November 9, 2018
By Edward Conlon
When Monsignor Robert Romano attended a lunch in Howard Beach, on a gray, damp afternoon in early May, he was unusually brief in his benediction. The crowd was eager to get to the clams oreganate and asiago rice balls that awaited them in the expansive room of white marble and mirrors at Russo's on the Bay, but that didn't account for his reticence. Romano was there for the forty-fifth anniversary of the NYPD's Hostage Negotiation Team, and he'd let others do the talking. "Bless these conversations," he said.
Lt. Christopher Zimmerman, the team's commanding officer—there have been seven, all of whom were in attendance—was concise in his remarks as well, pointing out that every single negotiator through the years had volunteered for the assignment, for no additional pay. "And no one ever says no when we call."
Any number of men and women in the room might have mounted the podium and held the crowd spellbound for hours. Harvey Schlossberg might have explained that the team, which was the first of its kind in the world, was formed in response to a series of events in the early 1970s—the Attica prison riots, the terrorist attack on the Munich Olympics, and the botched Brooklyn bank robbery that inspired the Al Pacino movie, Dog Day Afternoon—in which the police response had been improvised at the scene, often disastrously. Schlossberg, a clinical psychologist as well as a police officer, laid out the behavioral, emotional, and cognitive framework for the unit, and Frank Bolz, a lieutenant in the Emergency Services Unit, added his tactical experience and became its first commanding officer. The first class of negotiators, all of them detectives, graduated in April, 1973.
Bolz could have told any number of stories. There was the time in the Bronx, seven hours into a standoff with a distraught man holding his family captive, when he heard footsteps racing toward him from a darkened hallway. Bolz shouted "Stop! Stop!" as two ESU cops raised their shotguns. The footsteps kept coming, but ESU, fortunately, held their fire: it was an eight-year-old deaf girl, the daughter of the hostage-taker. Bolz led the unit until his retirement in 1982, responding to some 285 incidents and seeing to the release of 850 hostages.
Some of the stories were funny enough, after the fact: Lt. Hugh McGowan might have recalled the man who took four people hostage for ten hours in the World Trade Center in 1978, brandishing a purportedly explosive metal canister. The man spoke Polish, and he was so incensed that a Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking detective attempted to communicate with him that he threw the phone away. The canister was eventually revealed to contain four loaves of bread. Others ended in gut-wrenching tragedy. Lt. Jack Cambria was at the scene when a mentally ill Taiwanese man took his two children hostage with a shotgun in a high-rise building near the South Street Seaport in 1988. Highway units closed the FDR Drive for a time, and the Coast Guard blockaded the East River. The man shot fourteen cops that day, Cambria among them, before turning the gun on his children and himself.
"The HNT operates on the premise that there is always a chance of a connection with someone in extremis, no matter the circumstance."
Not everyone can be reached. But the HNT operates on the premise that there is always a chance of a connection with someone in extremis, no matter the circumstance—the three types of hostage-takers, in sharply decreasing order of frequency, are emotionally disturbed people, robbers on jobs that went sideways, and terrorists—and every chance to forge some rapport or at least lower the level of volatility is worth taking. Time is on the negotiator's side, mostly; when violence occurs in a standoff, it tends to happen within the first hour. In the 1970s, especially, the idea that the police should not react immediately with a show of force to a threat of violence was considered radical, even unnatural, and the notion of heroic inaction is not familiar to most cops, then or now. The approach is equally unexpected among hostage-takers, who are often confused and surprised by the first words they might hear from the negotiator: "What's going on? What can I do to help? What's your name?"
Among the two hundred-odd detectives gathered in Russo's on the Bay that afternoon, there were many who could have made a rich living as talkers, as corporate deal-makers or car salesmen. But Zimmerman isn't in the market for champion debaters when he selects candidates for HNT. He's more interested in those whose lives have taught them how to shut up and listen.
Osvaldo Rosado is a tall, burly man with a placid demeanor and a measured, unrushed manner of speech. He's been on the team for a year, but hasn't yet been called out on any job that required a sustained engagement. He sounded somewhat chagrined when he mentioned that he was off-duty when negotiators were recently called out for a jumper on the Verrazano Bridge, adding that the conversation was brief: "ESU snatched him before he went over."
