Monday, May 23, 2022

Point blank

Point blank

Keith West kept his business to himself. That’s why the bullet that killed him wiped out his company.
By Frank Maley

Keith West stood 6-4 and weighed about 260. Nearly 40, the ex-Marine had gone soft around the waist, but his arms still looked as hard as tree trunks. His size served him well in his business. He had left the Smithfield Police Department in 2001 to start West-Tek Inc., his private police force, which within five years had more than 100 employees. He rarely took vacations, spending much of his time away from the office boning up on security practices and networking. If you’re a cop — public or private — it’s easy to make enemies who might want to hurt you. That’s partly why he lived near Benson, about 15 lonely miles from West-Tek’s headquarters in Smithfield. He rarely told anyone where and, for a while, refused to have his mail delivered there.

The little white house on an acre of grass and pines was wired with a security system. Two dogs — a 150-pound St. Bernard and a 25-pound mutt — barked when strangers approached. It would have been hard for the biggest, meanest character to get to him. But it was easy for the petite brunette. She shared his home and his heart. Janet Tedder, his older sister, says Johnston County sheriff’s investigators told her it happened this way: As West slept one summer night last year, Tiffany Bassett, then 26, took his service revolver from its holster hanging on a bedpost, pointed it at his head and pulled the trigger, killing him instantly. It would take his business just a little longer to die.

West had made plenty of mistakes his last few years. He had hooked up with Bassett, whom he had met while on duty at a strip club off Interstate 95. She wasn’t a dancer, his sister says, but a customer. She would move in with him and, nine months before his death, bear him a daughter, now nearly 2. About three months later, he had helped her avoid prison for buying OxyContin with forged prescriptions, but then let her continue to help keep the books for West-Tek’s gun-making and police-supply subsidiary.

His biggest mistake, his sister says, was dropping his guard around a woman who had a lot to lose if he lived. Bassett’s attorney, Bob Denning, declined to comment on the case. Her trial on a charge of first-degree murder is set for late November, but District Attorney Susan Doyle says it might be delayed. Despite this case’s tawdry details, the fate of a business entwined with that of its founder is not that unusual. The spark struck by the entrepreneur can light the way to success, but if he dies before delegating responsibilities and sharing key information, the fire can go out quickly. That’s what happened with West-Tek.

Long before he was old enough to drive, West wanted to be a highway patrolman. Born in Lumberton, he was reared mostly in Raeford before moving to West Virginia with his divorced mom when he was about 12. After graduating from high school, he spent four years in the Marines, where he got the tattoos that ran down his arms to his wrists. That nixed a career as a state trooper. So he spent five years as a guard at Central Prison in Raleigh and eight with the Smithfield police, rising to sergeant. That wasn’t enough to sate his ambition. He started West-Tek in June 2001, and it had grossed $200,000 and turned a profit by the end of the year, he told a writer for Business North Carolina, which ran a short story on him in July 2002. At the time, the company had just 17 employees. But it grew quickly after that — probably too quickly, Tedder says.

In the early days, West did much of the beat work, often enlisting Eric Weaver, whom he had met at a basic law-enforcement class at Wake Technical Community College in 1994. At first, there wasn’t much money coming in, so Weaver, then a cop in Durham, let West pay him when he could. They enjoyed hanging out together. “He was serious when it came time to be serious, but we used to have a lot of fun when we were working on security gigs, when there wasn’t much going on, standing there telling jokes and stories.” Many of West-Tek’s first customers were local bars. One night, while working one frequented by Hondurans, a fight erupted over a soccer game. “It was me and him trying to break up a fight of about 40 guys in the parking lot,” Weaver recalls. “I ran out of pepper spray. We’re just trying to keep them from killing each other, throwing people this way and that way.”

Before long, West-Tek got easier gigs — First Citizens Bank and East Carolina University eventually became customers — and as he hired more help, West spent more time in the office. “He was always on the computer looking up things to bid on new contracts, always out there eating, sleeping, breathing, taking the next step in the business,” Weaver says. In 2003, he started providing security guards. They cost less to hire but don’t have arrest powers on customers’ property, as certified company police officers do. “It’s when we went into the security end of it, that’s when we had more employees,” says Thea Mauro, West-Tek’s former human-resources and office manager. West opened Third Watch, the gun-making and police-supply subsidiary, a year later. By the time he died in July 2006, West-Tek was licensed in 13 states.

