THE SEVEN LIVES OF BOB BONASIA
Photos by Ivan Cutler
Looking all spiffy in his gray suit and polished black shoes, his hands clasped below his waist, Bob Bonasia nonchalantly watches a splash of newcomers stream into Beth David Synagogue, their eyes a glitter for tonight’s entertainment.
He adjusts his clear plastic earpiece. Then he bends his head to mumble something into a pinkie finger sized microphone on his sleeve. His buddy is stationed in a nondisclosed part of the building. Can’t be too careful, what with the letter received by B’Nai Shalom, Greensboro, threatening the Jewish community, as well as the Paris terrorist attacks. The world’s going to hell, but Bob’s as calm and alert as an alley cat on the prowl. No reason he shouldn’t be, with a professional resume that reads like a page out of a James Bond novel.
A middle-aged guy with a paunch comes up to shake the security guard’s hand. They engage in a twentysecond interchange; something right out of the Sopranos.
The guy disappears back into the crowd. I’m thinking we should put the skids on this interview until tomorrow, but Bob says he’s “good.” “I’m taking this job seriously, you know? I’m standing here talking to you, but my eyes are everywhere but on you. Watching, looking at what I’m supposed to be looking at. That’s what I do. I’m able to do two things at once, like the whole walk and chew gum thing.”
Real funny, this 6’2, 235 lb. grown-up kid from Brook lyn’s East Side. “I was class clown in Catholic school. Ruler on the knuckles for making dumb remarks. I had cousins all over New Jersey and I hung out with them and my brother. We were street kids, we didn’t have hobbies. We played stickball, stoopball, marbles. There were no video games. You went outside and played with the kids. At school, I was always a good kid. I had honors in math and science. The smart ones don’t get caught.”
Just a couple of months after he graduated high school, Mr. Smart Guy made it into the NYPD auxiliary police; an unarmed, reserve unit where he learned heavy duty rescue techniques and equipment. Three years later, he became a full-fledged cop, transitioning to emergency service division. “Emergency services was a SWAT team. I drove on a truck with 4 to 6 people. Shoot outs, hostage situations, people getting in car wrecks and needing to be excavated. I’d joke around with the guys at NYPD. If you didn’t joke around, it could get to you.”
Sure. Life was a barrel of laughs. Like the time he talked a thirty-something guy down from the top of the Brooklyn Bridge. “It was 8 degrees. You climb up there, windshield temp’s 20 below. A few hundred feet down to the East River. And this guy wants to commit suicide. It’s amazing how long he was up there and didn’t feel the cold. Adrenalin rush for him. No alcohol, no drugs. This guy was talking away, talking away, ‘my life is miserable, job sucks, don’t want to live.'”
After six years with the NYPD, Bob’s gallows humor began to rub raw. “I’ve seen dead bodies, I’ve seen children shot, burned to death. I’ve seen people thrown off from buildings, I’ve been shot at, been stabbed. You try to block it out. Now the genie’s out of the bottle.
“I was in a shooting incident where I was on my way to a medical call, going into an apartment building. Across the street was an alley. I heard someone say, ‘Oh my God, it’s the cops!’ I turn around just in time to see this person point a semiautomatic at me and unload all 14 rounds at me. I jump behind a car. All before I could even get my gun out of its holster. That’s how fast it was. Glass everywhere. He got away. I sat there in the car, thanking God I didn’t have a bullet in me. That was a traumatic experience. The procedure was to talk to a counselor and I did. I was fine with that.”
Bob wasn’t “fine,” as evidenced by two failed marriages. Stress dripped like a running faucet, drop by drop, until he was forced to confront his PTSD. “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder happened to a lot of cops. There’s a lot of subconscious stuff you keep bottled up in you. You can’t share that a 3-year-old stuck a gun in his mouth and blew his brains out. It’s the kind of stuff you wanna talk to other cops about.”
He says he took two courses of psychology. “One subject they talked about was the subculture of police departments. Cops won’t talk to civilians, they won’t talk to their wives, a lot of divorces happen that way. Cops feel only cops can understand. That’s why you see a lot of cops date cops or marry cops.”
Speaking of love and marriage, Bob was having too much fun playing the field. “If you’re single, being a cop is a great job to have. Women like that stuff. Attraction to tough guy, tough cop, street cop, blah, blah, blah.”
At work, it was a different story. “It’s one of those deals where I can be cordial. I can be diplomatic. I can still be cordial and diplomatic— until it gets to the point where I need to break your arm or something like that, and I’m still smiling and cordial. I was taught to be as polite as possible, even when someone is throwing stuff at you, spitting at you, calling you ‘pig.'” Bob’s talking about the late ’70s. “The Black Panthers were in full swing. FALN bombed LaGuardia Airport. They put a bomb in a locker. That was one of my very first calls I went on. I was there totally on medical, doing rescue techniques on people, getting them out of the rubble.”