Though Rosado has had a long and varied career with the NYPD—he was been with Special Victims in Staten Island for the last five years, following nine years in Brooklyn Narcotics, and three on patrol in Bushwick—it was not his police experience that recommended him to HNT. Lt. Zimmerman told him during the interview, "I need people like you. You live in crisis."
"I negotiate every day," Rosado said. He has three children: Thalia, twenty; Evan, seventeen; and Sofia, thirteen. Evan is on the autism spectrum, a range of conditions that affect communication and social interaction, and is often characterized by repetitive behaviors and involuntary movements. About a third of people on the spectrum also have an intellectual disability, and a third remain non-verbal. For a long time, it was assumed that autistic people were extremely limited in both their intelligence and in the complexity of their emotional lives. Though neither assumption is true, for parents of children on the spectrum, the realization that their kids are "in there, somewhere," thinking with great focus and feeling with great passion, can be exquisitely painful when a word or gesture of affection is met with silence, or worse.
"He's verbal," Rosado said of Evan. "And he can't control his aggression. When he gets mad, he'll attack anybody. When he's not happy, when he doesn't get the answer he wants, he hits his sisters. He's also a lovable kid.
"I've been married twenty years. Still married, which is a surprise in itself. Our marriage rate is not good," he said, referring to parents of autistic children. "He's got his things—videos—that aren't appropriate for his age. Wiggles, Blues Clues. He's got over a thousand of them. He's got his own YouTube channel.
"The struggle is getting Evan to do something I want him to do without getting physical. He's big, like me—5'10", 250 lbs. Every day is a struggle. To get him up in the morning, to get him dressed, to get him to go to bed. We give him melatonin, to help him sleep. Our break is when he's at school. My break is when I'm at work."
The trials of Rosado's home life have proven to be apt preparation for his assignment at Special Victims. "I'm good at talking to kids, at building a rapport. You have to get kids to disclose things, and sometimes they've been groomed to be victims for years by their own family members. You have to be empathetic. I've interviewed kids on the spectrum as well. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."
What has often worked is Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI) training, a technique designed to aid in understanding the jumbled impressions and gaps in memory than can arise when trauma victims tell their stories. Detectives who might have been inclined to dismiss an inconsistent or contradictory account of an assault now have the means to consider whether the problems with the story are symptoms of the injury rather than signs of dishonesty. FETI training was first introduced to the NYPD at Special Victims, and Zimmerman has since made it part of the curriculum at Hostage Negotiation.
Rosado recently had a case with an autistic adult who had been sexually assaulted. "She was high-functioning," he said. "But I noticed little things that reminded me of my son. When he's had enough, his voice starts rising, and he talks quicker. With her, when I heard her doing that, I knew to change topics, maybe to talk a while about other things that interest her. She'd break eye contact, and I'd move to maintain it. With my son, I sometimes hold his cheeks and say, 'Look at me!'"
That was not an option with the assault victim, of course. The case pained Rosado. Issues of autonomy and consent might be difficult to negotiate with the prosecutor in the case, as the victim was legally competent, but Rosado viewed what had occurred as criminally predatory. His mouth tightened. "He took money from her, and he took advantage. It upset me. That could be my son."
"With autistic kids, they're not all alike," he said. "All of their stories are unique."
Matt Hickey retired in 2010, but he still talks to every incoming class of negotiators. Lt. Zimmerman described him as an intimidating figure, more or less refrigerator-like in size and shape, and called him, with evident affection, "A monster!" As it happened, Hickey wasn't able to make the lunch, but he phoned in his story—you can do that, as a negotiator. His voice is a low growl, like the sound of an A-train just outside the station, and even the off-hand details of his stories have an edge of menace. Before joining the NYPD, he was an elevator mechanic, until a friend from work convinced him to become a cop. The friend was the brother of Mickey Featherstone, a hit man with the Westies credited with nine homicides.
