perhaps a little hysteria, at how easy it was.
Outside the van and into the bright light and deep stillness of a Los Angeles neighborhood populated by blank office parks and warehouses. The sound of men chattering in Spanish floats in from somewhere distant. I have never been here before. A debate ensues over what to do next, and as we dither, I make out the chopping blows of approaching footsteps.
"They're coming back! Run!"
Two days earlier, Kevin Reeve, founder and director of onPoint Tactical, is seated at a long table in a drab airport-hotel conference room, surrounded by his educational props: handcuffs, an array of padlocks, lock-picking kits, rolls of duct tape, stacks of zip ties, skeins of rope, packs of hair clips and bobby pins, coils of plastic tubing, and more.
I am one of five participants in onPoint Tactical's Urban Escape and Evasion course, a three-day practicum in what Reeve likes to call a "WROL" (Without Rule of Law) situation. The class includes two days of training and lectures and then, on day three, a "practical exercise": a kidnapping, during which each student must free himself from captivity and make his way to safety, wherever that is.
I have not chosen to attend Reeve's class out of any particular abduction fears: I walk with confidence amid the daunting condominium projects, nail-polish sweatshops, and drip-coffee palaces of Park Slope, Brooklyn. I have three children, an unstable job, and a face for radio. There are no chicken coops or nascent computer empires in my garage. You'd have to kidnap most of the neighborhood to make the ransom numbers on me work. But anxiety, the old-fashioned, neurotic preoccupation of the sort my Freudian progenitors taught me to love and loathe, haunts me nonetheless. Pick your concern, false or otherwise, crypto-racist or overtly xenophobic, and chances are it will set my poor heart athump. And so I have come to Los Angeles, and to Kevin Reeve, to calm my nerves, test my wits, and learn a few simple hacks (apologies) for when everything goes awry, which I know will happen, and so do you, inevitably, ultimately, justifiably, tragicomically, and perhaps soon.
Reeve is a burly man in his 50s, with buzz-cut, sandy-brown hair, severe, deep-set eyes, and an incidental resemblance to Clint Eastwood. His wrists, slab-like cuts of beef bristling with wiry, brown fur, have been tightly bound with zip ties. "This is easy," he says. "You're all going to be able to do this."
Reeve removes the laces from one of his boots: 550-pound, tensile-strength parachute cord. Pull all you want, it won't break. Moving quickly, he threads the cord into the gap between his wrists and the zip ties and then fashions the ends of the cord into two-inch loops that he fits over the toes of his shoes.
"Gotta be careful with this," he says. "When it gives, your arms can fly up and break your face."
He begins rapidly bicycling his feet, using the cord to saw at the zip tie. Maybe ten seconds of friction, and then a puff of smoke, the sweet scent of burning plastic, and the tie gives way.
Reeve is a unique figure within the small world of escape-and-evasion experts. He has no military experience. Joel Lambert, star of the Discovery channel show Lone Target, is a former Navy SEAL. Tony Schiena, creator of the Not Taken anti-kidnapping DVD series, consulted for South Africa's intelligence and paramilitary sector. Reeve, meanwhile, was a Boy Scout, grew up middle class in Pasadena, the son of a teacher and a homemaker. He worked in Silicon Valley in the 80s and 90s, for Apple, doing whatever "organizational development" and "executive coaching" means. He dropped out, transformed himself from a corporate drone gliding toward retirement and death by natural causes and into a nationally recognized survivalist, tracker, and security consultant. He teaches police officers, soldiers, businessmen traveling abroad, and journalists working in war zones what to do when their lives turn into something akin to an action-film set piece, minus the CGI. Along with Urban Escape and Evasion, onPoint offers classes called Surviving Deadly Contact and Off Grid Medical Care. In 2011, Reeve got his own History Channel show, Off the Grid: Million Dollar Manhunt. Contestants on the show attempted to last a single day in Los Angeles without Reeve hunting them down. None did. "There's very few people that Navy SEALs respect," says Charlie Ebersol, the show's executive producer. "Plus, Kevin's a total badass."
We've already been through handcuffs. Each student has been issued an eight-piece lock-picking kit with an array of tension tools. We discuss the "wriggle-struggle" method for getting out of rope, and later on we cover techniques for garroting, slicing, stabbing, and slashing, using "tools designed to penetrate the body cavity." And now each one of us will have our wrists wrapped with duct tape and then have to get out.
My classmates include a visual effects expert for the movies; an executive at an aerospace company with contracts with the military; a Harvard-educated novelist; and Dan, a gaunt and quietly intense dude who operates his own wilderness-survival outfit with locations around California. Dan listens intently to the lectures, interjects tidbits from his own expertise, and wolfs down bags of licorice whips and other snacks.
