Last month, tech company founder Barry Oberholzer introduced the world to “Sword,” a high-tech iPhone case and app that he claims will transform the security industry by allowing people to detect the presence of a gun from the relative comfort of their phone.
The device, Oberholzer says, utilizes facial recognition software and more to effectively allow for people to match a hidden firearm or even a bomb with a database of thousands of weapons. Operating as a case to a smartphone or tablet, Sword, according to Oberholzer, can detect gunshots and even launch “drone countermeasures.” And it can do it all from up to 40 feet away.
“It’s an instance of science fiction becoming science fact,” Oberholzer declared at a Los Angeles launch event for his product, comparing Sword’s impact on security to the effect the invention of the Model-T automobile had on transportation.
Oberholzer and his company, Royal Holdings, have promised that Sword will shake up the nearly $3 billion school security industry, which has exploded in the wake of high-profile mass shootings. And, so far, they have gotten the type of media coverage befitting such a revolutionary product.
USA Today asked whether Sword meant it was time to say “so long metal detectors.” And Oberholzer has become a regular on local TV stations, sitting for interviews that take his claims about the device at face value.
“Eat your heart out, Clark Kent,” declared popular tech blog Engadget, referencing to Sword’s promised ability to detect concealed weapons.
Left undiscussed in the coverage is that Oberholzer is currently a fugitive on the run from fraud charges in South Africa, having fled the country with a warrant issued for his arrest in July 2016 after he missed court appearance. A spokesman for South African prosecutors confirmed to The Daily Beast that there’s an active arrest warrant in Oberholzer’s name, over nearly two dozen charges, including fraud and forgery. The spokesman shared a copy of the charges with the Daily Beast, alleging that Oberholzer, who says he holds American citizenship, participated in a number of fraudulent schemes. Oberholzer is photographed in some of the news articles about the case.
Currently pitching himself as a security tech innovator to both media outlets and potential government customers, Oberholzer demurred when asked about his past.
“It depends on what a fugitive is,” Oberholzer said. “I was an intelligence asset for the U.S. government.”
Oberholzer has used his purported background as an “intelligence operative” during his promotion of Sword. Attendees at the product’s Los Angeles launch event received copies of his self-published book, The Black Market Concierge: Sanction Busting, Smuggling & Spying for America, which is an account of his exploits as a self-described intelligence asset for American and European law enforcement agencies.
If Oberholzer is to be believed, the salesmanship has been successful. Oberholzer told The Daily Beast that roughly 83,000 Sword models have already been preordered—which, with its cheapest price point being $3,500, would mean the company has already racked up nearly $300 million in sales before even launching its product. Oberholzer declined to name any of Sword’s buyers.
Back in South Africa, Oberholzer exploits have been greeted with less credulity than his current venture. His case has earned plenty of coverage in the country’s newspapers, where he’s known under his full name, Barend Oberholzer. When Oberholzer fled South Africa in 2016, one newspaper demanded to know “Where’s Barry?”
According to the charging papers, Oberholzer’s purported frauds run the gamut from alleged cigarette smuggling to allegedly not paying the bills for a CrossFit gym and his own debts at a luxury housing complex.
In one case, Oberholzer, while operating a South African aviation company, allegedly offered to sell a married couple a lightly-used helicopter. When the helicopter arrived, however, the couple discovered that Oberholzer had sold them a significantly more beat-up model, and only refunded a portion of the money. Some of the money from the helicopter sale was used on Oberholzer’s “upkeep,” “cosmetic products,” and “general expenses,” according to the charging papers provided by South African prosecutors.
In another case, according to court records provided to The Daily Beast by South African prosecutors, Oberholzer teamed up with an importer, telling the company that he wanted to import tiles from the Middle East into South Africa. But customs officials discovered that, unbeknownst to the importer, the three-container shipment was filled with cigarettes, apparently in an attempt to avoid cigarette taxes. The drivers involved in the shipment were arrested, according to the charging papers filed against Oberholzer, and the importer suffered a roughly $45,000 loss.
At one point, according to the charges filed against Oberholzer, he offered to sell a man truckload of cigarettes for roughly $18,000. When the buyer opened the shipment, though, he discovered that it was empty. Oberholzer’s role in the incident was discovered, law enforcement said, because he forgot his wallet in the car.
Through his attorney, Oberholzer declined to comment on the specific charges against him.
“Mr. Oberholzer has been open, honest and transparent about his time in South Africa as documented in his 2016 book, The Black Market Concierge: Sanction Busting, Smuggling & Spying for America,” Oberholzer’s attorney wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. “Simply stated, this is old news.”
But controversy has followed Oberholzer even after he left South Africa. In August 2017, he launched TerrorMate, an app that claimed to use proprietary technology to detect terrorist incidents almost as soon as they happened. Put out amid a wave of terrorist shootings that dominated headlines in Europe and the United States, the app was aimed at consumers who wanted instant warnings if they were near a terrorist attack. Oberholzer claimed that TerrorMate had been used to detect a British ISIS supporter who was arrested for threatening Britain’s Prince George on Twitter. In fact, the Guardian reported, the suspect had been monitored by British law enforcement since November 2016 — months before TerrorMate launched.
Oberholzer declined to address that discrepancy, saying in an email that he wouldn’t comment on a “UK intelligence matter.”
In a statement, Royal Holdings said its investors and customers were not caught off guard by Oberholzer’s past.
“The Board of Directors, Shareholders and clients of [Royal Holdings] are well aware of Mr. Oberholzer’s past dealings and history in South Africa which has been well documented in previous media reports since 2012 as well as in his book, The Black Market Concierge. Sanction Busting, Smuggling and Spying for America, published in 2016,” the statement reads.
Royal Holdings publicist Eva Bowen also noted that copies of Black Market Concierge were handed out at the February launch event, giving recipients insight into Oberholzer’s “background.”
In Black Market Concierge, Oberholzer portrays the charges against him as a “petty non-issue” over an “alleged bad business deal” drummed up by a vindictive police detective bent on punishing him for a dispute with some South African politicians.
“The charge was a crudely ingenious attempt to revive an old business dispute that had long been withdrawn,” Oberholzer writes.
In his book, Oberholzer also claims he worked for a variety of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, Belgian customs, and the United Kingdom’s Revenue and Customs department. Oberholzer declined to offer any proof of that work though, saying he’s restricted from offering any evidence that he was an informant.
“There’s no proof that I am allowed to share,” Oberholzer said.
Neither the Department of Homeland Security nor Belgian’s customs responded to request for comment, and the British Revenue and Customs department declined to comment, citing a policy against discussing whether someone has worked as an informant.
While Sword’s release approaches, the product’s specifications have changed over the past few months. A November press release from Royal Holdings promised that the product—which it billed as ”something out of a James Bond movie!”—would be available to civilians eager on pursuing their “spy daydreams.”
Now, however, Oberholzer tells The Daily Beast that Sword “will never be in the hands of a civilian.”
Oberholzer has also changed his mind about discussing Sword’s purported clients. A 2018 press release from Royal Holdings claimed that 23,000 copies of Sword had already been purchased by a large number of buyers, including the U.S. military, the Department of Homeland Security, and Cairo International Airport. In a February interview with The Daily Beast, however, Oberholzer refused to discuss who had purchased Sword.
Though it won’t talk about clientele, Royal Holdings is keen on showcasing Sword as a product worthy of accolades. On its website, the company trumpets several awards Sword won from American Security Today, a security industry publication. Left unmentioned is that Royal Holdings itself sponsored that award ceremony.