But deceptive appearances were Hickey's stock in trade. He came on the Job in 1990, and, after six years on patrol—on the Upper East Side and in Crown Heights—he was ready to make a move. As an Irish guy from Long Island who stood 5'8" and carried 240 lbs of gym-built muscle on his frame, the likeliest next step would have been ESU, or Street Crime, or Warrants, an assignment where his athletic mass would be an advantage, and his pale complexion would not be an impediment. Instead, he became an undercover in Narcotics. In the Bronx.
"I went in as a construction worker, having a meltdown," he said. "If you had a gift of gab, you could get away with it. Most times, though, if you had money, they didn't give a s---. One guy I go to cop from, he says, 'You're diesel!' I say, 'So are you!' He was built, too, and he was using."
Hickey made the buy, and many others. He worked on a midnight team, mostly in the 46th Precinct, a rough neighborhood that saw its share of suburban traffic due to its proximity to the George Washington Bridge. It says something about the state of the city back then that a man like Matt Hickey could make street buys. And it says something about the judgment of the average dealer that, on more than one occasion, they didn't just fail to make him as a cop—they also took him as an easy mark. He was in two shootings, less than six weeks apart.
"One was at the end of the night, 4:30 in the morning," he recalled. "It was up on Grand and Evelyn. I was walking with the ghost"—a second undercover, in this case a woman, ordinarily detailed to keep watch over the first—"And we hooked up with some guys up in Aqueduct Park there. They wanted me to front the money. I'm like, 'I'm not giving them money to leave.' She says, 'I'll go with them.' So she walks away with one. A police car comes into the park and chases us out. So I'm walking out with the guy who did the okay for the sale, and she comes back—the guy took off on her. So I'm arguing with the guy who okayed the sale, expecting her to put it over the radio, 'Move in!' We can still take this guy. And the guy reaches in his pocket, I'm grabbing him—'Get your hands out of your pocket! Get your hands out of your pocket!' And I get my gun out, he grabs my gun. The gun went off, right next to his head."
The dealer was shocked but unhurt. In telling the story, Hickey's voice quickened only for effect—Get your hand out of my pocket!—and he was similarly unruffled when he related his account of his next shooting.
"The second time was a weed buy, 186th and Webster," he said. "The ghost lost me. I was out in the street, middle of the night."
Hickey made contact with a dealer who, he later learned, belonged to a gang that was infamous at the time.
"The Park Avenue Boys, the ones who shot Kevin Gillespie," he said.
"Nobody wants to have a shooting. I had two in a month. The Bronx was happening then."
Police Officer Kevin Gillespie was killed by three members of the gang, all violent felons on parole, following a pursuit for a carjacking. Hickey had gone to Gillespie's funeral, in March, 1996, and his run-in with the Park Avenue Boys came nine months later.
"This guy was one of them," Hickey went on. "Same thing, he was trying to rob me, he pulled out a straight-edged razor. I'm backing up, trying to get my gun out of my pocket. Shot him from the hip, hit him in the elbow.
"The field team came in, they cuff him, throw him in the van. I go back to the undercover car. My boss calls me over the air, 'Yo, Hickey, did you let a round go?' I'm like, 'Yeah.' 'Do you think you hit him?' 'Yeah.' They go to him in the van. 'Are you shot?' 'Yeah, I been telling you I been shot!' 'Yeah, yeah, sorry man!' They take him out of the car, to the hospital.
"Later, he gives a forty-five minute statement to the DA, IAB, he gives up everything, how he tried rob me, how he pulled a razor out because I was bigger than him. Still, at the end, he says, 'Why'd you have to shoot me?'"
Hickey laughed. "It was pretty funny, actually. I was a little scared then. There are things you can look back at and laugh. At the time, it was not fun. Being an undercover in the Bronx, it was a s---y time. It was not fun then."
Asked if the shootings affected him, Hickey hesitated before replying, "Not really." One of the would-be thieves hadn't been hit; the other hadn't been badly hurt. He hastened to clarify, "I don't think I had PTSD from them. Nobody wants to have a shooting. I had two in a month. The Bronx was happening then."
