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'Stalling For Time' With An FBI Hostage Negotiator

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.

"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."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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