But the numbers weren’t adding up the way he planned. In its last fiscal year, West-Tek grossed $2.8 million, Mauro says, but that doesn’t go far with 100 full-time and more than 30 part-time employees. West was spending a lot on equipment. Just before he died, he had bought 25 Dell computers, Tedder says. “There was a lot of debt with the company, a ton of debt.” His house went into foreclosure — Tedder and Mauro say Bassett was handling mortgage payments and, in her bookkeeping role, writing a suspicious number of checks made out to “cash” — but his sister says West had worked things out with the lenders. The afternoon before he died, he told Mauro he was about to get a loan that would help expand the business.

Not only had the business been struggling, so had Bassett. In January 2006, she was charged with 13 counts of obtaining prescription drugs under false pretenses. West had used his law-enforcement connections to help her get a suspended sentence, Tedder says, but she had to go to rehab and keep her record clean for a year to stay out of prison. On the morning before West was killed, Mauro told him about some unusual automated-teller-machine withdrawals from a company account over the weekend. West went to the bank, which was one of his clients, and had the ATM’s surveillance tapes turned over to law-enforcement officials, Tedder says.

“They think what happened is he confronted her that night, and she knew that deferred sentencing on the drug prescriptions was going to come back to bite her. And they think that’s what set off the whole chain of events that night. Proof of that, nobody knows but her.” It’s not clear why West would confront her and then go to sleep with her in the house. “If I told my wife I was going to put her in jail the next day,” Weaver says, “I don’t believe I’d go to sleep. I might have gotten a hotel room or brewed a pot of coffee.” Detective Jeff Caldwell, the lead investigator, won’t comment on exactly what evidence links Bassett to the murder. He says she told him she had left the house in the morning, came back and found West dead. “She has not confessed to the homicide of Keith West. Based on our investigation, we believe that she did do it.”

It wasn’t long after West’s body was found that his company started dying. Federal officials pulled its license to make firearms, Tedder says, and within a month the state Justice Department suspended its certification to provide police services for failure to pay renewal fees and premiums for the required insurance. It lost certification in other states. There was no line of succession, no board of directors. West was the only officer. “I don’t think he trusted anybody enough to really delegate,” Tedder says. “Nobody was qualified to pick up and keep going.” Nobody in the family was willing to step in. “We went and met with an attorney, and the attorney told us point-blank: ‘If you take over this role, you’re going to have to put your life on hold for six months,’” Tedder says. His estate was turned over to a court-appointed administrator, Alan “Chip” Hewett. He didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.

Young owners often put off succession planning, but experts say it’s never too soon to start. “You need to think through: ‘What’s going to happen to this company if I get hit by a bus tomorrow?’” says Tom Ogburn, management professor and director of the Family Business Center at Wake Forest University. “Preparing people to take over a company is a long-term process. You need to be able to identify the right people. You need to be able to identify what their talents are, what talents need shoring up, what is going to be the training process for them over the years.”

If an owner is incapacitated and there’s no obvious successor, an advisory board or board of directors often can keep things going until one is found. The owner’s lawyers, accountants and bankers can help, but West used his sparingly, so they knew little about his business’ inner workings. Absent those options, estate administrators usually are forced to sell, liquidate or bring in an outside manager — a difficult option for West-Tek, given the debt. “We had a couple of companies contact us wanting to buy out his existing contracts,” Tedder says. “Of course, it was for pennies on the dollar, which was not acceptable.”

Nearly a year after West’s death, the one-story redbrick building that housed West-Tek’s main office is deserted. The sun beats down on a white metal roof and shines on signs left in the window. One, a reminder of what was and is no more, says: “This property is patrolled by West-Tek Co. police.” Tedder and other family members wanted a paternity test to determine if Bassett’s daughter is indeed his. Completed in early August, it confirmed she is his heir, the last major barrier to closing the estate.

For most businesses, trust is an essential asset, but West built his on mistrust. He offered his customers a product — a heightened sense of security. But that same lack of trust in his employees doomed his company. “It has just been a mess,” his sister says. “The sad part is you’ve got all of these folks out of a job. No paycheck. And a lot of these people were disabled vets, retired military, retired police officers. It’s a shame.”

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