But the stress of undercover work, particularly at that time—six NYPD officers would be killed in the line of duty in 1996—was acute. The Narcotics Division had expanded dramatically through borough-based "Initiatives," and buy-and-bust operations were conducted all over the city, at all hours. In the 46th Precinct, in the hilly western edge of Bronx, there were steep and narrow step-streets, unlit and isolated walkways that might descend seven stories connecting one block to another. A ghost couldn't follow an undercover when he or she met a dealer there. The undercovers called them "terror domes."
"It was a heavy time, back then," Hickey said. "There were undercovers getting jumped, robbed all the time. Getting in shootings. One female undercover, a guy tried to rape her in the hallway. She shot him."
Hickey was transferred to Manhattan after the shootings, but he stayed in touch with another Bronx undercover, Detective Sean Carrington. In January, 1998, Carrington made an undercover buy at 1660 Andrews Avenue when the dealer became suspicious of him and opened fire with a Mac-11 machine pistol. A shootout ensued, and both Carrington and the dealer, who was on parole for manslaughter, were killed.
"Sean was a great guy," Hickey said. "Left behind a little baby. It makes you think, I'm risking my life for this?"
Work was taking its toll on Hickey, but he didn't let it show. "If you talked to guys who knew me back then, I kinda had the reputation as a fun guy, drinking all the time, always laughing, smiling. I work out, I used to do some heavy lifting, back in the day. Physically, I was a strong guy. I put myself in a lot of tough, dangerous situations. I got myself out of 'em. Guts-and-glory-wise, I had no fear.
"What happened to me in Narco was I started partying, drinking a lot. I was getting a little out of control," he said. He didn't drink every day, and drinking wasn't an issue at work. "But when I drank, I drank. Everybody has a bad day. Everybody has a couple of bad days. The problem is when you start putting a lot of bad days together, your body chemistry changes, your mental chemistry changes. That's when you become full-blown depressed.
"I tell guys I've been burnt, I've been cut. At this point in my life, I've had ten surgeries, had a herniated neck and back, busted up all kinds of ways. The worst pain I've ever gone through is emotional, with depression. And it never went away. You wake up with it and you go to bed with it. You wake up, say, 'F---, I gotta go through another day.' You go to bed, you say, 'I don't want to wake up tomorrow.' I wanted to end it.
"When you get to that point in life, your heart and your head are fighting. It's hard to explain. My heart knows it's wrong, but my head's saying it's the only answer. The disease was taking over my head. Not my body, but my head.
"Everybody has a bad day. Everybody has a couple of bad days. The problem is when you start putting a lot of bad days together..."
"I used to sit there with a gun in my hand, at home on my day off. And then my dog, he'd come over and put his head in my lap. And I'd think, 'Who's gonna take care of you?' And that would stop me. Not my mother, my father, my brother, my friends. I was worried about my dog. That's how sick you get, how depressed you get. In my head, I was going through ways to kill myself so it didn't look like I killed myself... I didn't want to make people feel bad. I didn't want to embarrass my family."
In 2001, Hickey tried to kill himself by taking an overdose of pills. It was an impulsive act: he was drunk, and forced down a fistful of ibuprofen and sleeping pills, which he threw up. He was afraid to get help. "I was afraid to lose my job. I liked being a cop," he said.
Later that year, on the day after a wedding, Hickey was sitting at home. He'd enjoyed himself the night before. "It was a good wedding, a good time. Chateaubriand, shots of Bacardi. As much drinking as I did, it was my clearest night."
The sense of resolution continued through the next day, a Sunday. Hickey took stock of his life and decided that he didn't want any more of it. Thinking about the future was more than he could bear; reflecting on the past brought little consolation.
"I used to do a lot of crazy s--- in high school. I was the class clown, pulled a lot of stunts. So my best friend growing up, he had a brother, a couple of years younger. He hung out with us, looked up to us. I was a stupid role model. The night of his birthday, my best friend, me and him were out with some girls. His brother was out with some friends. He climbed up a telephone pole, got blown out, killed instantly. I always felt a guilt that he did that because he was acting like me," he said.
Hickey called his high school friend's father. "Just to tell him, 'Listen, I'm sorry for what I did. I didn't mean for that to happen to you…I'm sorry Dennis died, it was my fault, I feel bad about it.'
