In October 1982, a man held his sister and her two children at gunpoint behind the curtained windows of a train car. Mario Villabona had boarded the New York City-bound train in Jacksonville, Fla., with a Browning semiautomatic pistol and a fully automatic MAC-10 submachine gun. During a 72-hour siege in a railway station in Raleigh, N.C., Villabona fired shots at police officers, killed his sister and allowed her infant son to die of dehydration. Knowing that Villabona could easily kill his niece in the time it would take a SWAT team to penetrate the train car, hostage negotiators Gary Noesner and Ray Arras communicated with Villabona continuously. The negotiators were initially met with either obscenities or silence, but eventually they established a dialogue. Their efforts led Villabona to pass his niece, unharmed and wrapped in a blanket, through a window into Arras’ waiting arms. Villabona then surrendered to police.
This was Noesner’s (Educ ’93) first major siege in a career that would take him to crises across the world for the next two decades.
Noesner says that the siege in Raleigh is similar to many of the incidents faced by the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit, where he was chief until 2003. “Ninety percent of the conflicts are emotionally driven,” says Noesner. “The person isn’t there holding hostages to demand a million dollars or a getaway car. They’re there because they’re angry. Or a relationship has gone sour.”
Noesner worked for the FBI for more than 30 years as an investigator and instructor. As a hostage negotiator, he defused prison riots, government standoffs with right-wing militias, overseas kidnappings and terrorist embassy takeovers. “I wasn’t one of the founding fathers of negotiations,” says Noesner, but his career trajectory has coincided with many of the most significant events in the evolution of hostage negotiation at the FBI.
On Feb. 28, 1993, Noesner flew to Waco, Texas, to serve as a negotiator in a crisis that would change the FBI forever. During an attempt to make an arrest at an isolated compound in Mount Carmel, Texas, 80 armed ATF federal agents were embroiled in a shootout with members of the Branch Davidians, a religious group led by David Koresh. Four agents and five Branch Davidians were killed, Koresh was injured and an armed standoff began that would last until mid-April.
The day after the gun battle, when FBI agents arrived on the scene, Noesner spoke with Koresh on the phone, “Hi, David. This is Gary,” he said. “I just got down here, and I want to make sure that you and your family get out of this situation safe and sound.”
That first conversation ended with Koresh saying, “Yeah. We’re not ready to come out yet.”
Noesner led a team of 24 negotiators who secured the release of 35 people, mostly children, from the compound. At one point, Koresh agreed to surrender to authorities, but later reneged, saying that God had told him to wait. FBI officials disagreed about whether to use tactical force or to continue negotiations. Noesner says that the FBI’s strategy was undermined by a lack of communication between the negotiation team and the tactical commanders. On March 25, as the FBI turned toward a more tactical strategy, Noesner left Waco and, after his departure, no further Davidians were freed.
On April 19, the FBI launched a tactical assault—which included tear gas and armored vehicles that knocked down exterior walls—to force the Davidians from the compound. Noesner watched television news images of the fire that consumed the compound and immolated 74 people, including Koresh, who were still inside. An independent investigation verified that the fires were set by the Davidians, nonetheless Noesner was deeply troubled by the outcome of the siege.
“I always judge a success or failure with the question: Do I feel we saved every life that we could?” says Noesner. “It could be argued that we might never have gotten David Koresh and all his followers out alive, but I’m absolutely convinced we could have gotten more people out.”
Official inquiries and congressional hearings revealed the siege commander had been at cross-purposes with the negotiation team. New FBI Director Louis Freeh created the Critical Incident Response Group to manage crisis incidents. “After Waco, the FBI developed—under my unit—the Hostage Barricade Database System,” says Noesner. “The database thoroughly validated the crisis intervention model; we found that negotiation, far more often than tactical strategies, saved hostages’ lives.”
“Sometimes it takes a crisis like Waco to build an improved system and, in doing so, bring institutional change,” says Dr. Gregory Saathoff, who is the director of the FBI’s Critical Incident Analysis Group, which is based at UVA. “U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno made a concerted effort to base FBI procedure on statistics, on actual research and not on anecdotes. It took Waco, an extroverted, high-energy guy like Gary and Reno to push through training based on hard data.”
“The database is the only one of its kind in the world,” says John Flood, who currently heads the Crisis Negotiation Unit at the FBI. “And it helps us do what negotiators are meant to do: save lives.”
