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Rise and fall of Second Chance vest Part 1

Discussion in 'General Gun Discussions' started by 71Commander, Nov 21, 2005.

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  1. 71Commander

    71Commander Member

    Sep 21, 2003
    Headin back to Johnson City

    This Michigan man shot himself repeatedly to sell his soft body armor to police. But the vests proved flawed and two cops went down. Now the $50-million-a-year empire is in ruins. And his success story has some holes.

    November 21, 2005

    Email this Print this BY JOE SWICKARD and DAVID ZEMAN


    Richard Davis, founder of Second Chance Body Armor, would shoot himself to prove the vest's effectiveness. In this April 30, 1997, demonstration in Central Lake, he used a .44 Magnum with a 6-inch barrel. The hole in the shirt after Davis shot himself. Police were sold. "That demonstration reaped millions for him," said David Balash, a former police firearms expert. (1997 photo by LIZ RAFFAELE/Special to Free Press)

    First of two parts

    Inspiration came to Richard Davis, so the story goes, as doctors plucked a bullet from his temple and another from his buttocks.

    Not quite the apple that bonked Isaac Newton. But those small slugs gave Davis, a struggling Detroit pizzeria owner who said he was wounded in a shootout with robbers, his Big Idea: soft body armor that cops could wear as easily as an undershirt.

    From that 1969 gun battle, his official history continues, Davis parlayed a $70 roll of nylon and the straps from his car's seat belts into a $50-million-a-year business providing thousands of American cops, soldiers -- even President George W. Bush -- with light, bullet-resistant vests.

    But now the high-flying college flunkout finds himself in bankruptcy, along with Second Chance Body Armor, the northern Michigan business he founded. The shooting of two police officers and the lawsuits that followed revealed that Second Chance kept selling vests despite mounting evidence of deadly flaws. The U.S. Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation.

    And many cops who used and trusted Davis' vests feel betrayed.

    "Being responsible for 28 guys on the team, it really hit me," said Lt. Tim Atkins of the Oakland County Sheriff's Office tactical unit. "If they had prior knowledge of the problems and didn't do anything, boy, you really hate to think that."

    A Free Press investigation reveals a history of troubling incidents involving Davis, from the torching of his pizza stores in 1970 to his detention at Heathrow Airport in 1977 to a scheme to obstruct a police investigation in 1990.

    The newspaper probe also raises questions about the episode that gave rise to Davis' fortune -- that gun battle on a warm summer night in Detroit.

    Over more than three decades, Davis claims, his body armor saved nearly 1,000 police officers from serious injury or death. So it is no small irony that one of those who was saved helped bring down Second Chance.

    Aaron Westrick, a straight-arrow ex-cop and the company's research chief, repeatedly implored Second Chance executives to recall problem vests.

    "We were literally ... waiting for the next body to come in, in my opinion," Westrick testified in one deposition. "When I think back, it just makes me sick."

    Westrick, whose life was saved by a Second Chance vest in 1982, was let go last year and has since sued the company under a federal whistle-blower law.

    His testimony is crucial to suits by the U.S. government, seven states, scores of police departments and the families of the two officers who were shot through their vests. Second Chance -- and Toyobo, the Japanese manufacturer of the Zylon fabric used in the vests -- is accused of keeping more than 100,000 vests on the market despite tests showing Zylon weakened prematurely when exposed to heat, light or moisture.

    Westrick also produced a cache of memos to support his testimony, including papers Second Chance executives allegedly ordered shredded.

    Exhibit A, should any of the suits go to trial, is a Davis memo from 2002 in which he acridly challenges his company's executive board to warn customers about Zylon's weaknesses.

    In the memo, Davis asks the board if it wishes to "continue operating as though nothing is wrong until one of our customers is killed or wounded" or someone else "exposes the Zylon problem."

    The "downfall" to that strategy, he writes, is that "a law enforcement officer will be killed wearing one of our vests" and "we will be forced to make excuses as to why we didn't recognize and correct the problem. In the eyes of law enforcement we will either be stupid for not knowing, or greedy and uncaring for knowing and not doing anything about it."

