'Stalling For Time' With An FBI Hostage Negotiator

Stalling For Time
Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator
By Gary Noesner
Hardcover, 240 pages
Random House
List Price: $26

Read An Excerpt

 

On April 9, 1988, Gary Noesner received a phone call in the middle of the night. The veteran hostage negotiator was asked to go to Sperryville, Va., where a man was holding his former common-law wife and their son captive. The man had told the police that he planned to kill both of his hostages and that he wasn't coming out of the house alive. Noesner's task was to defuse the situation and bring the hostages out safely.

It was a familiar situation for Noesner, who spent more than 30 years working as a hostage negotiator for the FBI, eventually becoming the chief of the agency's Crisis Negotiation Unit. In his new memoir, Stalling for Time, Noesner details some of his most noteworthy cases, including the Branch Davidian conflict in Waco, Texas, and the D.C. sniper case. He explains the techniques he used in many tense, potentially life-threatening encounters.

His agenda was the same on each case he worked, he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross: He wanted to establish a relationship with the hostage taker, demonstrate respect and establish trust — in every potentially volatile situation.

"Usually the man that is holding the victims is so emotionally enraged that he's not really thinking clearly," Noesner says. "He doesn't have a plan [and] is not sure how to get out of a situation that he got into. So we have to try to steer them through that course and try to do it in a way where we appear to be nonthreatening."

Confrontations and demands from a negotiator can often make a tense standoff even worse. Making a hostage taker feel safe and secure helps establish a bond between a negotiator and a hostage taker. Forming that relationship is one of the key factors in starting negotiations for the victims' release.

"Negotiations requires a lot of patience," Noesner says. "You typically don't create that relationship of trust by the specific words that you articulate. You have to earn the right to be of influence with someone, and you do that by projecting sincerity and genuineness. And those are great qualities for a good, successful negotiator."

In the Sperryville, Va., case, Noesner says it was imperative to establish that the negotiators weren't attempting to manipulate or fool the hostage taker — particularly because the man appeared to be growing increasingly agitated and violent. Eventually, the negotiators were able to establish a sense of trust with the man, which helped them persuade him to leave his house with his hostages. Expert marksmen planned to shoot the man once they had a clear sight line, in order to save the hostages' lives.

Gary Noesner i i

Gary Noesner was the founding chief of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit. He spent 30 years in the bureau as an investigator, instructor and negotiator. Courtesy Gary Noesner hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Gary Noesner
Gary Noesner

Gary Noesner was the founding chief of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit. He spent 30 years in the bureau as an investigator, instructor and negotiator.

Courtesy Gary Noesner

"But when he came out of the house, to our surprise, he had the young boy strapped to his back," Noesner explains. "And the marksman had no opportunity to neutralize him. ... The FBI threw some flash-bang grenades, which are, in essence, very loud firecrackers. In reacting to that movement and that sound, he went down on one knee, and as he went down ... an FBI marksman was able to discharge a round that ended [his] life. It's not the ending we wanted, but it's probably the only way we could assure the survival and safety of the woman and child."

Noesner says when the shot was fired, he felt both a sense of relief and a sense of anger.

"I think negotiators have to be prepared for those polarized feelings of joy and happiness when you succeed, which fortunately is most of the time," he says. "But you also have to be prepared for those occasions where [it turned out] not at all what we wanted. ... The priority is clearly the innocent victims in any situation. However, I've gone into every situation wanting to see the person do what I think is in their best interest, which is put their weapon down ... and surrender peacefully. I think that's true in all cases."

Excerpt: 'Stalling For Time'

Stalling For Time
Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator
By Gary Noesner
Hardcover, 240 pages
Random House
List Price: $26

It's Time to Die

Sperryville, Virginia, April 1988

There it was, hard and direct. Charlie said, "You going to shoot me when I come out?"

"No," I responded. "That's not going to happen. You said you wouldn't hurt anyone. You said you'd drop off the pilot somewhere in mountains. So there's no reason for anyone to get hurt."

The logic of this formulation appeared to work for Charlie, perhaps because this was his only chance to go on living with Cheryl and their son, Little Charlie.

What I knew that he didn't was that, somewhere out in the fields surrounding us, FBI marksmen were poised, waiting to take his life.

How do you convince someone that, despite all his natural fears, everything will be okay? You do it by projecting sincerity, by making him believe that what you are saying is honest and aboveboard. You address and overcome his primal need for safety and security by establishing a bond of trust. And, on rare occasions, as in this case, you do it by lying.

"Have you ever been on a helicopter before?" I asked.

"No," he said.

"You'll enjoy it. The view over the mountains will be spectacular." Of course, I knew that he would never take that ride or experience that view. What I didn't know was how much he truly believed that he was going to be able to fly away untouched.

"Charlie, I need to ask you an important question."

"What?"