Noesner’s intention to save lives arose from an unexpected source during his Florida childhood. During an episode of The Mickey Mouse Club set at the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., a Mouseketeer spoke with J. Edgar Hoover about the FBI’s mission and tracking down gangsters in the ’20s and German spies in the ’40s. “I was hooked,” says Noesner.
Noesner joined the FBI in 1972, the same year Palestinian Black September terrorists seized 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and rescue attempts failed. Earlier that summer in New York City, a bank-robbery-turned-hostage-crisis became a 14-hour live television spectacle. The incident—which inspired the movie Dog Day Afternoon—led New York Police Commissioner Patrick Murphy to create a full-time crisis unit and establish protocols to contain crisis situations. “Those incidents, and the Attica prison riots the year before, were a wake-up call,” says Noesner. “Law enforcement across the county began programs based on the one in New York. Before that, crises were handled by whoever showed up first.”
In 1980, Noesner attended his first negotiation course and learned about the negotiation process, abnormal psychology and famous hostage cases. “Before the ’70s, police would sit outside of a building where someone had barricaded themselves holding hostages and would demand that they surrender,” says Noesner. “If they didn’t, they’d go in there and get them.” The weaknesses of this strategy—the dangers it posed to police officers and hostages—had been demonstrated to both law enforcement and the public in the ’70s. By the ’80s, the protocol for crisis situations was a bargaining model. “It was quid pro quo. If you release a hostage, I will give you food,” says Noesner. “This model worked better, but it still lacked a clear focus on emotionally driven situations.”
What was the most effective way to deal with emotional hostage takers? “We discovered that active listening skills, empathy building and procedures that enabled us to influence a person positively away from violence made a huge difference,” says Noesner.
He says that a majority of the people who commit these kinds of crimes are sane people in a highly emotional state. “Think of a child’s teetertotter: When emotions are high, rationality is low. And vice versa,” says Noesner. “When you arrive at the scene, you don’t say, ‘You’re not going to get your job back if you kill your boss.’ That should be obvious, but for a person in an enraged state, it doesn’t matter. Instead you talk. You listen. With time, the emotional person calms down and becomes more receptive to a peaceful solution. Most people don’t want to kill or be killed.”
During the ’80s, Noesner taught courses in negotiation on the side while working for the FBI Terrorism Squad, where he hunted down spies and dealt with international incidents that involved American citizens. He worked for five years on the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 and the terrorist takeover of the cruise ship Achille Lauro on the Mediterranean Sea. In 1985, Noesner interrogated four hijackers of the cruise ship, including Majed al-Mulqi, in a prison in Turin, Italy. “I thought, ‘There’s no way we can get a meaningful statement from this guy,’” says Noesner. He used his negotiating skills; he acted relaxed and nonthreatening and appealed to Mulqi’s vanity. After a few hours, Mulqi admitted to being the leader of the plot.
“This was an important moment for me, when I began to think about the distinction between interrogation and interviewing,” Noesner writes in his recently published book, Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator. “The former, at least at face value, seemed the appropriate way to handle someone who had committed the kind of atrocious crimes that Mulqi had … [Yet] even a hardened terrorist, when handled the right way, might be encouraged to provide important information.”
One of negotiation’s central tenets is discovering a person’s motives and needs. Noesner figured out that Mulqi needed affirmation of his leadership skills. “It’s a strategy that works across cultures,” says Noesner. He says that incidents motivated by politics are often easier to negotiate than those motivated by religion. “Politics are often more concrete. But whether you’re dealing with a right-wing militia or a religious cult, it is invaluable to understand motives.”
If the job of a negotiator requires understanding and empathy, what kind of emotional toll does it take on the men and women who do the job? After the Waco siege, many of the negotiators, including Noesner, suffered from feelings of sadness and had difficulty sleeping. “The thing that snapped me out of my funk was more work,” says Noesner.
For Noesner, life-or-death decisions were part of a day’s work as an FBI agent. Despite his dedication to resolving conflicts without violence, when the lives of hostages hang in the balance, Noesner knows tactical solutions are sometimes necessary. In 1988, a man named Charlie Leaf took his former wife and son hostage and threatened to shoot them. After arduous negotiations, Noesner realized that Leaf would not be persuaded to spare his ex-wife. As a negotiator, he had to make a tough call—luring him into a marksman’s sights to save others’ lives.
