Part 8: The Metamorphosis
Wolfgang wrapped up 1996 with a milestone: he testified before members of the US House of Representatives, when the Subcommittee on National Security and Criminal Justice came to the city hall in Lake Mary. It was a session on “the drug battle in Central Florida,” and Wolfgang (along with several other school administrators) spoke to the congress members about drugs in Florida schools.
He told his story, well-polished by now: state trooper, U.S. Customs, teacher, yadda yadda.
Mostly, his presentation was just a repeat of the demonstration he’d been giving for awhile now, with a “student” assistant refusing a search and then revealing an absurd amount of weapons and drugs that they were hiding in their clothes.
The important part to Wolfgang was, his speaking before a congressional subcommittee was another factoid he could cite to bolster his reputation. Whether on his resume or in one of his pitches, he’d be referencing this one for years and years to come.
The Sonitrol Hookup
The year 1997 would be a busy one for Wolfgang, as director of school safety. For instance, he was the one who had to go out to Woodlands Elementary and assess the damage, when a bunch of delinquents broke in and trashed the place in February.
Then, just a couple days later, he got word of a really serious situation: there was a student from Lake County High School, who had gotten their hands on a gun. And worst of all, it was Wolfgang’s gun!
According to the report from the February 21st edition of the Sun-Sentinel, it was a 30-30 rifle that Wolfgang owned, plus some ammo, that had been stolen in a burglary of his apartment. The article does not document what security measures (if any) Wolfgang had in place to prevent this extremely dangerous theft of his firearm, such as a gun safe or trigger lock. (For all we know, the rifle was just sitting out on his coffee table.) Fortunately, no one was hurt; the thief had left the stolen goods on a nearby golf course for a bit, during which a witness saw it and reported it, and the police followed that lead to the thief’s home, where they found Wolfgang’s gun.
Thank goodness. I mean it was basically just dumb luck that a tragedy didn’t occur. Pretty damn embarrassing for the director of school safety.
A couple months later, another student in Wolfgang’s district actually brought a gun onto campus, at Teague Middle School in Sanford. A 13-year-old with a 3.57 Colt Python. Really not good!
But again, fortunately, no one was harmed. Some students told their assistant principal about the gun when they saw the boy showing it off. And, in a refreshing change of circumstance of which Wolfgang was surely relieved to learn, this time the gun was NOT stolen from his own apartment. He wasn’t directly responsible at all! “The thing I feel good about is,” he told the Orlando Sentinel that April, “I’m glad the kids took the responsibility in stepping forward. This is exactly what we expect of our young people.”
In September, Wolfgang delivered a presentation to the school board, and his goal was to give the district a wake-up call about the price tags that he was seeing as safety director: Vandals had cost the district $50,000 in materials and labor over the last calendar year, and more than $260,000 worth of equipment had either stolen or gone missing from 1994 to 1997.
Wolfgang was asking for an additional $235,000 in funding to beef up security measures at their schools. A significant chunk of that would go toward buying more services from a security company that Wolfgang would soon become closely associated with: Sonitrol. (The Orlando franchise, specifically.) At the time, Sonitrol already provided audio-monitoring alarm services for several school buildings in the district, but many other buildings (such as portable classrooms) had no such technology to report break-ins. Sonitrol wanted to expand their coverage.
Wolfgang met the owner of Sonitrol, a guy named Bill Ford, and they got along well.
Bill sent Wolfgang a final bid at the end of September. Sonitrol’s hardware didn’t come cheap.
There’d be monthly price increases, too.
The board approved part of Wolfgang’s upgrade plan in October. The memo from the board, entitled “SECURITY IMPROVEMENTS”, also records that a new name was in the mix on Wolfgang’s security team: Richard C. Wells, serving as Executive Director of Support Services.
We don’t know exactly how he and Wolfgang met, but the connection isn’t hard to imagine: Wells had been in school administration for awhile, and was once the acting Superintendent for Seminole County. Like Bill Ford, he was a figure that would show up in Wolfgang’s vicinity more and more in the next few years, as they were all invested in the school-safety industry from one angle or another.
(Meanwhile, on the home front, Wolfgang’s first son, Erik Halbig, was on the soccer team at Lake Brantley High School, and was set to graduate that summer. His father was no doubt proud, and had high hopes for Erik’s future.)
The Day Jeb! Came to Town
By August of 1998, Wolfgang had been the district’s Director of Security for four years, and it appears he drifted away from his Head Principal role at Project Excel during that time. But his interest in that facility spiked suddenly that month, when he learned that none other than the governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, was going to be visiting Project Excel!