    Eleven months later, a police officer near San Diego died after a gunman's bullets penetrated his Zylon vest, and a second officer, near Pittsburgh, was permanently disabled when his vest failed.

    In memos and deposition testimony, Davis comes across as aggressively demanding action, then routinely backing down. He struggles with his conscience, board members and Toyobo officials about what to do next. "I was trying to find out what, if anything, was wrong with Zylon, because people were betting their lives on this product, including me," Davis testified in one deposition.

    Terry Johnson, the sheriff of Antrim County, where Second Chance is located, said he doesn't believe Davis would knowingly compromise officer safety. "Law enforcement is his heart and soul," Johnson said. "His whole life has been saving lives."

    Davis, 62, his attorneys and other executives at Second Chance declined to answer questions for this report. The story of his rise and fall comes from thousands of pages of deposition transcripts, state and federal court papers, internal company documents and interviews with friends, former employees and lawyers involved in litigation with Davis and Second Chance.

    Unsuccessful early, questioned later

    Davis was a born gadgeteer with a weakness for fireworks. As a child, he was "all the time working on some new project," said Pat Crawford, his sister. His interests didn't pay immediate dividends.

    After graduating from Detroit Henry Ford High School in 1961, Davis quickly bombed out of the University of Michigan. "I was required to withdraw for poor scholarship," he testified in a civil suit. "Didn't quite make it."

    Davis floundered for years. He drove a taxi and toiled as a security guard, in a plastics factory and as a computer operator.

    In the late 1960s, he opened pizza stores on 7 Mile in Detroit and on 11 Mile in Royal Oak. It was a tough go. Bills mounted and he scrambled to fill deliveries. As Davis tells the story that altered his life, he was delivering pizzas on Detroit's west side the night before the Apollo 11 moon launch -- July 15, 1969.

    Three gunmen ambushed him in an alley. Davis was struck twice and returned fire, injuring two of the men.

    Davis said he vowed then that no police officer should ever go unprotected. As he recovered "weeks later," the Second Chance Web site recounted, his pizza business burned.

    It's a story Davis has told countless times.

    But when asked for documents or other corroborating evidence, neither Davis nor his lawyer responded. Crawford, his sister, said her family has no records. Detroit police officials said they could find no report on a shootout, and a review of the Free Press and Detroit News editions of the time found no story. During the time when Davis said he was recovering from his wounds, he married bank teller Karen Troskey, court records show.

    In a deposition years later, she said her husband came up with the idea for soft vests when he was a security guard and made no mention of a shootout. He "had a lot of time to sit around and think," she said, and "got the idea of having a vest that nobody could see."

    Moreover, Davis' pizza stores weren't torched weeks after the alleged shootout, as Second Chance said. Court records show the stores burned the following January, nearly six months later.

    And Davis was the lead suspect.

    The pizza stores in Royal Oak and Detroit burned in the early morning of Jan. 6, 1970. Investigators found fireworks and containers with gasoline. The oven in the Royal Oak shop was stuffed with car tires, apparently intended to ruin the equipment.

    Police learned that, six days earlier, Davis had taken out a $5,000 insurance policy on the contents of the Royal Oak shop and had fallen two months behind in bank payments. In Detroit, his landlord told police she had gone to court to evict Davis after two missed rent payments.

    Davis, though, blamed a store manager he had fired days earlier for the blaze.

    But the ex-manager said he'd been at home and passed a polygraph, satisfying police.

    Davis was charged with arson, a felony. He eventually pleaded no contest to "disorderly conduct -- engaged in an illegal occupation," a misdemeanor, for the Royal Oak fire. He served a year of probation.

    He was never charged in Detroit.

    Concept takes off; Davises go north

    In 1971, Davis devised a soft, lightweight vest made of bullet-resistant synthetics that fit easily under a cop's uniform, removing the greatest impediment to officer safety: Cops simply would not wear the bulky contraptions then on the market.