I am without question the worst student in the class. I fumble with the handcuffs and struggle to tie the loops with the parachute cord. I have some success opening a padlock once, but then I am unable to repeat it. The contractor quickly gets the feel for lining up the padlock tumblers, and the FX guy says he often brings a pair of handcuffs to bars to impress the ladies (no word on how successful that is). The novelist wriggle-struggles to great effect. And Dan, well, Dan is good at everything.
Reeve winds the duct tape around my wrists with care. Up close, he has a gentle way. It's not clear if this constitutes the behavior of someone who charges $795 per class, or if I remind him of the ordinary individual he used to be before he grasped his own volition. He exudes conventional male authority, the sense that he knows things that men used to know but often don't anymore. And he's willing to share that knowledge. "You can do this," he says. "I know you can." He grins a little. "But it's going to hurt."
I draw a couple of deep breaths, and then swing my wrists up toward the ceiling and bring them crashing down into my torso. The air rushes from my lungs and I gasp, feel a rush of heat up the back of my neck, and grit my teeth through the pain of the blow. I look down at my wrists: The duct tape has split halfway through.
"That's good," Reeve says. "Once is enough. Try the other way."
I walk over to the bathroom door, and begin rubbing the frayed edges of the duct tape along the corner of the frame. The tape gives way almost instantly. Images from every spy movie I've ever seen, every gangster flick, every action thriller in which the bad guys throw the duct-taped victim into the trunk of a car, flash through my brain. I have, as Reeve puts it, "defeated" the duct tape.
"Lemme see that padlock again," I say, to no one in particular.
Reeve's assistant instructor for the class is one Jerry Cobb, 22-year veteran of the Green Berets, a tall, gruff-looking fellow with a shaved head and an unruly gray beard, dressed like a construction worker and wearing what I can only describe as Desert Storm sneakers. Like Reeve, he is Mormon and lives outside St. George, Utah, in a disaster-prepped house. A former student I spoke with who had visited Cobb at home described his "wall-to-wall" five-gallon buckets of water and emergency supply of lentils. Cobb says he has extensive combat experience, back in his "stupid days." "You can ask him for specifics," Reeve tells me, "but he probably won't give them to you."
Despite his surly disposition and physically imposing figure, Cobb possesses excellent, and much-needed, comic timing. He sits behind us during the two days of lectures, his legs propped up on a swivel chair. He frequently drowses in a light sleep, rousing himself at strategic moments to punctuate Reeve's statements. "I peed my pants all the time in combat," he says during a discussion of fear in war. "Can't tell you how many times." And on the potential for an Islamic State attack on Los Angeles: "I say, bring it. Show us what you got." Then back to bed.
What gets Cobb most excited, however, is not hostile foreign nationals but their domestic counterparts. His opinions on urban street gangs could be taken straight from the "Can you dig it?" speech in The Warriors. "An increasingly large number of these guys have hardcore military experience," he says. "They're bringing it home and training their homies." (Dan agrees and at one point remarks to me that he is disappointed in the location of the kidnapping exercise—Marina Del Rey, Venice, and Santa Monica—preferring to test himself against the city's "bangers.")
Reeve projects an image of a map onto the wall behind him. It depicts the racial boundaries of a major American city: pink sections for whites, blue for African Americans, green for Asians, tan for Hispanics, and a nebulous gray for "other." The map illustrates a situation most of us prefer to think no longer exists: extreme segregation, each community ensconced in its own mono-colored region.
Reeve asks us to imagine a WROL event. It might be in New Orleans, where he worked as a security consultant in the wake of hurricanes Ivan and Gustav. New Orleans, he tells us, is where, after Katrina, more than 600 people died of gunshot wounds. I believe this figure is unfounded. When I ask Reeve where he got it, he replies that it was from a New Orleans policeman, one of the very same folks, he tells us (again bending the truth), who abandoned their posts during the flood and "went home to take care of their families."
Disruption, whatever its form, provokes consistent patterns of behavior, according to Reeve. The "cooperation phase," characterized by post-disaster neighborliness and mutual assistance, lasts 24 hours. We share food, power, and water, tuck in one another's kids. By days two and three, however, cooperation fades, as the awareness of scarcity of resources sets in. The power still isn't on, the canned goods dwindle, no more Band-Aids—any for you means less for me. By day three, if no help arrives, we descend into tribalism. "We are all nine meals away from anarchy," Reeve says.
In major urban areas, Reeve cautions, tribalism hews to strict racial lines; like sticks to like. When WROL begins, we must do whatever is necessary to get back to our color. "I'm not advocating," he says. "It's just the reality."
