George Wackenhut, Security Industry Giant, Dead at 85

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) - George Wackenhut, whose small detective agency blossomed into a global leader in the security industry, has died of heart failure. He was 85.

Wackenhut, who died on New Year's Eve, served as chairman of Wackenhut Corp. until he sold the company in 2002 to the Danish company Group 4 Falck for $570 million.

His family maintained control of the Palm Beach Gardens company after the sale, with his wife serving as corporate secretary and son Richard Wackenhut serving as chief executive.

``I can't say enough about his gentle teaching,'' Richard Wackenhut said Wednesday. ``He was ... an outstanding mentor, and that's not just coming from his son but from employees. He will be sorely missed.''

George Wackenhut founded a small detective agency in the Miami suburb of Coral Gables in 1954 after handling counterfeit money and bad-check cases for the FBI and director J. Edgar Hoover.

Two years later, he expanded into security guard services, a move that turned Wackenhut Corp. into a global corporation providing businesses and government agencies with contract services such as uniformed officers, investigations and background checks.

He won security contracts in the 1960s for the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral and the Atomic Energy Commission's test site in Nevada, while expanding the company globally as well.

He also became a leading Florida businessman, and surrounded himself with former military men like flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, and FBI officials like former director Clarence Kelley. In 1967, Florida Gov. Claude Kirk appointed him to conduct a ``war on crime'' financed by private contributions.

Wackenhut's leap into the corrections business was hailed as one of his best moves. He began by privatizing prisons and followed by building and managing them for states, including Florida, where the company ran prisons in Moore Haven and South Bay.

In 1991, Wackenhut Corp. was chastised by a U.S. House committee after the company's investigations division conducted a sting on an environmental whistleblower.

Eventually, annual sales reached nearly $3 billion before Wackenhut left in 2002.

``Pinkerton's had a 30-year start in terms of name recognition,'' former Wackenhut Corp. spokesman Pat Cannan told The Palm Beach Post. ``But by the time George Wackenhut left the company, those names were equal in the industry.''

Wackenhut had retired to Vero Beach. He is survived by his wife, Ruth; a daughter, Janis Ward; son Richard; seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.