A POLICE OFFICER GOES TO WORK FOR THE BODY ARMOR COMPANY WHOSE PRODUCT SAVED HIS LIFE, ONLY TO DISCOVER THAT THEIR NEW VESTS COULD PUT OTHER LIVES AT RISK, ON "WHISTLEBLOWER," FRIDAY, AUGUST 17, AT A SPECIAL TIME
"The Case Against Second Chance Body Armor" - What would you do if you had dedicated your career to protecting those who protect us, only to discover that the company that once saved your life may be putting others at risk? That was the dilemma faced by Aaron Westrick.
Host Alex Ferrer investigates the case against Second Chance body armor on WHISTLEBLOWER, Friday, August 17, at a special time (10:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
In 1982 Westrick, then a Deputy Sheriff in St. Claire County, Mich., was shot answering a robbery. He survived thanks to a bulletproof vest manufactured by Second Chance, which was one of the largest manufacturers of body armor in the United States.
Second Chance founder Richard Davis - a showman who would demonstrate the effectiveness of his company's armor by shooting himself - approached Westrick to accept a job as director of research.
Although the decision to leave the police was difficult, Westrick saw it as a higher calling.
"I thought to myself, 'This is the only company I'd ever want to work for,'" he says. "I thought I could protect the protectors."
Second Chance vests were made primarily from Kevlar, a proficient but bulky material. In the late 1990s, they began using Zylon, a lightweight synthetic material that was thinner, more flexible and supposedly better than Kevlar at stopping bullets. It was also substantially more expensive, and Zylon vests eventually accounted for more than 70% of Second Chance's sales, which almost doubled in a matter of years.
But in July 2001, Toyobo, Zylon's Japanese manufacturer, sent Second Chance a study that indicated that Zylon's effectiveness could be negatively affected by heat and humidity. Alarmed, Westrick convinced Second Chance to conduct its own ballistic tests on Zylon vests, and the results were disturbing.
"Results were coming back that there was an issue with Zylon degrading too quickly," Westrick says. "Bullets were getting through at velocities that they should not be getting through."
Westrick was concerned that officers' lives were being put at risk, but as those results began coming in, he was suddenly reassigned to another department. He began keeping a logbook to document what was happening, keeping records of memos.
Later, he discovered that Second Chance and Toyobo had entered into a confidentiality agreement, promising each other to keep the damaging information about Zylon a secret.
"The greed factor was immense," says Stephen Kohn, Westrick's attorney. "The Zylon crisis would significantly harm the bottom line of the company. They were making millions from it."
In July 2002, Westrick found some hope when Davis shared with him a memo he was preparing to present to the company board. The memo outlined the issues with Zylon and the potential for police officers to die as a result. Westrick secretly made a copy, and shortly thereafter a company executive rounded up all copies - physical and electronic - and had them destroyed.
Westrick's worst fears came true in 2003 when 27-year-old Oceanside, Calif. officer Tony Zeppetella was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop, his Second Chance armor having failed to stop the bullets that killed him. Ten days later, an officer in Pennsylvania was shot through his Zylon vest, causing permanent nerve damage. During this same period, President George W. Bush was wearing his own Second Chance Zylon vest.
As the first lawsuits began to come in and Second Chance scrambled to save itself, Westrick officially became a whistleblower, working with the Department of Justice. He wore a wire and recorded a conversation where Davis fully admitted that the company knew Zylon was defective for years. Eventually, the company fired Westrick, who faced years of potential litigation and an uncertain financial future for his family.
"I was working 12-hour shifts, and I was very concerned for the kids coming home after school to an empty house," says Kimberly Westrick, Aaron's wife.
"There were a lot of tears," says Westrick's daughter. "I think us kids, we were just trying to understand. I don't think we understood the severity or the intensity of the situation."
What would happen to Westrick and his family, and would Second Chance be held accountable for burying the evidence on its vests?
WHISTLEBLOWER is a series that takes a thrilling look into the real-life David vs. Goliath stories of heroic people who put everything on the line in order to expose illegal and often dangerous wrongdoing when major corporations rip off U.S. taxpayers. Each edition introduces cases in which ordinary people step up to do the extraordinary by risking their careers, their families and even their lives to ensure others are not harmed or killed by unchecked, unethical corporate greed.