The Two Rivers Detention Center was promoted as the largest economic development project in decades in the small town of Hardin when the jail was built two years ago. But it has been vacant ever since.
City officials have searched from Vermont to Alaska for inmate contracts to fill the jail, only to be turned down at every turn and see the bonds that financed its construction fall into default. They even floated the idea of housing prisoners from Guantanamo Bay at the jail.
So when Hardin officials announced last week that they had signed a deal with a California company to fill the empty jail, it was naturally a cause for celebration. Town officials talked about throwing a party to mark the occasion, their dreams of economic salvation a step closer to being realized.
But questions are emerging over the legitimacy of the company, American Police Force.
Government contract databases show no record of the company. Security industry representatives and federal officials said they had never heard of it. On its Web site, the company lists as its headquarters a building in Washington near the White House that holds "virtual offices." A spokeswoman for the building said American Police Force never completed its application to use the address.
And it's unclear where the company will get the inmates for the jail. Montana says it's not sending inmates to the jail, and neither are federal officials in the state.
An attorney for American Police Force, Maziar Mafi, describes the Santa Ana, Calif., company as a fledgling spin-off of a major security firm founded in 1984. But Mafi declined to name the parent firm or provide details on how the company will finance its jail operations.
"It will gradually be more clear as things go along," said Mafi, a personal injury and medical malpractice lawyer in Santa Ana who was hired by American Police Force only a month ago. "The nature of this entity is private security and for security purposes, as well as for the interest of their clientele, that's why they prefer not to be upfront."
On its elaborate Web site and in interviews with company representatives, American Police Force claims to sell assault rifles and other weapons in Afghanistan on behalf of the U.S. military while providing security, investigative work and other services to clients "in all 50 states and most countries."
The company also boasts to have "rapid response units awaiting our orders worldwide" and that it can field a battalion-sized team of special forces soldiers "within 72 hours."
Representatives of American Police Force said the company presently employs at least 16 and as many as 28 people in the United States and 1,600 contractors worldwide.
"APF plays a critical role in helping the U.S. government meet vital homeland security and national defense needs," the company says on its Web site. "Within the last five years the United States has been far and away our" No. 1 client.
However, an Associated Press search of two comprehensive federal government contractor databases turned up no record of American Police Force.
Representatives of security trade groups said they had never heard of American Police Force, although they added that secrecy was prevalent in the industry and it was possible the company had avoided the public limelight.
"They're really invisible," said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel for the Professional Services Council. The group's members include major security contractors Triple Canopy, DynCorp and Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide.
"Even a single unclassified contract in the last couple of years should show up" in the federal database, Chvotkin said.
Spokesmen for the State Department and Defense Department said they could not immediately find any records of contracts with the company. The city has not released a copy of its agreement with American Police Force. But the deal as announced would be a sweet one for Hardin, a depressed rural town of 3,500 about 45 miles east of Billings.
The company is pledging to fill the 464-bed facility by early next year.
Hardin officials say the first payment on the contract is due Feb. 1 - regardless of whether any prisoners are in place. The city's economic development authority would get enough money to pay off the bondholders and receive $5 per prisoner a day.
American Police Force also is promising to invest $30 million in new projects for the city, including a military and law enforcement training center with a 250-bed dormitory and an expansion of the jail to 2,000 beds. The company says it will build a homeless shelter, offer free health care for city residents and even deliver meals to the needy.
Where the prisoners would come from is unclear. City officials said California was the most likely possibility, but a spokesman for that state's corrections system said there was no truth to the claim.
Federal prisoners also were mentioned by both American Police Force and the city. U.S. Marshal Dwight MacKay in Billings said he would have been notified if such a plan was pending.
"There's skepticism over whether this is a real thing," MacKay said.
Hardin officials said they were approached by American Police Force about six months ago, soon after the city made international news in its quest to become "America's Gitmo." American Police Force incorporated around the same time.
Albert Peterson, the city's school superintendent and vice president of the authority that built the jail, said the city was "guaranteed" the contract would be upheld.
"There's never a question in my mind after I've done my homework. It's legit," Peterson said of American Police Force. "We believe in each other."
The contract was still being reviewed by the city attorney, he said.
Peterson refused to answer when asked if he knew the name of American Police Force's parent firm. He said news coverage of the city's political tussles with the administration of Gov. Brian Schweitzer had left him suspicious of the press. The administration brought a court challenge over whether Hardin could take out-of-state inmates at the jail.
"If you're looking for the source of the money, you're not going to find it from me," Peterson said.
A member of the Texas consortium that developed the jail, Mike Harling, said he had "every reason to believe they'll be successful."
Mafi, the American Police Force attorney, said his company intends to reverse Hardin's recent problems with the jail and give the town an economic boost.
In Santa Ana, American Police Force occupies a single suite on the second floor of a two-story office building. During a visit to the location Thursday, a reporter for The Associated Press encountered a uniformed man behind a desk who would identify himself only as "Captain Michael."
The man declined to discuss basic details about the company and referred the reporter to the company's Web site. In a subsequent phone interview, he provided his surname but insisted it not be used because of security concerns. The man said he was a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Montenegro with decades of experience in military and law enforcement operations.
The man said his boss is a retired U.S. Army colonel named Richard Culver who is currently overseas. Culver's role with the company could not be immediately verified.
The company claim of a headquarters address is just up the street from the White House.
The K Street building houses "virtual offices," where clients pay to use the prestigious Pennsylvania Avenue address and gain access to onsite conference rooms but have no permanent presence.
"It lets small businesses get started up and have a professional front and not have a lot of a cash to do it," said Ashley Korner with Preferred Offices, which leases the location.
She said American Police Force's application to use the address was pending but incomplete.
Associated Press writer Amy Taxin contributed to this story from Santa Ana.