"He wound up catching me on it. He was a Nassau County sergeant, a detective sergeant. Turns out, he happened to be on the hostage team in Nassau County. He called me out. He said, 'Are you gonna hurt yourself?' I said, 'I can't do it anymore. I don't want to live anymore.' He came and got me."
Hickey was put in touch with POPPA, a volunteer police support group. Though he had taken his last drink at the wedding, he is hazy on the details of what followed. "POPPA came and met me in Long Island. They talked to me for a while. They took me to a place in Syosset to get me tested. I talked to a counselor up there. I don't remember the place, I was in such a fog. Then I called my command and said I'm gonna be out sick, a couple of guys are gonna be coming in, going to my locker. They kept it secret—'Blue Line sick'—they didn't tell anybody.
"This was Monday, September 10th. On September 11th, they were gonna get me into the city, into the office, and then probably send me to 'the Farm.'"
Needless to say, the plan changed. It was more than Hickey could process at the time, given his emotional state. "It was 9/11. I wanted to come in. They said, 'You can't do it.' I was in such a fog. I was such a piece of garbage. Not a piece of garbage. I was at my lowest point. I wasn't at work. I wasn't there to help. It was rough.
"If it wasn't for the people around me, I don't think I'd be here talking to you on the phone today. They wound up hooking me up with a retired lieutenant who was sober, very involved with AA, a long time of sobriety. He started taking me to a lot of AA meetings, right away.
"I was living in the basement of a friend of mine's house, a very good friend. He was a Suffolk cop, but we were cops together in Brooklyn. I told him what was going on. He stepped up, big time. Every day, he made sure I got out of bed and went to the gym with him, made sure I kept busy."
Hickey left Narcotics for the Detective Bureau in 2004. He was in Brooklyn North Night Watch in 2007 when a friend recommended that he look into the Hostage Negotiation Team. "The guy told me, 'You been through s---, through a lot of s---. You're the guy they're looking for.'"
When Lt. Jack Cambria, the commanding officer at the time, brought Hickey in for an interview, a highly-regarded and well-loved member of HNT had just committed suicide, stunning her friends. Hickey told the lieutenant, "The woman who killed herself is not the woman you knew." Cambria brought Hickey on the team.
"I know what it's like to be a guy who loses control of his life," Hickey said. "I can talk to suicidal guys, especially suicidal cops. We have an easier ability to do ourselves in. The problem is, we don't like to talk to other guys. We're all supposed to be tough. We're supposed to be these strong, hero guys who can take it all.
"Before I got help, I thought the Job wanted to get rid of me. I try to explain to guys that the Job doesn't want you to go. I know there was an old stipulation—you go to Psych Services, you're out of a job, you're done. It turns out, the Job really doesn't want to lose you. They have a lot invested in you. They want you to get better, you know?
"I wasn't the Job's favorite guy, either. I've been to the Trial Room a couple of times. I've had my charges, my civilian complaints. But I did learn that the Job does care about you."
"My first HNT job, I was in Brooklyn North Night Watch at the time. We get a call-out of a guy on a rooftop in the 7th Precinct. I was driving, and Jack was on the phone, 'Get up there! Get to the top of the stairs, he's on the roof!'
Once Hickey arrived and made his way through the crowd of cops at the roof, the man threw a bottle at him. "Here's a guy, his girlfriend and him are fighting, he's drinking all the time. He was living my story! We just started talking. Jack came, and he said, 'Keep talking.'
"As a hostage negotiator, you want to slow down everything and have them think more about other options. 'You have young kids, your family loves you, you'd devastate your family. Do you understand what you're leaving behind? You're leaving behind unanswered questions. You're leaving behind the fact that people are always gonna think, 'What could I have done to stop it? What could I have done to help him? Why'd I do this to him? Why'd I let him down?'
"If you can stop somebody for a minute, get them to slow down and think, it might be enough to get them off that ledge, to come back and get the help they need."
Hickey said all of that and more on his first job, on the rooftop. At last, he seemed to break through to the man: "The guy had a knife. He said, 'I'll throw the knife down.' I said, 'No! Don't throw it! Just lay it down.' And then finally, he sat down and started crying."
