At twenty-one years old, Aaron Westrick shook hands with death. It placed him on the path that he walks today, a path that made him a hero. Now, at sixty years old, Westrick can look back and see how his life’s work led him to protect the protectors.
Westrick was born in St. Clair County, Michigan, to a father who was a civil engineer and a mother who became a nursing teacher. Westrick had four siblings and remembers his family sitting around the dinner table “asking all kinds of questions” when he was growing up. You could ask about anything with the debates being quite lively. Westrick grew up in a staunch Catholic family, attending St. Clements Catholic school in Romeo, Michigan, until it closed. Westrick entertained the idea of becoming a priest when he was young, but he also wanted to be a police officer.
Westrick attended Romeo high school, where he met his wife in the last few months of his senior year. Initially, Westrick did not think she even liked him, but they are now married for 38 years. Westrick noted that “50% or more of male police officers are married to medical nurses or teachers.” The reason for the attraction is probably the shared idea of public service. Police officers and nurses (or teachers) identify with each other, understanding the value of public service and the unusual and different hours demanded.
Westrick graduated from high school in 1979 and went to Michigan State University. Westrick started attended the Police Academy in the summer of his junior year of college, receiving certification as a law enforcement officer in 1981. Westrick received a bachelor’s degree in Social Science with Criminal Justice in 1982. Public service runs like a golden cord through the Westrick family tree. Westrick’s grandfather was Chief of Police in a small town, and Westrick’s son is currently a law enforcement officer.
Working for the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office for less than six months, Westrick responded to a breaking and entering call. It was July 9, 1982, at 10:00 p.m. on a hot summer night, and a transformative experience was about to happen to Westrick. He was going to shake hands with death.
Westrick and his partner arrived at the residence and observed a dark house with a car parked suspiciously nearby in a field. People started running out of the house toward the parked car. Westrick and his partner pursued. Westrick observed a suspect ducking in the weeds and headed toward him with his flashlight illuminating the area. Westrick saw the suspect crouched on the ground holding a revolver, which he discharged at Westrick. Both Westrick and the suspect held Smith and Wesson 357 Magnums, and Westrick, just before he got shot, yelled, “halt…halt.” The exchange of gunfire within a five-foot radius resulted in Westrick being shot below his badge and in his hand. Westrick fired four rounds and hit the suspect in his gun hand, which caused a ricochet to the subjects’ head. Two other shots by Westrick hit the subjects’ kneecaps, exiting out his buttock as he was seated on the ground. Westrick stood over the suspect, looking down, and said, “If you breath wrong, I will kill you.” Westrick noticed that the burglar took his admonition to heart, slowing his breath to almost nothing. A point in time occurred when the world of two gunshot victims intersected, and nothing would ever be the same for either.
Westrick was startled to be later told by the Sheriff: “You did a great job, kid, but for .25 cents, you could have saved this county a lot of money.”
The offender spent a lengthy sentence in jail, receiving a Master of Theology and Counseling. Westrick was later informed by the burglar’s relative that the offender felt lucky Westrick was the arresting officer and spared his life. Both the offender and Westrick were 21 years old at the time, and Westrick was the only officer to wear a bulletproof vest that night.
Westrick understands that being shot has affected him and his family. In 1982 there was no post-incident counseling or peer support. But, through continuing higher education, Westrick was able to process some of the trauma of being shot. But he has wondered what it would have been like to live a “normal life” without the shooting. Westrick has experienced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms and fully comprehends how varying symptoms of PTSD affect people differently.
In 1988, Westrick left the St. Clair’s Sheriff Department and started work at Oakland County Sheriff’s Department. Westrick was invited to attend a program called SAVE hosted by Second Chance Body Armor. SAVE sponsored police officers who had been shot to sessions of firearm training, shooting, and “just having a good time.” Between 1984-1985, Westrick and his family became good friends with Richard Davis, President/Owner of Second Chance Body Armor (SCBA).
Westrick had received his master’s from Wayne State University (WSU), and in 1996 was finishing his doctorate degree at WSU. Davis offered Westrick the job of Director of Research of SCBA, which Westrick accepted. A new material was used in SCBA vests that had a higher heat resistance and was stronger with a brand name of Zylon from a company known as Toyobo. SCBA, the largest body armor company in the United States, had an exclusive relationship with Toyobo, which was based in Japan. Toyobo, according to Westrick, “was one of the biggest companies in the world.”
In July of 2001, as Director of Research, Westrick was asked to look at a memo from Toyobo. Westrick referred to it as a Cover Your Ass (CYA) memo, which detailed some problems with the raw material used in the body armor vests. The memo noted that the body armor could be degrading, and “they just wanted SCBA to know.” Westrick realized that there “had to be more to the memo, and the company only gave him just a small piece so he would not be able to figure out the problems with the vests.”
Westrick started looking at the “mechanical, chemical and ballistic levels in the vests” and looked at SCBA vests actively used in the field. Westrick realized that SCBA vests were not up to regulatory standards due to the Zylon material manufactured by Toyobo. Zylon vests were deteriorating at an alarming rate. Westrick, who knew about the importance of body armor, having been shot in the chest while wearing Kevlar, sounded the alarm and grew extremely concerned.