“For some, that might seem like a significant moral dilemma. For me, it was not. It was a clear case of a necessity,” Noesner says. “Sitting back and allowing violence to occur may be defensible in a court of law, but it’s not why I got into this business.”
In the middle of his career, Noesner earned a master’s degree in education at the University. He was familiar with UVA because, since 1972, the University has worked in partnership with the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., where Noesner had already taught many negotiation courses. Professors from UVA’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies teach programs at the academy to agents and law enforcement officers, who earn college credits during their professional training. “A graduate degree in education was a good opportunity for me to expand my knowledge,” says Noesner. “And at the FBI, I was engaging in adult education every day.”
UVA’s partnership with the FBI isn’t limited to the FBI Academy. The Critical Incident Analysis Group that Saathoff heads supports FBI agents in the middle of crisis situations with quick and relevant academic expertise. The CIAG has in recent years helped solve medical mysteries for the FBI, provided information about emerging religions and even decoded a tarot card left by the “Beltway Snipers,” John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.
By 1993, Noesner was the chief negotiator for the FBI, and eventually became the first chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit. “Some of the most important work I did during my career was collecting and centralizing information about critical incidents from around the United States and the world. Now we know where to focus training and rally our resources, and we were statistically demonstrating the value of our approach.”
Saathoff took a course from Noesner at the FBI Academy, and later the two worked together on cases such as the Montana Freemen siege. “Gary made negotiation teachable,” says Saathoff. “It used to be a curriculum of war stories, but he distilled them to their guiding principles. There are some whose natural skill sets and personalities make them the best negotiators, people like Gary; they are like natural athletes. However, even the most naturally talented negotiator benefits from rigor and the lessons of experience.”
Noesner retired from the FBI in 2003 and has since worked as a risk consultant, living in Virginia with his wife, Carol. The couple met during his early years at the FBI, when he worked as a clerk and she as a stenographer.
“When he retired, Gary left a legacy at the FBI,” says Flood. “The Crisis Negotiation Unit itself is his legacy. We have 56 offices nationwide and 400 negotiators who work with us. The fact that our unit deals with every incident of a kidnapping of an American overseas is also due to Gary. Gary’s set the tone for relationships we have with law enforcement. We quietly support local police departments to solve hostage situations, but often no one even knows we were involved.”
Noesner says that he found his career fulfilling, even at its most challenging. He compares the work of a negotiator to that of a surgeon. “A surgeon knows that if he performs heart operations, a certain percentage of patients will not survive,” Noesner says. “There may be times when one might say, ‘I’m going to allow myself to get caught up in the trauma of this loss, and thereby prevent myself from doing all this greater good.’” Noesner has a strong belief in the value of negotiators. “We help the victims who might be harmed and we even help the perpetrator. I always think it’s best for the perpetrator to put the gun down and surrender.”
“Being a successful negotiator boils down to effective interpersonal communication,” says Noesner. “Whether you’re a parent, a boss, a neighbor, work in sales or have a service job, interpersonal skills help build relationships, avoid confrontation and de-escalate tense interactions.”
- Listen. Try to understand the problems, needs and issues of others. Show authentic interest. Acknowledge what has been said. Paraphrase it. Restate the emotions of the person talking.
- Make an exchange. Offer something someone wants in exchange for something you want. Build a relationship of reciprocity.
- Leverage whatever strength you have. In hostage negotiation, this is often tactical force. We keep it visible. Many negotiations wouldn’t go anywhere without the threat of tactical action.
- Contrast the benefits of cooperation with the risks of resistance.
- Influence rather than control. Often, the harder we push, the more likely someone else will resist.
- Stall for time. Time is on your side. Don’t rush. It takes time for people to come to terms with their emotions. The less emotional someone feels, the more rationally they will behave.
- Vocalize the fears and concerns of the other person. Sometimes they might not have the vocabulary to express them.
- Even if communication is all one-way, a calm and controlled voice can lower tension and create an environment that encourages others to speak.
- Avoid the stereotypical voice of authority, instead convey empathy and establish rapport. People want to cooperate with people they like.
- In moments of crisis, try to put aside feelings of anger or pride that prevent you from finding common ground.
- Be your genuine self. Be sincere and respectful. This is the only way to forge a relationship that will allow you to communicate clearly.
- Often in moments of crisis, people don’t know what to do. Talk about options. Talk about the future.