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Retrospective: The 1981 take-over of the Atlanta FBI office

By C. Frank McClure
Director of Crisis Management Resources, ETGI

It was during the time of the murdered and missing children’s investigation during the summer of 1981 that an incident happened at the Atlanta FBI office that we in Atlanta will not soon forget. It was one of those type of incidents that is “not supposed to happen,” if you know what I mean.

I was sitting in church on a beautiful Sunday morning with my wife minding my own business listening to the preacher deliver his sermon, when what happened. My trusty beeper started going off. I couldn’t just slip out. I was in the middle of the row. I got up and was trying to get out and was ‘stepping on people’s feet. Everyone was looking at me and the preacher stopped his sermon! Needless to say, I was embarrassed and mad at the same time.

When I finally got out and was trying to find a phone, I said to myself that another victim of our serial killer had probably been found in the river as others had lately. I found a phone and called our Communications Section. The Communications Section supervisor advised that we had a hostage situation. I asked the question that I always ask first when I am told that we have a hostage barricade situation, Is the SWAT team on the way?

I then asked the location and the supervisor told me that someone had forced their way into the F.B.I. office and had taken several people hostage - that just doesn’t happen! I had a few choice words for the supervisor and told him not to be calling me on a Sunday telling me that someone had forced their way into the F.B.I. office and was holding people hostage -- that just doesn’t happen!

I immediately left the church and proceeded to the F.B.I. office which is located in the Federal office building complex located at the comer of Peachtree and Baker Streets. This was a multi-story structure which housed several different offices of various federal agencies. The command post had been set up on the main floor of the Peachtree/Baker building and that is where I first met with the Atlanta Police Special Operations commander and the Special Agent in Charge of the Atlanta F.B.I. office. This was going to be a joint operation of both the F.B.I. and the Atlanta Police SWAT teams and hostage negotiators from the F.B.I. and Atlanta Police.

Prior to making any contact with the hostage taker, I was briefed by F.B.I. Special Agent in Charge, John Glover, and our Special Operations Commander, Major W.W. Holley. At the same time I was being briefed, SWAT team members and hostage negotiators were setting up their bases of operation.

On the weekend, the Peachtree/Baker building is closed to the general public and members of the Federal Protective Service are responsible for building security. An officer was stationed on the main floor when a man approached the main entrance to the building. The man summoned the officer to the locked front door and stated that he worked in the building and needed to get in to do some work. The officer asked the man for some identification at which time the man produced a handgun and forced the officer to open the door. At that time, he immediately took control of the officer’s weapon.

At this point, he instructed the officer to take him to the tenth floor, the main work area for the F.B.I. As you exit the elevator you would approach a double door with a peephole located in the door. The subject then had the officer stand in front of the door and summoned someone to the door. When the person saw it was the Federal Protective Service officer standing in front of the door, the door was opened. The subject then forced his way into the office where he took several employees hostage.

There was one young lady who went literally” falling down” crazy and began crying and screaming. The hostage taker reached down and grabbed her by the hair of the head and threw her out the door stating, “Get out of here; I don’t need that.” She then ran out the door. We were later able to interview this young lady who provided to us valuable information as to what the hostage taker looked like and also what he was armed with.

The hostage taker then secured his hostages in what was known as the chief clerk’s office which also contained the main switchboard for the entire F.B.I. office. At that point he instructed one of the female hostages to call one of the supervisory F.B.I. agents at home and tell him what was taking place. This agent was contacted by the female hostage and was told that a man with a gun had forced his way into the chief clerk’s office and was holding several people hostage. The agent then made contact with the hostage taker and began talking with him.

It was at this point the female hostage who was manning the switchboard husband called just to talk to his wife. The husband had no idea what was going on. His wife started crying and told him that there was a man with a gun in the office. The husband asked his wife some questions and hung up and put in a call to the Atlanta Police stating that a man with a gun had taken over the F.B.I. office and was holding his wife and several other people hostage. Needless to say, this is not the type of call that normally would be received by a police department.

A communications dispatcher called the F.B.I. office in an attempt to confirm the validity of the call. The dispatcher spoke with the girl who was “manning” the switchboard, at the hostage taker’s instruction, because he did not want the phone ringing. The dispatcher asked the girl if she needed the police; that her husband had called and stated that a man with a gun was there at the office. The hostage taker was monitoring the conversation and broke in and told the dispatcher “no.” The dispatcher then told the girl that if she needed the police to” give us a call.”

At the same time another dispatcher was calling up the F.B. I. office to try and confirm the call. This time the hostage taker talked directly with the dispatcher for quiet a long time. It was at this time that the hostage taker relayed his demands. He stated that he wanted to see some F.B.I. Agents and to see his chaplain. These were the extent of his demands. It was at this time the communications supervisor gave instructions to contact our Special Operations Commander and I to advise us there was a hostage situation at the F.B.I. building and for us to get underway to that location.