By 1981, the twenty-three-year-old police officer was burnt out and looking for a career change. Lester, his cop buddy, had been checking out the federal registry. The Secret Service was recruiting. The two buddies enlisted together.
They went through a 3 Â½ month academy. Weapons training, defensive driving training, self-defense, and additional training in their area of interest. Because of his experience as a cop, Bob chose the uniform division. “We started off with .38 caliber revolvers, then were issued 9 millimeter semiautomatic pistols.”
Lots of people would give their right arm to breathe the same air as the power mongers in Washington, D.C. However, Bob took it all with a grain of salt. “When I first started the job, it was really a love hate relationship. There were times when you really loved it. Oh my God, I’m really at the White House. The money’s great. The benefits are great. And then there were times at 4:00 a.m. when you’re sitting in a chair on the ground floor, watching the president’s elevator and doing everything you can to stay awake. It’s like a mausoleum in there. I got up and walked around a lot. Drank a lot of coffee. It’s amazing how your mind adjusts, because I thought I could never do something like that. I’d be bored out of my mind. But you do tend to get used to it somehow. Your mind settles into the routine of doing what you’re doing and you get through it. But that’s not all there is. You go on these work vacation details. Get to travel a lot.”
So what’s the story behind those black sunglasses?
“The secret service wears black glasses. No rhyme or reason to that except you’re in the sun, you wear sunglasses.
The ones I got were from CVS.”
His supervisors never called him on his behavior. “As much as they did not like it because they felt it was unprofessional, they were the same people that wanted me on their details because I boosted morale. I promoted harmony because I kept everybody’s spirits up. Yes, I did take the job seriously, but if you take it too seriously and you don’t leave any wiggle room for fun, you’re just going to get gray hair, lose your teeth, have heart attacks. It’s true!” Bob had been hired into the Secret Service one month after Regan got shot. “They started beefing up the Washington area force and taking on more security measures for the president—Threats of Libyan terrorists in the U.S. Threats rise and fall, rise and fall. Heightened security. The barracks bombing in Lebanon 1984. That’s when car bombing became popular.
“You could never let your guard down. We had a zero margin of error. Zero. If something were to happen to cause the leader of the free world, and of course other lives such as your padres and yourself—. It’s very stressful. That’s where the class clown comes from. Everybody’s so straight laced. I’d rather crack jokes, do a comedy routine. It relieves tension.
I liked that kind of notoriety because when I went on out-of-town presidential details, people wanted to come on my team.”
Bob served under four presidential administrations:
Ronald Reagan for two terms, George Bush for one term, Bill Clinton for two terms, and George W. Bush for the remainder of his career. Keeping the presidents and the rest of the universe safe was Bob’s passion. Delusions of grandeur? No. But he did walk alongside the presidents.
He liked Ronald Regan best. “Regan was very personable. Cracked a lot of jokes. He was very friendly to you.
Always acknowledged you. One time, I was a rookie, just on the job three months. I’m there to make sure who was standing outside the presidential library, they were going to do a filming. Regan’s coming down the hallway. He’s got his granny glasses on, looking down at the script. I thought he’s going to walk right by me. Instead he stops, takes his glasses off, closes his script. and says, ‘Good afternoon, how are you doing?’ Oh my God! ‘I said, ‘Good, Mr. President. How are you?’ He notices my accent. ‘You’re from New York, aren’t you?’ “We start this conversation talking about bagels, Nathan’s hot dogs on Coney Island, Junior’s Cheesecake, Carnegie’s Deli. He stood there for a good ten minutes. I couldn’t believe this was happening. One of the staff people came over. ‘Mr. President, we’re waiting for you.’ He says ‘Yeah, yeah,’ and shooed ’em away. He never forgot me after that. He’d see me and always say hello.”
Bob says George W. Bush was “nice.” “His staff already knew how things were run. We had no problems with transitions.”
But he says the Clintons didn’t like the Secret Service from the get-go. “The First Lady didn’t like us around, we were in the way. When you become president of the United States, you’re in a gilded cage. They didn’t like that concept. It was really a rough time. It’s no secret that the First Lady used to curse at us in public—.They called us idiots. ‘What are these idiots doing now?’ We’re there, working for her. It was miserable. It didn’t help the morale or attrition rate, ’cause everybody wanted to get out of there.”
Then there was the Monica Lewinsky fiasco. Ken Starr, the lead investigator in President Bill Clinton’s impeachment process, brought Bob into the office. “The investigators sat there and questioned me and anybody else who stood in front of the oval office. She used to go in there a lot…She was an intern and shouldn’t have been there a lot—.When the president says he wants somebody in the oval office, you open the door for them.”
