By J. Harry Jones
Thursday, April 14, 2011 at 2:15 a.m.
Miles deep into the largest Indian reservation
in San Diego County
, a company with ties to at least one former Blackwater Worldwide
executive is building a training facility with firing ranges, a helipad and what was described as mock Afghan villages.
Two men told visitors to the remote site last week that Marines and other troops would engage in cultural, language-immersion and ambush exercises there, although in a later interview one stressed there would be no combat training.
The facility, located on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation
northeast of Warner Springs, follows a similar effort by Blackwater to create a military and paramilitary training center in Potrero. Blackwater abandoned that proposal amid community opposition in 2008.
It’s unclear when or how the tribe became involved in the current project, which came to public light by chance on April 6.
A reporter and photographer for The San Diego Union-Tribune were on a ride-along with sheriff’s deputy Erik Munzenmaier for a story about law enforcement in the backcountry when the deputy decided to enter the 25,000-acre reservation.
After heading east for a few miles in mountainous terrain, Munzenmaier drove up to a locked gate guarded by two men. The men let Munzenmaier’s vehicle go through.
A short way up the road, Munzenmaier passed two firing ranges and then reached a construction site where workers were configuring shipping containers on recently graded land.
Two men met Munzenmaier on the road. One introduced himself as Brian Bonfiglio.
Bonfiglio was a vice president of Blackwater Worldwide and the main public contact during the private security firm’s 2006 bid to create the training facility in Potrero. Blackwater, now called Xe Services, pulled out in 2008 as residents protested its wartime activities in Iraq and raised concerns about increased traffic, noise and wildfire dangers linked to munitions exercises.
The second man, Sean Roach, is a motivational speaker, entrepreneur and former business executive. His name appears in the incorporation records for several companies in Nevada and San Diego County, and he is a board member for Big Brothers
Big Sisters of San Diego County.
At the reservation, Bonfiglio and Roach told Munzenmaier that Eagle Rock LLC runs the facility as a Department of Defense outsourcing project and that troops would train there. They said the company was leasing the land from the tribe and that plans call for construction of five villages of different sizes and configurations to be built out of shipping containers spray-foamed and painted to resemble mud huts.
Eventually, they said, “real Afghans” will be brought to the mock villages to help their clients with language and cultural immersion training. They also said a helicopter pad was located farther up a hill, as were two helicopter shells and several old vehicles.
As Munzenmaier began driving out of the site, Roach introduced himself by first name to the reporter, who returned the greeting without giving his full name or conducting an interview.
In a follow-up interview by phone, Roach said his group was involved in “perfectly legal activities on sovereign tribal land that isn’t subject to public or journalistic scrutiny.”
“I’m a very private person,” he added. “I saw a good business opportunity here, and the location is perfect. It’s out of the way and in a beautiful setting.”
He described the center as a filming area, future paintball course and site for service members and civilian workers going overseas to learn different languages and customs. At one point, he said no combat drills were taking place. A few minutes later, he said he couldn’t talk about the issue.
Roach wouldn’t name the center’s military-related clients and said Pentagon contracts wouldn’t mention Eagle Rock because the company is only a subcontractor.
The Naval Special Warfare Command
in Coronado said Navy SEALs would use the Eagle Rock center in the near future for a new survival-training course. A spokesman for the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force
said he was still checking on whether the command would use the facility.
Roach said he came up with the Eagle Rock concept about six months ago, and then another person approached the tribe about using the space. He described Bonfiglio as one of several consultants.
Bonfiglio, who could not be reached for comment, was identified in a September 2009 story by Military Training
Technology magazine as founder of the Eagle Rock Training Center. The article quotes sources touting the advantages of private companies training troops away from military bases, including their expertise in dealing with environmental and zoning regulations and their ability to offer a broader range of instruction on driving, security, firearms and explosives.
“The military as a whole has the instructor capability, but the problem is that the subject matter expertise is spread out ...,” Bonfiglio said in that story. “A private company collects all of this talent, experience and subject matter expertise and makes it available to the government at a very comfortable rate.”
A filing with the California secretary of state shows that Eagle Rock Training Center LLC was formed in San Diego in August.
At the Los Coyotes tribal office, a man who identified himself only as Tony declined to answer questions about Eagle Rock during a phone interview. He said whatever happens on the reservation is tribal business.
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst for the Lexington Institute research group in Virginia, said it is unusual for a private company to train uniformed military personnel.
“Normally, organizations like the former Blackwater are engaged in training private personnel to support government operations,” he said. “You don’t usually run into this kind of thing.”
This is not the first time that questions have surfaced about a military-style training camp at Los Coyotes. In 2008, Warner Springs residents said they noticed military vehicles going into the reservation and speculated that Blackwater was housing some employees at the nearby Warner Springs Ranch
At the time, a Blackwater spokeswoman told the Union-Tribune that a training facility was operating on the reservation and there were plans to expand it. Then an hour or two later, another company representative said the earlier information was incorrect because there was no such facility.
In 2006, a citizen advisory group in the East County community of Potrero gave the initial go-ahead to Blackwater to open a training center in town. The corporation planned to develop the camp on 824 rural acres, about 45 miles east of San Diego.
But resistance to the proposal spread, fueled by criticism over Blackwater’s alleged mercenary activity overseas.
In 2008, the outfit dropped plans for the camp, but emphasized the decision was because of problems with complying with county noise standards.
Editor Hieu Tran Phan contributed to this report.
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