"The helicopter pilot is an old friend of mine. His name is Tom Kelly. I've known and worked with Tom for many years, so I need your absolute promise that you won't harm him in anyway. If anything happens to Tom, I would never be able to live with myself."

"I won't hurt him," Charlie said. The real question was: Would Charlie hurt the woman and the child he was holding hostage on the second floor of this farmhouse?

About a week before, in Connecticut, Charlie Leaf had abducted his estranged, common-law wife, Cheryl Hart, and their young son. Charlie and Cheryl had been separated for quite awhile following a long history of his verbally and physically abusing her. She had moved in with her parents and was attempting to get on with her life, but Charlie, like so many domineering and controlling males, was not willing to let her go. The way he saw it, Cheryl and little Charlie were his possessions. He stalked her and harassed her. Once he abducted Little Charlie and held him until the police recovered the boy and returned him to Cheryl. Eventually, she sought and obtained a restraining order. The next day Charlie came to kill her.

When Charlie cashed his paycheck on Friday he purchased a carbine rifle, then sawed off the gunstock in order to conceal it. Cheryl's parents were away for the weekend, and late that night Charlie broke into the house and sneaked into Cheryl's bedroom before she could grab the butcher knife she kept under the mattress.

"It's time to die," he told her softly.

Cheryl had the instincts of a survivor. She remained calm and convinced Charlie that he didn't have to kill her. They could go away and start a new life together with Little Charlie. Nothing in any of Cheryl's prior actions suggested she wanted any part of this man, yet he wanted so much to believe her that the gleam of hope must have obscured his skepticism, and his judgment. He gave her a few moments to get the boy out of bed and to gather up some clothes, and then they took off in Charlie's car.

Cheryl had no plan other than to try to stay alive. All Charlie had in terms of a plan was to try and not get caught. Both knew that Cheryl's parents would call the police the moment they returned from their weekend trip. And both were simply stalling for time, traveling south.

Charlie drove through the night along the Eastern seaboard until they headed west into the mountains of Virginia. Charlie liked mountains. Years before, he had built a remote cabin in the woods in Connecticut for Cheryl and him to live in. The cabin was crude and had no indoor plumbing or electricity, but he had expected Cheryl to be happy there, dutifully awaiting his return from work each day. But she quickly grew tired of him, the cabin, and his abuse, and so she left.

About an hour and a half due west of Washington, D.C., Charlie's car ran out of gas. They abandoned it near Sperryville, Virginia, a scenic little town on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In this small and sleepy country village where tourists came in season to buy apples and view the fall colors, Charlie took his family once again into the woods and this time built a simple lean-to. He then took Cheryl and Little Charlie to a country store nearby. They purchased a few small items, then came back that night after closing time to break in and take enough food to really sustain them.

By this time, Cheryl's parents had alerted the police. The Virginia authorities found Charlie's car, ran the Connecticut license tag, and quickly connected the story of the abduction in Connecticut with the break-in at their local country store. They showed photographs of Charlie, Cheryl, and Little Charlie to the storeowner, who made a positive identification. The local police called in the Virginia State Police and the FBI, and members or these law enforcement agencies formed into teams and spent several days searching the woods and foothills with tracking dogs and police helicopters, but to no avail.

The lead search component for the FBI was the Richmond FBI SWAT team. They were assisted by agents from the FBI Washington Field Office (WFO) Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team.

Late in the afternoon on April 9, Special Agent Barry Subelsky and his team from the Washington Field Office approached a two-story farmhouse less than a mile off the main road. A weekend getaway place for a successful Washington couple, this was the kind of place they had been searching all day. The sunlight was fading fast, so they wanted to get this one last search done as quickly as possible.

Barry conferred with Wayne, SWAT leader for the Richmond FBI office. These two experienced agents, both Vietnam combat veterans, decided that Barry's team would search the ground floor of the farmhouse, and Wayne's team would then take the upstairs.

First they checked all the windows and doors, looking for any signs of forced entry. The giveaway was the electric meter on the outside of the house. One of the agents noticed that it was humming along at a brisk pace, more active than what one would expect in a house that was unoccupied.

This was about the time that one of the FBI helicopters supporting the search landed in a field some hundred yards away. The local sheriff also showed up at about this time and provided the keys to the house.

Barry's SWAT team entered and secured the ground floor. Then Wayne and his team came through and started up the stairs to the second floor. The house was old, and each footfall made the wooden steps groan and creak. The men advanced slowly, carefully, until Charlie Leaf appeared at the top of the stairs. He held Cheryl, in front of him, a gun to her head.

"Back off!" he yelled. "Back off or I'll kill her."

Wayne played it by the book.

"We're backing off," he said. "Nobody's going to get hurt."

And as the agents moved back down the stairs, the incident at Sperryville became a classic law enforcement standoff.

Excerpted from Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator by Gary Noesner. Copyright 2010 by Gary Noesner. Excerpted by permission of Random House.

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