My fellow students and I—residents, racially speaking, of the pink sectors of Reeve's demographic map—shift uncomfortably in our seats. The tenor of the class has changed. No longer rooted in the sturdy virtues of self-reliance, we are adrift on the turbulent seas of white male paranoia and anxiety. Things return to normal, as they do among men, when we break for lunch.
The manhunt portion of the class begins on day three. Reeve warned us about the drone attack and the opportunity to escape. We have until 4 PM that afternoon to safely reach an "extraction point." Hunters, which may include Reeve, his assistant instructors, and several former students, will stalk us. Reeve doesn't say exactly what will happen if we are caught, but there are intimations of being chained to a fence in a remote location, or a possible working-over with a stun gun. Complicating matters further, we must confront a series of WROL-related challenges, everything from picking a lock in a public place to begging money from a stranger. After each successfully completed task, we can communicate with Reeve via text message, and he will tell us the next step to safety. (We are forbidden from using our phones for any other purpose.)
For now, though, all I know is that I am supposed to head north, a direction that leads me into a bizarre Los Angeles urbanscape: two cemented-over creeks bisected by a narrow peninsular wedge, and beyond, a sprawling and forbidding swamp—the Ballona Wetlands—guarded by knotted clumps of pickleweed and dotted with wildflowers.
I am walking along a fenced-off access path adjacent to one of the creeks when I freeze. A couple of hundred yards ahead, just past a tree-obstructed bend, I see the outline of a man. He has his back to me, leaning casually against the side of a building. I hide behind some bushes. He could be a hunter, lying in wait. After a moment, he turns around, takes a final drag on his cigarette, and heads inside. False alarm. I feel silly, but I don't know how many hunters Reeve has employed or where they will be positioned. Anyone I encounter could be hostile. I want desperately to escape, far more so than I expected. This may be a game, but recapture would be an excruciating, almost existential, failure. You are not meant to be free.
Across the creek, I notice two figures standing in front of what looks likes a tunnel through the embankment of an elevated freeway: a sheltered route north. I hurry back down the path, looking for a way across the water.
"No, dude. I wouldn't go in there. It's a drainage tunnel." The man is heavily tattooed and leanly muscled, fierce-looking and amused all at once. The woman with him takes off at my approach, hustling into the farther reaches of the peninsula. An interrupted sex worker and a disgruntled client, most likely, but I'm in no position to ask. I keep moving. The ground is littered with refuse, bashed bits of cement, discarded metal bars, beer cans, food wrappers, condoms, and drug baggies. Disruption and danger push us to society's periphery, where the by-products of our daily comforts are made plain. This is an unintentional lesson of the class.
At the end of the peninsula I reach an elaborate homeless shanty. Someone has erected a shelter here with rebar, bicycle frames, cardboard boxes, and grocery carts, all covered with blue nylon tarps. A television antenna juts from the top, and I can hear the drone of a gas-powered generator: They have electricity. Two Chihuahuas rush out to sound the alarm at my arrival. I cluck amiably at them until the woman from the drainage tunnel appears, followed by a wary-looking male partner. They give me directions to cross the swamp, and I thank them and leave.
I reach the Starbucks at around noon, foot-sore and sweaty and not a little dull-headed from skulking about side streets and back alleys to keep ahead of the hunters. I am in disguise: blue board shorts, a sleeveless basketball jersey, red baseball cap set askew on my head, and flip-flops, garb all purchased at Goodwill the night before, along with a pair of $5 plastic sunglasses I picked up, for reasons obscure to me now, at a Party City. Reeve has instructed us to "cache" some necessaries—the clothes, extra shims, my lock-picking kit, and some water—along the prospective escape route. (Reeve maintains his own caches, of weapons and other supplies, in and around his home in St. George. "It's fun to find a good hide. Homeless people do it every day.") When I emerge from the swamp, I move quickly to reclaim my goods, stowed late the previous night behind some tall shrubs at the edge of the marina.
The hunters, as Reeve explained during the lectures, have cellphone photos of their victims. The more we can do to alter our appearance, the better our chances to successfully avoid recapture. He talked at length about the "baseline" of an environment. "This means the particular noise, activity, and speed of a neighborhood," he said. "As long as you match the baseline, you will be invisible." He described a variety of disguise concepts, my favorite being that of the "gray man." Average build, average dress, average demeanor—the gray man is utterly unexceptional, and therefore invisible. "None of you has ever seen a gray man," he said. "If you saw him, he wasn't gray." (Cobb: "Notice we haven't talked about a gray woman? Every woman in the world has her boobs evaluated by a man.") Reeve said I have the makings of a gray man. "Your energy is so withdrawn, so diminished." He meant this as a compliment (I think).