After a meeting with Mr. Glover, the S.A.C., and Major Holley, our S.O.S. Commander, Mr. Glover requested that I act as the primary negotiator. Another Atlanta Police negotiation team member acted as the secondary negotiator and the other negotiators were from the Atlanta Police and F.B.I. These negotiators made up the rest of the team. Also on the team was a psychiatrist, Dr. Lloyd Baccus, who had assisted us on hostage/barricade situations in the past. Dr. Baccus was a tremendous help in allowing us to evaluate the type of hostage taker we were dealing with and how to focus the negotiations.

All of the recording equipment was set up on the phones prior to making the first contact with the hostage taker. As stated earlier, all calls to the F.B.I. Office went through the main switchboard located in the chief clerk’s office. We were not in a position to secure the phone lines as the hostage taker would constantly move about the office and the call would have to be transferred to the extension that he was near. Glenda, the switchboard operator, who was a hostage, would handle all calls that came through to the office. She did a tremendous job!

I contacted the hostage taker and began the first contact. He relayed to me his demands which were to see some F.B.I. agents and to see his chaplain. I asked him where he had met his chaplain and he stated, “when I was at Georgia Regional.”

I immediately knew we had big problems as Georgia Regional is a state mental hospital locate right outside of Atlanta. I did not want to say, “Okay, what kind of nut were you at Georgia Regional?” So I asked, “Did you meet your chaplain when you worked out there?”

He then stated, “No, I was a patient.”

“Did everything work out for you?”

“Yes,” he replied. “I was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.”

I immediately changed the subject.

My initial contact had lasted about an hour and a half. During that time, I asked the hostage taker his name and he refused. I told him that was no problem; just give me something to call you by. He told me to just call him “friend.” That is how I referred to the subject throughout the negotiations. During this initial contact, he made several threats toward the hostages and repeatedly demanded to see some F.B.I. Agents and to see “his” chaplain.

After this initial contact, I had a meeting with the S.AC. and our S.O.S. commander to give them my initial feelings. I told them that I did not feel good about this guy. He was very unstable and we might be there for three hours or three days. I might be able to talk him into releasing all of the hostages except for one or two, but as unstable as he appeared anything could set him off. He could kill the remaining hostages before we could make any kind of move to recover the hostages.

During this lull in the negotiations process, we were going to play back the tape of the initial contact to see what we could pick up and what else we could learn about the person we were dealing with. We rewound the tape and hit play and there was nothing on the tape! The tape recorder had malfunctioned and had not recorded any of the dialogue of the first contact with the hostage taker. We had to send out and get another tape recorder to tape the remaining negotiations.

I made contact again with the hostage taker at which time he dropped his demand for the F.B.I. Agents. He stated that he did not want anything to do with the F.B.I. and the only thing he wanted was to get his chaplain and send him up to where he was so that he could see and talk with him.

Each time that I would gear the negotiations in another direction, he would interrupt me in mid-sentence and ask if we were trying to find his chaplain. There were times that we would be talking and his voice would change as if you were talking to an entirely different person. Also, he would be talking and he would start talking backwards. Yes, I said that he would start talking backwards! In other words, as far as we laymen are concerned, when we are negotiating with someone and they start talking backwards, the only thing that we need to know is that the “S.O.B.” is crazy!

The young lady that had been initially released by the hostage taker had calmed down allowing us to interview her. She was able to give us some preliminary information about the hostage taker but when we asked what the hostage taker was armed with she would describe a weapon that sounded like it came out of a “Star Wars” movie. We already knew that he was armed with the weapon that he pulled on the officer and he also had the officer’s weapon. I gave her a piece of paper and asked that she draw us a sketch of the weapon. From her sketch, we assumed that he was armed with some type of semi-automatic weapon.

By this time, the news media had picked up traffic on their police scanners and began to call the F.B.I. office. The information about the takeover had gone out over the wire services and news media from all over the country started to call the F.B.I. office as well as all of the local news media outlets. Their calls also had to directly go through the switchboard and luckily for us, the hostage had the same young lady answering the phones. He instructed her not to talk to the media and to just say “no comment” when they would call the switchboard; otherwise, we would have had big problems with the media.

Even though this was a very tense and life threatening situation, there was one call that came in to the switchboard during the negotiations that was quite humorous. The hostage taker answered the phone himself and it was someone making a collect call to the F.B.I. office. The conversation went something like this:

Operator: There is a collect call from “John Smith” will you accept the call?

Hostage Taker: No!

Operator: They will not accept the call.

John Smith: I would pay and talk, but I don’t have the money.

Hostage Taker: No!

John Smith: It is a matter of life and death.

Hostage Taker: Okay, we will take the call.

John Smith: This is John Smith from Rome, Georgia and I want to speak to someone about some narcotics dealings.

Hostage Taker: We have no Agents on duty today.

John Smith: You mean to tell me that if someone’s life was in danger, you don’t have any Agents on duty?

Hostage Taker: That’s right. You will have to call back on Monday. Call the G.B.I. (Georgia Bureau of Investigation).

The hostage taker the ended the conversation.

