Are Some Firearms Instructors Swapping Cash for Permits – and NO Training?
Vladislav Shestopal cut an intimidating figure as a security guard. At 18, he was already broad-shouldered and bulky, with buzzed hair and a scowl.
But Shestopal knew he’d make more money if he carried a gun. So he signed up for state-mandated firearm training and drove to a Sacramento, California, address for the course.
He expected to spend about two days training, including half a day at a shooting range, as required for armed security guards in the state. Instead, he said the trainer – Anthony Noyola – shuffled him into a dingy apartment building that smelled of cats and marijuana, asked for $100 and signed his paperwork.
“I’m like, ‘So is that it?’ ” Shestopal recalled asking as his trainer handed the documents back to him. The answer sticks in his mind: “Hell’s yeah, that’s it. Just don’t go shoot anybody in the back.”
Shestopal’s brief encounter with the trainer occurred in late 2010. Today, Noyola remains licensed as a firearms instructor despite a lengthy history of allegations that he sold firearm certificates to guards who didn’t know how to use guns.
The Bureau of Security and Investigative Services has received complaints from more than a dozen guards about Noyola, according to Mitchell Kojima, a former bureau employee who investigated the case.
After Noyola’s shenanigans caught the attention of another security company owner and firearms trainer back in 2011, the competitors launched their own investigation, using volunteer guards to go undercover, make secret recordings and write detailed amateur investigative reports. They submitted the results to the bureau, convinced that the evidence would be impossible for regulators to ignore.
But Noyola retains an unblemished public record. His latest license was issued last year.
Noyola did not return calls or respond to a letter from a Reveal reporter requesting comment. The bureau and the state Department of Consumer Affairs did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.
His case provides a lens into an industry that operates under scant government oversight, even in California, where industry leaders tout strict regulations.
Bureau investigators, facing pressure to close large caseloads, routinely fail to thoroughly investigate complaints. And with the bureau responsible for vetting hundreds of thousands of applicants, companies under investigation, like Noyola’s, often rely on an easy solution to their disciplinary problems: They abandon their license and start anew.
The bureau already is under fire from state lawmakers for a pattern of lax oversight. A Reveal investigation last year found that the bureau rarely takes action against the licenses of guards who shoot their guns, leaving poorly trained, mentally unstable or reckless employees on the job.
The bureau would not provide its records on Noyola to Reveal, citing state law that allows licensing agencies to withhold investigative records. But a copy of the undercover group’s 95-page report details many of Noyola’s transactions.
Over the course of an afternoon, one guard working undercover said he saw Noyola collect more than $1,000 from guards who asked him to sign off on their training forms. Another undercover operative paid Noyola $195 for a 40-hour training course that consisted of watching “Smokey and the Bandit” and a 45-minute video on weapons of mass destruction.
The bureau, they said, has never contacted them about their observations.
“It’s infuriating. You’re like, why isn’t BSIS doing anything? Why isn’t the state of California doing anything about this guy, if there’s so much about him?” said Kojima, the former bureau investigator. “I feel that way, too. Why didn’t we do more on this guy? We just didn’t have the resources.”
Shestopal, who himself submitted a report to the group, also said he never heard from the bureau.
“If I was the bureau, I would have contacted me or a person like me and asked him to testify and explain what happened,” he said. “It’s fraud. You’re putting people at risk.”
Early warnings about Noyola
Signed firearm training documents – plus a background check – are the proof the state needs to issue a license. That’s how it worked for Shestopal.
Although he knew his training had been cursory, Shestopal said he didn’t realize it was illegal until he met Cory Robinson, a Sacramento-based security company owner who later would initiate the investigation.
“I told him, ‘Hey dude, I got my guard card license and my firearm permit. Maybe you can show me some techniques on how to use a firearm, take it apart, clean it,’ ” Shestopal said.
Shestopal said Robinson immediately became concerned and asked him where he got his training. Shestopal told him the whole story.
“He’s like, ‘Are you serious? That is highly illegal,’ ” Shestopal recalled.