I am crouched behind a restaurant dumpster across the street from the café with the visual effects expert and the guy from the aerospace company. We must rendezvous with a "partisan" who will provide us with essential information. Reeve has given us a code phrase, "Weather's cold, isn't it?" to which the partisan will reply, "Not for the winter." (Note: It's pushing 90 degrees.) The hokeyness of this particular scenario unsettles me a bit. One key element in the kidnapping, for me at least, is the arousal of high stress levels, a consciousness of genuine fear and difficulty. To achieve that, I must suspend disbelief and buy into the fiction of the day. I am, after all, not really kidnapped in a foreign country and fighting for my life. Maintaining that fiction becomes a challenge when spouting gibberish to a stranger at a national coffee franchise. I remind myself to stop being a writer and roll with it.
A smart hunter, it occurs to us, might sit on this location—they know where we are headed—and simply nab us as we arrive. I volunteer to go in alone. That way, if the threat is real, only one of us will be taken. (Don't expect a hero—unless it's you.)
"Gimme twenty minutes," I say. "If I'm not back, assume they got me."
By day three of a [crisis situation], if no help arrives, we descend into tribalism. 'We are all nine meals away from anarchy,' Reeve says.
All I know about the partisan is that he is a man in a black hat. As it turns out, the employees of this particular Starbucks all wear such headgear, as do one or two of the aspiring screenwriters glued to their laptops and sucking down Frappuccinos. I try one of the baristas.
"Cold weather, huh?" I say. He doesn't answer. Just stares. I try again, repeating the phrase exactly. More stare. A little tension, perhaps, in the neck muscles. A glance toward security cameras? Wrong guy.
I step back and notice a young man, a little paunchy and bug-eyed, smirking at me from one of the tables. Wearing a navy-blue baseball cap. The partisan. In the wrong hat.
"It's supposed to throw you. I wanted to see how you'd react," he says. I react with irritation. I ask for a drink of his ice water, which seems to annoy him. He tells me I must complete a "social engineering" task in the café. Reeve has discussed this with us. Part of any escape, he says, will include persuading third parties to help you, often against their own interests. The test the partisan has devised, however, serves only to jar me from the fiction again. Persuade someone to give me the code to the bathroom. A friendly—different—barista gives it up. I pee and return to the partisan.
He asks if I have information about the two other students, and I decide to conduct my own social engineering effort. I say that one man has injured his ankle during the escape and is waiting in a "safe location" nearby. Could the partisan see his way clear to fronting us bus fare? He declines, a little put out by the request, but he looks concerned.
"I'll call Kevin," he says. "He'll come get him."
"Don't bother," I reply, perhaps a little too aggressively. "I was lying. Just wanted to see if you'd give me something."
I get up and leave.
The extraction point proves to be a red-tablecloth pizza spot on the promenade in Santa Monica. I arrive in the late afternoon, as do my fellow students, having picked locks, begged from strangers, wrangled fake IDs, walked many miles, and uttered other inane code phrases. (Q.: "What is the nectar of the gods?" A.: "Mountain Dew.")
No one has been caught, which I find both a personal relief and a mild disappointment. Having someone go down would validate my success. (End a hero.) Reeve conducts a short pizza-and-beer-assisted debrief, with Cobb and the two hunters for the day. Bryce, the younger of the interrogators in the van—Cobb was the other—is a former Marine and Iraq War veteran. He tells me my demeanor in the van was too combative. "I mentioned you to Cobb, and he said, 'He's from New York.'" Rafael, the other hunter, also played the partisan. He is starting a security company in Houston and has flown in to hunt and take another of Reeve's classes. We rehash the scene in the Starbucks, and he claims to have seen through my ruse. "He tried to social engineer me," he tells the others with a small laugh. "Didn't work." (This, as far as I'm concerned, is bunk. He believed me.)
The strain of the day has taken its toll. I am exhausted, physically and mentally. At the same time, I remain jittery and hyper-alert, taking careful notice of the room, looking for entrance and exit points. It's not easy to release the escape-and-evasion mindset. At my hotel later that night, I pace around, shimming my handcuffs and trying to improve my padlock techniques.
I fly home the following morning, September 11, still a somber day on which to move through an airport. I experience some unease at the checkpoints, carrying handcuffs and my lockpicking set. Everything goes smoothly, though. Apparently it remains legal, even in this bridled era, to travel with personal restraints and burglary devices. I join the lines of people wearily trudging forward to be body-scanned. The security folk bark their dead-eyed commands about belts and socks and bottles of water. I am calm but vigilant, slightly adrenalized. I walk—slowly, evenly—past a TSA agent to collect my bags. I have succeeded in smuggling two thin shims in the bottom of my socks, pressed into the balls of my feet. I don't expect to be handcuffed midflight. But the future is unpredictable. If something happens, I will need help from no one but myself.