I managed to get the hostage taker on the subject of releasing some of the hostages, and worked out an agreement where he would release three hostages as an act of “good faith” on his part. We worked out how the hostages would take place - a negotiator would knock on the outer door leading into the tenth floor offices three times and he would release the three hostages by letting them walk out the door.
This is where I made a terrible mistake. I just knew that I had “blown” everything!

As the hostage taker and I were talking about how the release would take place, I told him to “hold on just a minute” and I placed my hand over the receiver of the phone and told a team member to “make sure that SWAT team is out of sight”. As soon as I came back on the phone the hostage taker said in a very agitated voice, “I heard what you said about the SWAT team.”

I then told him that, “you heard what I said, that you did not want to see any SWAT people.” He kept asking where they were and kept telling him I didn’t know. It was at this point I just wanted to crawl under a table; I had just blown the whole thing. A knock on the door by the person we had sent to get the hostages broke the hostage taker’s train of thought and saved the day for me.

The logistics were worked out. SWAT team members covered the negotiator when he knocked on the door. I had the hostage taker on the phone at the time the negotiator knocked on the door. The hostage taker’s voice changed as if I was talking to an entirely different person and he yelled out, “someone is banging on the damn door.”

I then asked him. “How many times did he knock?” He said it “sounded like three” and at this point I then told him to “let them out.” He then said “Okay.” After the release, the hostage taker stated. “Those are the last three. Don’t come back and ask for any more. If you do, you will wish you hadn’t.” I ignored this threat and just told him that we would work together. We were able to gain more intelligence from three release hostages which helped to confirm the decision that had already been made. The decision had been made to “neutralize” the hostage taker.

The hostage taker seemed to becoming more and more agitated and more unstable. At one point, he and I were talking and all of a sudden he yelled out “Whoa!” and I then asked what was the matter and after a short pause he said, “Nothing, I saw my reflection in the glass”. He thought someone was trying to come through the outer walls and attack him.

The call of nature prevailed upon some of the hostages and they told the hostage taker that they had to go to the bathroom. This information was told to me by the hostage taker which I relayed to the SWAT commander. We knew that the bathroom was located at the end of the hallway on the tenth floor. The hostage taker would have to come out of the chief clerk’s office in order to take the hostages to the bathroom. It was going to be up to me to talk the hostage taker into letting them go to the bathroom so that SWAT team members positioned in a utility type room in the hallway so that they could get a shot at the hostage taker.

I asked if anyone up there was getting hungry. The hostage taker turned to the hostages and asked if anyone was hungry. He came back on the line and told me “We have a bunch of hungry people up here.” We talked about what everyone wanted to eat and settled on hamburgers and hot dogs from the Varsity which is a big drive-in fast food place in downtown Atlanta. He had his “secretary” take the orders which he then relayed to me. I told him that while we were waiting on the food would be a good time to take the people to the bathroom. He agreed and I told him that I would call him when the food arrived.

At this point, he had the hostages line up single file with the security officer directly in front of him, As he marched the hostages down the hallway; he had his weapon in direct contact to the back of the officer. As the hostage taker walked past the room where the SWAT team officers were concealed, they moved back so he could not see them. On the return trip back to the chief clerk’s office, he had the hostages in the same configuration, except the officer was about seven feet in front of the hostage taker. When the hostage taker walked past the point where the SWAT officers were concealed, one of the SWAT officers fired through the louvered grate of the wall and struck the hostage taker in the upper back. The other SWAT officers opened fire and the hostage taker was struck several times. He was never able to get off a single shot. When the firing started, the hostages scattered like a covey of quail. SWAT officers moved in and secured the subject and other officers secured the hostages.

Obviously, I was not on the phone when word came down to us that shots were being fired. My first thought was that something had set off the hostage taker and he was killing the hostages. I immediately tried to get someone to answer the phone but no one answered. Along with other negotiators, I got on the elevator and went to tenth floor. I cautiously exited the elevator and went to the entrance and looked down the hall and saw that the hostage taker was down. A big sigh of relief swept over me and I felt that a ton of bricks had been lifted from my shoulders. Out of all the situations that I have been involved in, at the time this one scared me the most. The hostage taker had been so unpredictable and unstable; I felt that the potential for losing hostages was extremely high.
There were several things that we learned from this situation. As in every situation that we negotiators are called upon to handle, we should take these things and apply them to these crisis situations.

Some of these things were:

1. Communication between everyone (SWAT, negotiators, and command) is a MUST!
2. The role of the negotiator in assisting the SW AT team in exercising a tactical option can be crucial. Remember this is a TEAM concept!
3. Tape recording the negotiations can greatly assist the Hostage Negotiation team in evaluating the mental and emotional state of the hostage taker.
4. Cooperation between different agencies to accomplish the same goal can run smoothly, if handled properly.
5. Hostage and crisis situations can happen anytime, anywhere, and to anyone.

The list could go on and on, but I hope that you have been able to get a feel for what went on that “quiet” Sunday when I was minding my own business and not bothering anyone, when what happened!!