It was just the sort of opportunity he had been waiting for. And so it’s quite an interesting coincidence that, on the day of Jeb’s visit, one of Wolfgang’s favorite school-security gimmicks was activated. Wolfgang would later write of that day in an article, Breaking the Code of Silence:
One central Florida school district operates a Save-A-Friend hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The service is contracted out through a private company, which has people manning the phones at all hours. One morning, a call was received from a high school student, who anonymously reported that drugs were being sold in the high school parking lot before the start of the school day.
Under the protocol in place, the company contacted the district’s security director— who, in turn, alerted the high school resource officer. The officer went to the parking lot, where he saw someone talking with students arriving for classes. After the man was approached by the officer and questioned, he became defensive and left. The officer pursued and ultimately arrested the man. He was taken to the administrative office of the school, where he was searched. The search showed he was carrying 22 bags of marijuana.
That morning, a top political leader in Florida was visiting the school. Television reporters were covering his visit. When the district security director received the details of the incident, he immediately informed the principal. Unfortunately, fearing the glare of perceived negative publicity that would be associated with the confiscation of drugs on campus, the principal did not share what had just happened with his visitors. As a consequence of the principal’s silence, state legislative leaders were not made aware of how well the Save-A-Friend hotline worked that morning.
So Jeb was on-campus, but he didn’t see the bust go down. And Wolfgang was pissed when he found out that Excel’s principal failed to capitalize like that.
He rails on this again in a 2000 newspaper interview (and this time names the governor specifically), saying the principal “became part of the problem,” and it was her fault that “Jeb Bush left that day thinking we don’t have a problem in our schools.” The same article points out the whiplash-inducing arguments Wolfgang uses, as he characterizes the schools in his district alternately as “safe,” or dens of crime and violence, depending on his needs.
He tells the story a third time in a June 2000 Nebraska State Paper article, covering a speech he gave a school safety event. But this time, oddly, the number of baggies changes: from 22, to 28.
Around six months ago, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was to visit a high school campus. The morning of his visit school officials got a call from a student warning them that another student would be selling marijuana in the parking lot. Officials caught the student with 28 bags of marijuana, but the principal didn’t want Gov. Bush and the hordes of reporters following him to know about the bust. That frustrated Halbig, who thought it would have made a good learning opportunity about the value of working together to promote safety and lawful behavior in school. “Now Jeb Bush left that day thinking there’s not a problem. We have to share the good as well as the bad and not be afraid of it,” Halbig said.
Seems kind of concerning, that Wolfgang is so inconsistent about the amount of contraband seized in this major drug bust. Then again, that’s assuming this actually happened at all; the only references in the press to any such drug seizure that day is in these three quotes from Wolfgang, all of which are from more than two years after the supposed event.
So Wolfgang may or may not have attempted to stage a big drug arrest in front of the governor. But either way, he apparently did have a chance to at least chat with Jeb at some point that day; according to later emails, Wolf talked up how effective his school safety strategies had been, and tried to get Jeb to commit to bringing his training to districts statewide. Also in the conversation was a former Florida State Trooper, and investigator for the State Attorney’s Office, a man named Ron Davis.
By November, Davis would be Wolfgang’s colleague at Seminole County Schools, serving as the district’s new Professional Standards Investigator. (According to Davis, Jeb told the men that he couldn’t commit to any school-safety initiatives until after the upcoming election.)
Wolfgang, Ron Davis, and Richard C. Wells found themselves chatting as a group often, at work. Some of the context for the conversations the three would have was that there had been a dramatic spike in school shootings in the United States from 1996 to 1998, such as in Paducah, Kentucky and Pearl, Mississippi. School safety was as hot a topic as ever, and practically every district in the country was looking to upgrade their security as a result. There was a lot of money out there.
Wolfgang and Columbine
On April 20, 1999, the Columbine High School shooting took place, and instantly it became the most notorious school shooting yet.
For the school-safety industry, the impact was even more dramatic. As urgent as school safety was to districts before, now it was set to be the dominant issue, one they would have to have answer to.
So naturally, Wolfgang would try to position himself as closely as he could to the tragedy, and the investigations into it.
At this point in his life, in 1999, his efforts take the form of simply name-dropping Columbine, to prime his audience for his presentations. After 2012, he would switch to bald-face lying; in his various alternative-media appearances, he would claim he was involved the law enforcement response to Columbine, or the investigation that followed, or the civil lawsuits that unfolded in the years after.
The claim would shift around a lot. But the consistent factor is that they are all total lies.
