MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
And I'm Alex Chadwick.
BRAND: It was the night before his 38th birthday and Stanley Alpert was feeling pretty good. He'd just met a woman on the subway in New York and she seemed interested. They'd gone to a deli to buy cookies; Stanley walked her home, got her card and then headed back to his east village apartment cookies in hand. Then, a Lexus pulled up, some guys with guns got out and Stanley Alpert was forced into the car. What happens next is the subject of Stanley's new book "The Birthday Party," and Stanley Alpert joins me now. Welcome to the program.
Mr. STANLEY ALPERT (Author, "The Birthday Party"): Thanks so much for having me.
BRAND: Well okay, so these guys, there are three of them, they wanted to rob you, take you to an ATM and get you to withdraw some money, but the plans change when they find out just how much money you had in your bank account. What happened?
Mr. ALPERT: That's right. When I told them how much money I had in my savings account they were amazed. They go wow we hit the jackpot. The problem is that the bank limits withdrawals to a thousand dollars a day so they couldn't get all of it. And they thought oh my gosh, we've got to get this money, how are we going to do it, and they decided to keep me. They and four other people held me for 25 hours.
BRAND: And they blindfolded you.
Mr. ALPERT: As soon as they decided to keep me they took my own scarf and used it as a blindfold. They talked about going on the Brooklyn Queens expressway, so I had a general sense that we were somewhere near the Brooklyn Queens border but I didn't know exactly where.
BRAND: Okay, so little did they know, they kind of picked the wrong guy because at the time you were an assistant U.S. attorney.
Mr. ALPERT: Well, I, I actually told them that in the car in front of the bank, because they were amazed by how much money was in my savings, and they said: well, what do you do for a living? And I said I'm sorry, you kind of picked up the wrong guy, I'm an assistant U.S. attorney. And at first they didn't quite understand what that meant. Much later on in the middle of the night they asked me again, and this time it was clear that they got it, and the leader of the gang said: oh my gosh the FBI is going to be after us. But at first they didn't get-get it, and frankly, if they had been smart, they would have opened the door and said: thank you sir, it was nice to meet you, please take care.
BRAND: Right. So what was going through your-your head, because as a federal prosecutor, you knew well enough that kidnappings usually end badly?
Mr. ALPERT: I was absolutely petrified from the moment they grabbed me. And what happens when a person is under that kind of a stress, where they know they're going to lose their life is, you know, you just start working overtime to try to save it. That's all you can focus on. And your focus is really quite extraordinary and quite strong. So even though I knew that at any moment they could turn on me and kill me, my every fiber told me to fight hard to try and stay alive.
BRAND: And what was your strategy?
Mr. ALPERT: I was very polite. I stayed very calm. You know one of the detectives, a fabulous character who's retired now, from the NYPD, by the name of William Glen, he explains how he gets confessions out of people. And he says that the one thing that people who've been beaten down their whole lives don't understand is, is kindness. It, it's hard for them to deal with it. So they probably expected me to start freaking, to start-you know begging for my life, to be afraid, to, to argue with them. I didn't do any of that. I stayed very calm; I was polite, anytime they asked me for something I gave it. I told them I would cooperate fully, which in fact I did. And I think all of that, first of all, confused them a little bit, and second of all actually, by the end of the 25 hours, made them like me. They were no longer that interested in having to put an end to my life.
BRAND: Here you are in some flop house, I guess; somewhere in Brooklyn as you later find out. And, and you're sitting on a mattress I guess, blindfolded with your own scarf, a gun pointed at you, and well, the hours tick away and it's your birthday.
Mr. ALPERT: Well, it's, it's purposely called "The Birthday Party" with quite a bit of irony, since I was supposed to be at my real birthday party - but in the room that I was kept, the kidnappers were having their own sort of party. They had prostitutes; the leader of the gang was a pimp and they had come over and the members of the gang were able to partake in the, you know to share in the profits of, of these, these poor teenage girl prostitutes. And then when that was over they sort of calmed down and they started asking me about it. They said oh my gosh, Stan you deserve something nice for your birthday, how about a blank blank for your birthday?
BRAND: A service from the prostitutes?
Mr. ALPERT: That's right. And now of course that sounds highly entertaining but at the time it was, it was absolutely frightening. I said, you know I'm sure these girls are lovely, but I'd really rather not. And I was - I was deathly frightened of that. I mean, no one thinks of the possibility that a man can be raped but that was somewhat close to that situation for me.
BRAND: Well, then it gets even more absurd when they actually ask you-they know that you're an attorney they ask you for legal advice.
Mr. ALPERT: Well, that's right. I should probably send them a bill. They, they, you know, first they started interviewing me, well what kind of lawyer are you, you know to see if I had qualifications. And then a couple of them actually came to me with, with interesting legal issues to help them. With and I, I asked questions to learn all the facts, and then I gave them the best advice that I could.
BRAND: You say your kidnappers began to like you and, and joke around with you a little bit - did you ever feel any warmer towards them or were you pretty much petrified the whole time?
Mr. ALPERT: The feeling of fear subsided slightly as the hours went on, but it sort of - it bumped up and down depending on what was happening. Because you know, for example, they told me they would take me home in the morning and then that didn't happen. And hour after hour went by and I had no idea what was going on, and then the fear just kept rising. Because I was really dreading that when they changed their plan that the plan for me was, was negative. But there was definitely some easing and there's at least one point in the book that I mention that the joke told by the guy with the automatic weapon on me sitting to my right on the mattress, was actually quite funny and I, I actually genuinely laughed myself.
BRAND: How did they decide to release you? Or why did they decide to release you?