    Richard and Karen Davis sewed the first vests themselves in their modest Romulus townhouse, testing their effectiveness by shooting at vest-wearing hams.

    Soon, Davis was standing before police groups, raising a .44 Magnum to his chest, and firing. Cops were awestruck -- Davis was unharmed.

    Within a decade, Davis' company was the nation's top producer of soft body armor, with operations in Germany, Scotland and Morocco. "Anybody who shoots himself in the chest, you have to wonder about," said David Balash, a former Michigan State Police firearms expert. "But that demonstration reaped millions for him."

    With sales climbing, the couple moved to Central Lake, 20 miles south of Charlevoix.

    Davis took over a plant abandoned by Texas Instruments and hired many of its former workers. Second Chance helped build the town's government offices and contributed to local causes.

    Davis started a shooting tournament, for police and sheriff's deputies, that became a rite of summer, with the entire town invited for a picnic. Davis' sly eccentricities were on full display. One year, he disguised the tournament targets as Russian tanks. The next, they glided along a cable to re-create President John F. Kennedy's 1963 ride through Dallas.

    Davis exuded intelligence and curiosity, said Gregg Smith, once a publicist for Second Chance. He cited Davis' involvement as a founder of the Cryonics Institute -- which freezes corpses in the hope they can someday be restored to life -- as an example of Davis' restless, probing mind.

    "You couldn't find a better, more upstanding citizen than Mr. Davis," said William Gadwau, a Central Lake Township trustee.

    Not everyone agreed.

    In 1977, Davis was arrested at Heathrow Airport near London for improperly transporting handguns and ammunition. In the early 1980s, Davis faced scrutiny when one of his sons was caught taking Davis' .357 Magnum pistol to junior high school.

    Then in 1990, a bullet blasted through the window of Bernice and Robert Simon's home, narrowly missing her. Bernice Simon, who spent three days in intensive care with chest pains, claimed the bullet came from Davis' shooting tournament and called to complain. No one called back.

    Davis denied the bullet came from his farm. He was charged, however, with obstruction of justice and a firearms violation, both felonies. Police said he put up a teenager to falsely confess to breaking the window.

    The couple's lawsuit was settled for $10,000. Davis eventually pleaded no contest to conspiring to file a false police report and paid more than $5,000 in restitution and fees.

    But all the while, business boomed. And life was sweet for Richard Davis.

    Maybe too sweet.

    In Tuesday's Free Press: The fall.
  2. bogie

    bogie Member

    Jan 2, 2003
    St. Louis, in the Don't Show Me state
    You just gotta wonder what sorta rounds made it through the vests...
  3. TexasRifleman

    TexasRifleman Moderator Emeritus

    Feb 16, 2003
    Ft. Worth

    It has nothing to do with the round, just about anything will make it through in the specific failure case.

    There is a fiber called Zylon, and it has some property that causes it to age and become brittle extremely fast.

    That's why it fails. "New" Zylon, or Zylon that hasn't aged yet, works great.

    Problem was that, allegedly, Second Chance knew that Zylon had this aging problem and didn't tell anyone.

    Their Kevlar vests and other products were not part of the problem, only vests made of Zylon.

    As you can see from the story above, Second Chance is one of these companies that everyone loves to hate, like Microsoft. They do so well in business people can't stand that. Then, when something goes wrong, the world lines up to bash them. If what they are accused of really happened, then there should be some jail time for sure. No one has yet been convicted of anything, other than in the press.

    The company has been purchased out of bankruptcy by an investment group, and it's still in business and still selling vests. They have removed the Zylon products totally, and will likely be a successful company.

    Without Davis to poke at, however, I have a feeling the article writer above won't make much mention of the continued success of the company.
  4. Creeping Incrementalism

    Creeping Incrementalism Member

    Sep 1, 2005
    S.F. Bay Area
    Masad Ayoob tells Davis's shootout story in Ayoob Files: The Book. I wonder if Ayoob relied totally on Davis's account, or if he got information from any other sources?
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