Westrick found that his research demonstrated that SCBA armor did not meet typical industry standards of five years’ use but rather degraded in two years. Westrick was advised by the federal government, which had much better testing models and equipment, that the body armor Westrick submitted containing Zylon degraded in just six months. This was determined by chemical testing of the molecules of the synthetic material. There were also ballistic tests, and the government determined the degradation situation was worse than what Westrick found.
SCBA and Toyobo were actively engaged in hiding details about the degradation in the SCBA armor. Westrick felt that SCBA was hiding things from him, and he could not even get access to his own research. Westrick wrote a memo to Davis in December of 2001 that noted, “if SCBA does not do the right thing, someone was going to get killed.” Westrick advised management that they had to “immediately notify our customers of the degradation problems we are experiencing,” and SCBA had to “pull Second Chance Armor vests from their customers.” Westrick informed his friend, Davis, that SCBA should “make the difficult right decisions” and “do the right things and not hesitate.”
Westrick’s suggestions were ignored. In response to the poor testing results, Toyobo and SCBA agreed to keep the testing results secret. They signed nondisclosure agreements prohibiting them from informing the government and law enforcement customers about the test results.
It did not take long for Westrick to get uncomfortable at work, as SCBA knew Westrick was knowledgeable about the degradation of their armor, and they knew where Westrick stood on the issue. Westrick found himself cut out of meetings at SCBA, and he felt “that a cover-up was underway.” Westrick also felt the money was being passed back and forth between SCBA and Toyobo as part of the cover-up.
In 2002, Davis wrote a confidential memo to the SCBA Executive Board acknowledging that the Zylon vests were dangerous and urging the company to warn police. Two solutions were noted: one was to continue operating and act like nothing was wrong. The other was to denounce all Zylon vests and not make any more.
The SCBA General Counsel destroyed all copies of the memo, except for one, which Westrick possessed. SCBA continued to sell the deficient vests. A year later, a Zylon vest was penetrated, leading to the death of a police officer. Shortly afterward, another police officer was shot, and his vest was breached, resulting in permanent injury.
The company offered Westrick money, they threatened him, and at the end of the day, Westrick stated: “he could not go along.” In September of 2004, Westrick walked into his office to find it cleaned out and the President of SCBA telling him he was fired.
Westrick stated that he felt passionate about “protecting the protector.” Improper and corrupt administrators “underestimate the whistleblower because, with the whistleblower, the truth is the truth.” Whistleblowers tend to know what is going on, “they have to have a strong moral base, and also be smart.” Westrick stated that he “never once told the company that he would go along with what they were doing.”
Westrick went through a couple of attorneys, never finding a right fit until he found Steve M. Kohn of Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto in 2004. Westrick advises other whistleblowers that they have to have a network and an “attorney who knows what they are doing.” Westrick continued, “Keep good records and get a team. Choose your team carefully. Whistleblowers’ greatest problem is loneliness. A whistleblower feels like they are out there all by themselves.”
Westrick stated that he referred to KKC as his “law team of wolverines, as really mean rodents,” and they were totally effective. Steve Kohn provided much-needed support, and Westrick is grateful. Another important factor in whistleblowing is trying to keep your family intact. Westrick advised that his wife told him that she could see he was totally consumed by his case.
Before Westrick was fired, he was asked to wear a wire for the Department of Justice and U.S. Treasury and act like he was engaged in the others’ cover-up. Westrick told the government that he “just could not do it,” and SCBA would never believe he was corrupted. Westrick stated that he was told by other body armor companies that their lawyers had told them not to tangle with Toyobo because Toyobo was too big a company, and Toyobo had threatened to sue.
A qui tam False Claims Act lawsuit was filed in 2004 against SCBA and Toyobo by Westrick. The federal government intervened in the case in 2005. Toyobo pled that it had no liability for the vests, as it only sold raw Zylon to SCBA, and then started a 13-year scorched-earth defense. Toyobo utilized every possible legal maneuver to escape liability. However, on the eve of an anticipated six-week jury trial in February of 2018, Toyobo gave up and agreed to a settlement with the United States.
By blowing the whistle, Westrick was responsible for the recovery of $132 million, with $22 million being used to replace defective body armor utilized by police officers and federal agents in the United States.
From the time Westrick determined problems with the body armor until a final resolution of the case, seventeen years had elapsed. Westrick’s life work has totally revolved around body armor and protecting the protectors. He has been a witness in cases where bullets have pierced body armor and law enforcement officers have died. At one point in his legal journey, Westrick faced 19 representatives from federal agencies in one sitting, all interested in protecting their personnel from faulty body armor. Westrick believes that “normal” people could never get through the whistleblowing process because of the time and stress factors. Westrick stated he had no choice but to blow the whistle, and he would do it again.
Westrick has been at Lake Superior State University in Michigan for 10 years, teaching public safety and ethics courses. He authored a book on Use of Force Investigation and has future publications on forensic science and criminology, and crime scene investigation.
A few years ago, Westrick met the man who shot him. The man asked Westrick, “Do you forgive me?” Westrick responded, “You shot me at 10 p.m., and I forgave you at 11 p.m.”