Hickey reflected, "It's a different kind of satisfaction. When you get a good call-out, when you get somebody off the roof. When you get someone to let the kids out, the homicide perp to surrender. When you get the EDP come out unharmed, and ESU didn't have to take the door, or shoot somebody, you feel good.
"I know what it's like to be a guy who loses control of his life. I can talk to suicidal guys, especially suicidal cops."
"We did have a cop once, Jack and I. He left a note, a suicide note, with his ex-wife. He was on his way down south to kill himself. We got him on the phone. We got him to come back. Last I heard, he's doing very well. He's remarried, he has kids. We were lucky that time.
"It made a difference how I handled perps too. I've met bikers, guys who did time in prison. You know what? Clean and sober, they're the nicest guys in the world. Not everybody has the same opportunity. Not everybody wants to be a bad guy."
Since retirement, Hickey has worked security at St. Francis Hospital, in Roslyn, Long Island. His skills have not atrophied. "You get people who are going through hard times. Older people, people with dementia, people who are having reactions to medications. People at the end of their lives, in hospice. I go to their rooms when they're getting violent, try to talk 'em down. After one time, a nurse asks me, 'How the hell did you do that?' I said, 'Because I was a hostage negotiator.'
"Whenever I do the classes, I tell everybody, 'Take my number. Call me, if anyone's having a problem, for any reason.'
"Hopefully, you never need to use it, but if you do, my phone is forever on, 24/7. You never know who's going through what in life. And you never know who can help you."
On September 9, it will be seventeen years since Matt Hickey had a drink, at his friend's wedding. He will observe the occasion by getting married to a woman he's known since high school. "Like they told me in the program," he said, "As long as I don't pick up a drink, as long as I keep my head on tight, I'm gonna live a life beyond my wildest dreams."
There was nothing in Mike Ahearne's background that prepared him to be a negotiator. His childhood was ordinary and wholesome, his marriage has been loving and stable, and his children are healthy and well-adjusted. He's been a cop for thirty years. He doesn't look like one especially—he's tall, with a clean-shaven head and a pair of half-frame glasses, and a sturdy build that betrays no undue devotion either to the weight room or the dessert table. Mostly, the cop-time doesn't tell on him in his amiability, his open manner and easy smile. Every functioning office has someone like Ahearne, whether they sell bonds on Wall Street or bang out dents on cars on Jerome Avenue: a hard worker who's not out to beat the world, or the guy next to him; someone who's disinclined to involvement in-house drama, but a sympathetic ear for the disgruntled at nearby desks. He hasn't moved around much in the course of his career: he went from the 19th Precinct, on the Upper East Side, to the 19th Precinct Detective Squad, and then to Manhattan South Night Watch. His training in hostage negotiations was strictly on-the-job.
Ahearne was a natural at it, he found. At his first call-out, he was with Lt. Cambria and another detective, Sammy Miller, from the 9th Squad. "It was at a hairy one," he said. "A guy had doused himself and his eighteen-month-old daughter with gasoline, and his apartment was full of propane tanks. The fire department had filled the basement with water, so it was like a swimming pool." After Ahearne persuaded the man to surrender without hurting anyone, a reporter approached him and told him, "If I ever get taken hostage, I want you to negotiate."
Ahearne's introduction to the subject matter was far from academic, however. In January, 2002, a woman walked into the 19th Precinct to make a complaint against her child's father regarding his recent attempt to gain visitation rights.
"I'm the furthest away from the door," Ahearne sighed, remembering. "Eight detectives are between me and her. But they send her to me."
He read the situation the same way every other cop in the room did: This one's red-hot and sloppy, and no matter how it ends, they're both gonna hate me. The legal issues in play would likely be technical and tenuous, the emotions operatically broad and intense. Still, Ahearne was a team player, and he met with the complainant to talk things over.
The woman had abundant cause to feel aggrieved. She'd raised her six-year-old without the father's support, financial or otherwise, and his periodic reappearances seemed calculated to disrupt her life rather than any sincere attempt to bond with their child. Ahearne was sympathetic, but it seemed to be a matter for family court, and no crime had been so far alleged. They spoke at some length before she mentioned that on one of his sporadic visits, several years before, he'd held her and child hostage at gunpoint.