Robinson arranged for Shestopal to get more firearms training. But that wasn’t the last Robinson heard of Noyola. As the trainer’s name circulated around the office, one of Robinson’s guards acknowledged that seven months earlier, he also had gone to Noyola. Robinson quickly warned other people he knew in the industry.
“This guy’s a fraud!” he wrote in an email in March 2011, which later was attached to the group’s report. “Offer him $150 and he’ll sign off on anyone’s firearms training!!”
One of Robinson’s contacts took a special interest. Steve Caballero is a longtime Sacramento firearms trainer and private investigator. He also once served on the bureau’s disciplinary review committee, which hears appeals of the bureau’s disciplinary cases, and he co-authored the state’s firearms training manual for armed guards.
The manual lays out the required curriculum for California’s armed guards. During the nearly two-day training, they learn the basics, including how to load and unload a gun, and they have to show their proficiency on the range with the gun they plan to carry on the job. Once someone passes the range test, the trainer sends an authorization to the bureau.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. But documents and interviews show that the bureau rarely checks whether instructors are playing by the rules – even though that is one of its main jobs under California law.
In an annual report filed with the state Senate late last year, the bureau disclosed that it does not review training curriculum. Nor does it regularly audit or inspect training schools, something that may change with a bill introduced in the Legislature this year but held over for 2016. The bureau inspected 15 schools in fiscal year 2012-13, then stopped, saying it did not have enough staff.
In 2013, the bureau received more than 2,370 consumer complaints. Cases involving fraud or violence get the highest priority, Kojima said, but with each investigator juggling hundreds of cases per year, investigators find it difficult to be thorough.
“It’s triage,” he said. “You just flip ’em out, McDonald’s style.”
In one case, the bureau took years to revoke the license of a firearms instructor whose training curriculum consisted of “The Fast and the Furious,” “Larry the Cable Guy” and “The Redneck Comedy Tour.” His trainees included guards contracted by the Federal Aviation Authority to protect the air traffic control center for most of Southern California.
That fraudulent training prompted a federal investigation in 2009. The bureau didn’t file disciplinary action against the trainer’s license until 2013.
For armed guards, the temptation to buy sham training is high. Most guards earn little more than minimum wage but must pay for the mandated training themselves. They also have little incentive to report inadequate training – doing so could put their own licenses at risk. And since the bureau is responsible for vetting an armed guard’s training, security companies believe they do not need to check.
“A lot of the (companies) won’t even ask where you got it; they’ll just ask, ‘Do you have it?’ ” said firearms instructor Terry Wingert. “They’re willing to accept on faith that they got it in the proper place.”
An undercover investigation
Caballero and Robinson’s investigation began the morning of March 16, 2011. Robinson called a former employee, Eric Montalvo, who had gone through some police training, and asked him if he would participate.
Montalvo told Reveal that he readily agreed to do it, without pay. He had heard from a former co-worker that guards routinely went to Noyola for a quick signoff on their permits.
His conversations with Noyola would form the backbone of the group’s investigation.
In his reports, Montalvo described every step he took. Before he arrived at Noyola’s office, he met with Caballero, who gave him a $100 bill to pay for his training; he even photocopied the bill for the investigative report. Caballero also told him to stick close to another investigator, Mary Ann Turk, who would be at Noyola’s office for firearms training. She would record the transaction.
Montalvo pulled into the parking lot at 11:40 a.m. and spotted Noyola’s Ford Crown Victoria, a retired law enforcement car. Noyola invited him to climb in while he made a few phone calls. The instructor was thin but muscular with a shaved head, a black goatee and a gun on his hip.
Montalvo already was a licensed armed guard, but he pretended he had never gotten firearms training and needed a permit because he had just applied for a job as an armored-car guard.
Just then, Turk walked up to the window and introduced herself as Mary. As she walked ahead, Montalvo recalled, Noyola said he hoped to have sex with her, saying, “I think I’ll have a chance if I give her a discount on her classes.”
Turk and Montalvo painted a vivid picture of Noyola’s office in their reports. The small room contained a few metal folding chairs, a television set on a stand and ammunition littering a small bookshelf. A “Dirty Harry” movie poster and awards from the Navy and military police were framed on the wall alongside a Phoenix Training Services banner.