Usually he will try to sneak the claim in by concealing it behind vague wording, like an aside he throws out in a March 17 2014 appearance on the Jeff Rense show: “Remember: I was at Columbine.“
What does “at” mean in that sentence? Did he drive past the campus one day? Look at it through a telescope? He never says.
Every once in awhile he will slip up and make a more specific claim about what he allegedly did when he was “at” Columbine, like when he tells Dave Gahary in a February 2014 interview, “I couldn’t believe it, because I was an expert witness in the Columbine incidents, in 1999. I was at Columbine, I was in that media center. So it just brought back a lot, a lot of memories… I saw the blood, I saw the crime scene.”
Again, he’s just lying.
But although Halbig was never — ever — involved in the response to Columbine, that doesn’t mean that Columbine, as a massive national news story centering around school safety, didn’t increase his profile. It totally did!
Immediately the district started sending Halbig around the state to other counties, to give his safety presentations.
And he got contacted by the local press for various school-safety quotes again.
In May 1999, Halbig’s associate, Ron Davis, sent a “Letter to the Editor” of the Orlando Sentinel. It was in response to another reader, who asked in a letter “When was the last time the superintendent made an unannounced security inspection of one of the schools?”
On June 15, 1999, Halbig delivered a presentation to the Florida legislature’s Task Force on School Safety.
There’s actually footage available of this one! And one of the first things he says is, “Safety and security is the hottest topic across the country.”
This clip shows how Wolfgang has polished his pitch by this point; he tells his origin story, much the same as he has since his coaching days, but now we can see how it actually sounded: at age 52, Wolfgang is confident, and lucid. He skillfully weaves his own story into the presentation, to hit certain beats.
One thing’s for sure: He doesn’t claim to have been involved with the Columbine investigation in any way during this presentation, and the shooting was just three months before. Which I think is pretty definitive evidence all by itself that he was never there. Instead he drops his “lack of respect” catchphrase again. That was the real problem that led to things like Columbine. Plus, it was what he already had printed up for his slides.
Really, his mind probably wasn’t focused on his day job very much at this point. Wolfgang had plans.
Even before Columbine, he had been looking for a way to capitalize on his school-safety experience, and had been networking with several of his colleagues about maybe starting a business. To Wolfgang Halbig, Richard Wells, and Ron Davis, the repercussions from what happened at Columbine must have sounded like opportunity knocking.
And another event had recently occurred that set the stage: Jeb Bush won re-election. He had the power determine school safety policies for the entire state. There might not ever be such a perfect opportunity again.
Just before Wolfgang dipped out, in June 1999, he recommended that Florida set up six “regional training centers,” to deal with one of his old standards: “Teachers don’t know how to break up a fight.”
Just the sort of training that Wolfgang himself was ready to provide, for a price. Then he packed up his desk.
The Halbig Hustle
On 9/8/1999, Wolfgang and his two friends all announced their retirement from the Seminole County School Board.
They were going into the consulting business: The National Institute for School and Workplace Safety was established as a for-profit corporation in Florida the following week. The new venture was covered in the Orlando Sentinel, which noted that “Halbig, who serves on state and federal safe-school task forces, said the business didn’t spring from April’s fatal school shootings at Columbine High School,” but that “the three have commiserated many times about the string of violent school tragedies in recent years. They already had several contracts lined up, too.
And although their buddy Bill Ford wasn’t joining the company, he would be in the mix too. The setup was: Wolfgang acts as the pitch-man for NISWS, delivering presentations that primarily sell school-safety audits. Sonitrol foots the bill for these presentations, and in exchange, the resulting NISWS audits would recommend Sonitrol products. (Wolfgang had experience selling Sonitrol products already, having pitched them to the Seminole County School Board back when he was an administrator.)
NISWS offered their own products, too, of course. Most of them representing one gimmick or another that Wolfgang had picked up over the years: Save-a-Friend Hotlines, training courses for staff on how to restrain children, and his “Break the Code of Silence” safety plans.
If Wolfgang pulled this pitch off consistently, and especially if Jeb came through for him and his partners, then they were all set to make a ton of cash.
And so, Wolfgang’s standard bio, the half-myth he’d carefully crafted about himself as a means to advance through the educational system throughout his career, was now formally adapted into a sales pitch. And with the turning of the millennium, his personal metamorphosis was complete: Wolfgang was a businessman now.
(Continued in Part 9: Wolfgang’s Big Score)
Austin “Blade” Tompkins is a certified forklift and order-picker operator located in the province of Ontario. He was an active Sandy-Hook “hoaxer” from 2013 to 2014. He has been sober since 2015.