In journalism, that's called "burying the lede," and its belated report tends not to bolster the credibility of an accuser in a contentious relationship. Still, when Ahearne ran a background check on the man, Adrian Leibovici, he saw that he'd been arrested for having a gun in Manhattan, in 1984. The account of the arrest was uselessly succinct: "At the time and place of occurrence, defendant did possess a loaded and operable firearm."
Still, it was enough to prompt Ahearne to take a closer look, and he asked another detective to accompany him to the address the woman provided, in Rego Park, Queens. It was an unprepossessing place, an apartment that had been divided into rental rooms, and Leibovici made no particular impression, either. He was husky but not imposing, in his early forties, with a salt-and pepper beard, and appeared somewhat nervous but eager to cooperate. Ahearne was as sympathetic with him as he had been with his ex in the squad room.
"Let's talk about it," he said. "You're not under arrest, I promise! Can you come back to the precinct with me? If you're right, I'll serve the papers on her myself."
When Leibovici asked to go to his room to get his legal paperwork, Ahearne delayed him for a moment. "No offense, but I ran your record. It said you took a gun charge, twenty years ago."
Leibovici had no objection to a quick pat-down. In his room, he retrieved his stack of papers, and then he walked to the bed, where his jacket was. He picked it up and pulled the chain on the light. Ahearne now believes that was the moment when he picked up the gun.
In the car, his partner offered to sit next to Leibovici in the back seat. He was uncuffed—Ahearne had been sincere in assuring him that he wasn't in custody—and they made small talk on the ride back to the Upper East Side. Leibovici had been born in Romania, raised in Israel, and had served in the military.
But as soon as Ahearne brought him up to the interview room in the 19th Squad, he noticed the difference in him. "His body language changed. He sat there with his arms crossed, a glass of water beside him. I told him to take his jacket off, and when he handed it to me, I felt the weight in the pockets. Three loaded magazines. I look up, and he pulls a gun out of his crotch."
Ahearne grew animated as he told the story, acting out the blow-by-blow, but the smile never left his face. The lunacy and terror of the moment was displaced; he could have been at a bar, talking about the craziest thing that once happened to his cousin.
"I reach across the table, grab the gun, and we're fighting. Boom, boom! I tried to get out, bumped into the desk, fell back. He's pulling on my tie, using me as cover. The door shuts, and it's stuck. Not locked, but it's as good as locked, jammed shut. Guys are pounding at the door.
"He hits me in the head with the gun. 'Hands up!' I raise my hands. He's yelling, 'Now you're gonna die! I'm gonna blow your head off!
"He says, 'I want your gun.'
"I say, 'You can't have it.'
"He tries to take it, but I push him away. I was wondering if his gun wasn't loaded, or if it didn't work, but I didn't want to bet..."
"There was no way out aside from talking."
Ahearne was on his knees with a gun pointed at his head when inspiration struck. After reassuring Leibovici as best he could, over and over—"You wanted this fight, not me! You wanted this fight!"—he offered a kind of compromise: Ahearne is left-handed, and he offered to lie down on his left side, pinning his gun beneath him so he wouldn't be able to draw it. Leibovici thought for a moment before he agreed. "I don't feel comfortable, Mike, but I respect you."
Ahearne shared the discomfort, if not the respect, as he would remain frozen in that position for the next several hours. Leibovici crouched by the door, so he couldn't be seen through the square of glass above him. He held the gun "maybe a foot, maybe eighteen inches" from Ahearne's head. He wouldn't have missed if he pulled the trigger.
There was no way out aside from talking. The 19th Precinct had been built in 1887, and Ahearne didn't want to guess the last time the door had been replaced or reframed. It wouldn't budge when the other detectives tried to get in, or when ESU deployed, creating additional defensive barricades of sandbags inside the squad room.