Turk had told Noyola that she wanted a basic security guard license, for which she needed 40 hours of training. Noyola put on a video about weapons of mass destruction for her as Montalvo filled out his training forms.
“I’ll backdate your state form for October, but you didn’t hear that from me,” Noyola told him, according to Montalvo’s report.
“OK, I’m just going to trust what you say because I have no clue what you’re talking about,” Montalvo said.
“That’s the response I like. That’s why I’m still around,” Noyola said.
Noyola told Turk to sit close to him so they could talk, saying he knew the video was boring. When the 45-minute video was over, Turk reported that Noyola put on “Smokey and the Bandit,” telling her it was his favorite. After half an hour, Turk told Noyola that she needed to pick up her kids from school. She paid him $195 for the 40-hour training course and left.
As he signed off on documents for other students, Noyola advised Montalvo what to tell the bureau if asked, Montalvo recounted.
“Tell them you took the class at Phoenix Security in Sacramento and the qualification course out in Rancho Cordova because that’s where one of my last classes qualified at,” Noyola told Montalvo.
In the coming weeks, Caballero continued the investigation, sending another former student to Noyola and gathering reports from other guards.
He pulled all of the information together – the undercover reports, the forms they received, photocopies of the cash paid and Noyola’s receipts. He put them in a three-ring binder. And he added a cover letter to the bureau.
“In light of this information we can assume that there may be hundreds of guards that have been trained (or not) by Noyola that are carrying firearms on duty without having fired any weapon,” Caballero wrote in his letter. “This presents a serious danger to public safety.”
On April 29, 2011, Caballero delivered the binder in person to then-bureau chief Connie Trujillo.
“Original evidence will be made available to investigative entities upon request,” Caballero wrote.
That request, Caballero said, never came.
Complaints pile up
Amid the allegations, Noyola appeared to shut down operations.
His license lapsed in 2011, and his office closed. After three of his guards were shot at while trying to break up a fight at a Carmichael cafe in 2012, he stopped advertising security services. But the complaints continued.
Kojima estimates that the bureau received complaints from 15 guards. Some said they had paid for training and Noyola never showed up. In other cases, they later discovered his signature on their training documents was worthless because he was no longer licensed. Noyola eluded bureau investigators by moving from office to office and switching phone numbers, Kojima said.
Kojima forwarded the case to the California Division of Investigation, where officers declined to file criminal charges. Unable to find Noyola, Kojima closed the case without taking disciplinary action and placed a hold on Noyola’s file. If Noyola ever renewed his license, Kojima figured the hold would prompt licensing staff to notify an investigator to track him down.
Caballero heard less and less about Noyola and assumed the bureau had shut down the school. He was surprised to learn what happened next: The bureau granted Noyola a new license. Kojima was surprised, too.
“That’s infuriating,” Kojima said.
On a recent weekday afternoon, a Reveal reporter drove to one of the school’s registered addresses in West Sacramento. The location, it turned out, was United Christian Centers, which provides transitional housing, free day care, food and job-training programs for homeless people.
Last year, Noyola approached the center for help and struck a deal: He would provide security guard and firearm training to the homeless if the center would pay $1,000 to get Noyola’s business license up and running again.
“We’re very open to people; we’re kind of second chancers here,” center CEO Sergei Shkurkin said.
Shkurkin registered Noyola’s training school at the center’s address. But as soon as Noyola got his license back, Shkurkin said, “he flaked out” – Noyola stopped coming to the center or even returning calls.
Eventually, an employee at the center tracked down Noyola and got him to agree to return, but he still missed classes often. At one point, the center paid him to provide more firearms training that never materialized. Shkurkin gave up.
“He’s unusually good-looking. He’s very fit, very charming,” Shkurkin said. “He’s someone who presents very well, and he’s a scammer.”
In May, Noyola moved the school to a new address in San Diego. After a Reveal reporter started asking questions, the bureau suspended the school’s license.
But the bureau let Noyola keep his instructor’s license. Guards can still go to him for their firearm permits, no questions asked.