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GardaWorld investigation into crashes and mechanical woes started with a tip

Not every tip we get pans out. This one ultimately did.

On her ninth day as an investigative reporter at the Tampa Bay Times, Bethany Barnes got the anonymous tip.

The tipster urged us to look at GardaWorld, one of the largest armored truck carriers in the United States.

Bethany dove right in.

Not every tip we get pans out. This one ultimately did.

“It became clear that there were all of these dots out there in the world waiting to be connected,” she said.

Bethany’s yearlong investigation ran March 1. She found that Garda had a history of putting dangerous trucks and error-prone drivers on the road – resulting in deaths and injuries across America. For the story, she talked to 90 former or current employees, including 56 drivers. All but one of the drivers cited safety problems with Garda trucks.

Related: This major armored truck company took dangerous shortcuts. Mayhem followed.

Some of the company’s trucks had bad brakes, broken speedometers or missing seatbelts. Even though the trucks transport millions of dollars, drivers have used zip ties and rope to keep the doors closed.

The 5,000-word story was packed with horrifying details about collisions and tragedies. Olivia Hayes, age 10, was killed in August 2008 by a malfunctioning Garda truck right before her father’s eyes as she tried to board her school bus.

Ronald Barrett, age 82, died in December 2019 when a Garda vehicle struck his motorized shopping cart outside a Las Vegas grocery store, knocking him to the ground. Barrett’s wife pounded on the truck to get the driver’s attention before it rolled over him.

Although Garda maintained that the Times’ findings do not accurately reflect the current state of the company, the armored carrier has more crashes than its competitors adjusted per mile driven, an analysis of federal transportation safety statistics shows.

Its worst years for crashes, according to the federal data: 2018 and 2019.

Adam Playford, our deputy editor for investigations, described Bethany’s reporting as thoughtful and meticulous. Bethany reviewed thousands of pages of court records and other regulatory documents for this project. She also obtained an internal database from a former Garda employee who kept it after leaving the company.

“She is superb at connecting with people to get them to tell their stories, and then does an amazing job putting the pieces together to see the bigger picture,” he said. “Every time I walked by Bethany’s desk, she was on the phone with another source, finding another driver, digging something new out of a court case in some far-flung part of the country.”

Bethany teamed with veteran journalist Connie Humburg, who analyzed all the data for the project. It was Connie who forwarded the initial tip to Bethany.

To make a story like this come together, it took contributions from more than a dozen people in the newsroom — editors, copy editors, designers, visual journalists, social media producers.

When you add up all the expenses, it cost about $200,000 to bring this story to our readers.

Late last year, we introduced the Tampa Bay Times Investigative Fund to raise money for this type of deep-dive reporting. A high percentage of people who have chosen to donate also subscribe to the Times, which underscores the value our readers place in watchdog reporting. We appreciate your support. You can contribute by going to tampabay.com/donate.

Garda tried to stop the Times from publishing our investigation. Their lawyers sent two letters threatening to sue and demanded we give back the internal accident database.

We believed it was an important public safety story that needed to be told.

“No one else was going to do this — get a tip about people getting hurt and keep working until we understood what was going on and could show the bigger pattern,” Adam said. “Helping people protect themselves from dangers they couldn’t possibly know about is one of the most important roles we play as journalists.”

Contact the writer at mkatches@tampabay.com or follow @markkatches on Twitter. Send us a tip at tampabay.com/tips.

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