Mr. ALPERT: I can't examine everything in their heart, and I know now from the FBI, that in the middle of the night they went outside the room and discussed whether to kill me. And that one of the guys was advocating that they do just that and that one of the others said oh no, we don't have to he's a nice guy; he won't do anything to bother us. I think that was part of it. I think part of it was that they genuinely liked me. I think part of it is that it's well known to most criminals, that messing with people who are law enforcement connected is just not a good idea. And I also was able to tell them that, you know, that I really didn't think that we'd be able to catch them.
BRAND: But catch them they did.
CHADWICK: Madeleine that is a completely amazing story.
BRAND: It is absolutely incredible and you know, it doesn't end there. Because that-first part of the book is about him being you know kidnapped and in this flop house and then the second part of the book is, well, how he gets out and how they catch these guys.
CHADWICK: Okay, we're going to come back and hear that in a moment. I knew this interview was going to be good because you told me last week, that you were reading this book at home and your husband Joe kept stealing it. Every time one of you would put it down the other would pick it up and keep reading.
BRAND: I know, we had a few marital spats over reading this book.
CHADWICK: Okay, next part coming up right after a short break here on DAY TO DAY.
(Soundbite of music)
CHADWICK: This is DAY TO DAY I'm Alex Chadwick.
BRAND: And I'm Madeleine Brand. Back now to our story about Stanley Alpert. He was a federal prosecutor kidnapped off the streets of Manhattan and held for some 25 hours. The kidnappers were excited to find that he had about $100,000 in his bank account and so they kept him so they could withdraw a large portion of it.
CHADWICK: Okay, when we left off they had just released him. Then what?
BRAND: They're caught pretty quickly, these guys.
Mr. ALPERT: They were rounded up two days later.
BRAND: Two days later. So how did the police find them so easily? If you were blindfolded, you didn't see who they were, you didn't really know where you were - how were they found so quickly?
Mr. ALPERT: I had a lot of things. I had an approximate as to somewhere on the Brooklyn/Queens border. They had gone out to get a sandwich at a place they called the Salam Shop, and I wasn't sure if that was a proper name or just a nickname, but I thought that would help. I had seen, as I got into the building, the pattern on the tiles in the - in the front of the tenement building where they brought me. And actually two days later, police and FBI agents were out in that neighborhood looking for the pattern of those tiles. I knew the street names of the prostitutes.
I knew that one of the prostitutes was due in jail that very day, my birthday, on a prostitution charge and - but it turns out that the best clue of all was when the girl was going to go down to talk - to call the leader of the gang, to find out why he hadn't come back yet, to take me home as he had promised, she started to say his cell phone number. And she said, What's his number again, 917-69? And then she stopped. Well, that's helpful but you can subpoena telephone records and see whose been calling whom, but from 917-69 you can't subpoena anything.
Well, it turns out that when I first got there, they kept calling me Stephen. And well, they were laughing, and oh, sorry, that's the guy we picked up the other night. The other guys they had done this to, they'd only taken them to the bank and not fully kidnapped them as they did me. Well, it turns out when they robbed Stephen, they stole his cell phone, and so the police subpoenaed Stephen's cell phone records, and sure enough there were calls back and forth from a number that starts with 917-69. Bang, that's the leader of the gang.
BRAND: Wow. So here you were, petrified, thinking you might lose your life, but yet in your mind you're amassing all these details and memorizing bits of a phone number and what tile looks like and the names of these prostitutes, thinking, hoping that this information would be useful.
Mr. ALPERT: I had guns at my head, and although they kept cocking them on and off to threaten me and threaten to blow my brains all over the wall and to kill my father if I didn't cooperate, I was able to take active steps, and I think that helped me a lot to stay calm, to know that I was doing something, and to feel a sense of empowerment.
BRAND: So all of them were convicted and the ringleaders, the men, sentenced to substantial time. They were - they're in jail for what, the rest of their lives?
Mr. ALPERT: The maximum sentence for kidnapping is 25 to life and so they - these guys plead guilty - the men - to between 15 to 20 years to life. And that what that generally means is that they'll come up before the parole board right around the time of - you know, of either 15, 17, 19 or 20 years, and then that board has the option to let them out or not.
BRAND: So a couple of them were pretty young, 18, 19 years old?
Mr. ALPERT: Right, the men were between 18 and 22 years of age.
BRAND: So they won't be out of prison until they're middle aged? Do you ever feel sorry for them?
Mr. ALPERT: I do feel sorry for them, in that I think it's a very sad choice that they made, and I see them as human beings and I wish they had done something different. But the violation to me was so extraordinary, and frankly, the violations that they'd already committed, which - two of which I describe in the book in whatever detail I could learn. You know, one of the men that they had taken - you know, that they grabbed at the bank, they left him on the back seat of his car and they stole his glasses and his car keys and left him lying there. I mean there was just a cruelty to these folks. So I do feel bad that these, you know, fine young lives are lost, but they had already gone down a path that made them dangerous and so for that reason I don't feel too bad.
BRAND: You just had another birthday. Was it your 47th?
Mr. ALPERT: That's right.
BRAND: Happy Birthday.
Mr. ALPERT: Thank you.
BRAND: Well, each birthday, do you think about it again?
Mr. ALPERT: Absolutely. Very often I get together with friends and we all sort of remember what had happened and what could have been and we're all very happy for the way it turned out.
BRAND: And Stanley, whatever happened to that woman you met on the subway that night?
Mr. ALPERT: She and I are still friends and she actually came to the launch party on the twenty-second of January and gave a very funny speech about not meeting men on the subway, it's a bad idea.
Mr. ALPERT: You know, right after she met the man on the subway, two days later she's getting called by the FBI and investigated, because for all they know, she could have been the one who set me up.
BRAND: Stanley Alpert, the author of the new book "The Birthday Party," thank you very much.
Mr. ALPERT: Thank you.