Keeping the presidents safe often proved tedious.
“It’s like I had this titanium rod soldered into my knees! You can’t stand there five hours at a time without being in good shape. They were very stringent about height, weight ratio. You have to run to protect the president.
“It’s all about mental attitude. I had to train myself in my head that this may not end anytime soon. That’s what I’m here for. Condition myself mentally, as well as physically.”
It’s my second sit-down with Bob Bonasia. Today he’s decked out in full uniform. We’re sitting in the lobby of Temple Emanuel. He’s just finished performing his duties during the Artisan Boutique. “I’m doing armed security. Perimeter checks, perimeter security, and static protection. Here everybody is our protectee. That’s why we call it static protection. Watching a whole bunch of people in a particular area. Watching for suspicious activity. All that twenty years of Secret Service knowledge crammed into my head. I’m bringing it to the civilian side.”
For the last five of his twenty-year Secret Service career, Bob offered Temples his services for free. “I was just there—If I can help you. By law, if something happened on their premises, I was a federal officer and could take action. It wasn’t a paying job because that wasn’t allowed as a Secret Service officer. But when I retired in 2001, I became an employee of Temple Emanuel as a side job. I enjoy it. I know everybody.”
Bob retired from the Secret Service in April 2001 at the age of 43. A year later, his buddy, Lester, followed suit. They and eight other retired Secret service guys got a gig with Ganden Security Services Solutions (GS-3). Founded within weeks of the Sept. 11 attacks, Ganden is headquartered in Israel and run by a former chief security officer of the Israeli state airline, El Al. “We were hired to provide anti-terrorist attack training to airline companies in the States. There was a member of the Israeli Secret Service as one of our instructors.
“We went into hubs of Northwest Airlines and trained their flight attendants in anti-terrorist tactics and selfdefense,” said Bob. “We had a power point presentation, video presentation, profiling. My portion of the eight-hour training was three hours of self-defense and anti-terrorist techniques. Our first training was just the flight attendants. We were in Honolulu for five days. Real tough!
“Training those 16 flight attendants was the most fun I’d had in a long time. They were hysterical, like, ‘I can’t do this. Just give up the plane.’ After five days of training, they were ready to take on the world. It’s like giving them tools. After training, they were given the confidence that they knew what to do if somebody ever tried to take over the plane.”
After a couple of more trainings, the airlines pulled out.
“It was after 9/11 and the economy was still reeling. Airlines took a hit. The first thing they did was drop security training. They decided to do it ‘in house.'” It was 2003. Bob was forced to regroup. On a fluke, he applied for a job managing an African Art warehouse and wholesale store located off of what is now Gate City Blvd. “I knew absolutely nothing about African Art. Had an interview. They all liked me.”
Three years later, Bob wanted back in to personal protection. But in North Carolina, you had to be licensed as a private investigator to do close personal and executive protection. So from 2009 to April of 2015, Bob worked with three different local agencies doing case research in Charlotte, investigating workplace violence for Fidelity Insurance in Greensboro, and domestic violence surveillance for jealous wives.
Bob’s professional life did have its occasional glamour.
During the Democratic National Convention in 2012, his agency was subcontracted by KDI Protective Services to provide close personal protection for Megan Kelly of Fox News. “I shadowed her for 15 hours a day. Loved it. Back in my element. Same thing I did when working in the presidents’ administrations.”
Karl DeLaGuerra ran KDI Protective Services out of Charlotte, with a satellite office out of Rock Hill, South Carolina. He was pursuing a security license in North Carolina that would enable the company to do close personal protection. In April 2015, he hired Bob as director of the Protective Operations Bureau.
In June, Bob worked closely with Karl, setting up a detail for Jesse Jackson. “Freedom Temple Ministries in Rock Hill was having a forum with two local politicians. The pastor hired us for protection for Jesse Jackson. Jesse Jackson was pretty sociable. I’d met him years ago at the White House. He’d shook my hand back then.”
Has Bob finally reached Nirvana? Perhaps. “In Karl’s words, there is ‘family, day job, then KDI.’ Fifteen years ago, Bob married Laura, Executive Director of Temple Emanuel. “She wants to see me happy. When I’m in my element doing what I love, she’s happy. And when she’s happy, I’m happy.”
Looking back on his seven careers, Bob says NYPD and Blue Bloods TV shows “get a lot of it true.” “The Secret Service is definitely a young man (and woman’s) game. Sometimes it will be glamorous, sometimes it won’t. But don’t expect it. You’ll be sitting at your post all day, looking at the trees, especially as a rookie. Shift work. You’re working on the weekends. You’re working on the holidays.”
Would he do it all over again? “Oh, yeah!” !