A few hours before, twenty feet away, Ahearne had been sitting at his battered old metal desk, clacking away on his typewriter, updating his reports on carbon-paper triplicates. Aggravated harassment cases, credit card theft, bar fights. The other detectives might have been grumbling about overtime, or who hadn't paid their dues for the coffee club. It had been such a dull day in the office. Why couldn't it have stayed that way?
When Ahearne wasn't convinced that he'd be shot in the head, he was beset by a lesser but still needling fear: I'm gonna get in such big trouble for this! What would the bosses say? Not all of them, not even most, but the big shots who had been career benchwarmers when it came to street work. He knew they'd ask, "Why didn't you search him? Why didn't you cuff him?" Ahearne wanted to survive for many reasons—for every reason—but there were moments when he wanted to live just so he'd have a chance to explain that he wasn't to blame.
At one point, Leibovici asked, "You have kids?"
Ahearne replied that he did, and Leibovici dug a hand into his pocket to check his wallet for pictures. He didn't always carry pictures of his children with him, but he did that day, and he has ever since. Leibovici told him, "If this all works out, you'll see them again."
Soon after, two negotiators arrived—Sammy Miller and Jack Cambria, as it happened—along with Michael O'Looney, a former reporter who was the NYPD's Deputy Commissioner of Public Information. When the negotiators drew Leibovici out on his grievances, Ahearne was…puzzled. The object of his captor's anger was not him, or the NYPD, or the police in Romania or Israel. It wasn't even his ex. It was the CIA. Leibovici claimed to have been a contractor, a hit man who had traveled to various countries on the agency's behalf. He had not been treated fairly, and he wanted the world to know. "I'm a true American patriot, and they forgot about me."
At one point, Leibovici pulled up his shirt to reveal an American flag tattoo on the left side of his chest. "Touch it, Mike. Touch it," he insisted.
"All right," Ahearne replied. "But that's all I'm touching."
When he recalled that moment—sixteen years later, beer in hand, a wry smile on his face—it was hard to gauge his level of irony. "I'm thinking, 'If this starts getting weird…"
Detectives from Queens were dispatched to the rented room to retrieve a trove of documents. Several garbage bags were needed to haul them back to Manhattan. Once they were perused by Miller and Cambria—the more relevant ones had been laminated—Leibovici wanted to talk to a reporter. O'Looney, who still carried his press credentials, was deemed satisfactory. Leibovici began to make an extended statement, coughing once in the middle, and he was impressed when O'Looney's readback included the cough.
As the hours passed, veering between crisis and stasis, the relationship between the two men in the room shifted. Though Leibovici remained in a state of high agitation, sweating profusely as he ranted, he softened somewhat in his attitude toward Ahearne, whom he relied on to clarify or confirm what the negotiators told him. At one point, Ahearne felt confident enough to make a request.
"Hey, Adrian, do me a favor? Don't point that gun at my head. I don't want it to go off if you sneeze."
Leibovici shrugged and lowered the gun. "Oh, okay."
When the manifesto had finally been recited and recorded to Leibovici's satisfaction, Ahearne was tempted to hope he might live through the night. But then there was another demand: Leibovici wanted his magnum opus translated into Hebrew.
The response from the negotiators was equally unexpected. Sammy Miller flatly refused to accommodate him, saying, "No. You said you're a man of honor. You gave your word. Honor your agreement."
"Ahearne wanted to survive for many reasons—for every reason—but there were moments when he wanted to live just so he'd have a chance to explain that he wasn't to blame."
Ahearne watched as Leibovici sat and thought, staring at the gun in his hands. He seemed to have made a decision; he racked the slide. And then he disassembled the gun with a practiced dexterity: "It was as if he worked at the range." He gave Ahearne the parts and asked, "What do you want me to do now?"
Ahearne's body was cramped and numb, his mind a shocked near-blank, but he reacted immediately. He struggled to his feet and aimed his gun at Leibovici, ordering him to face the wall with his hands up. It was over, and he was alive.
Ahearne shouted to the negotiators that he was free, that he had Leibovici's gun. It took two staggering blows from the battering ram to force the door open. ESU officers are trained as paramedics, and one of them checked his vital statistics. Afterwards, he looked at Ahearne quizzically. "You're the guy who got taken hostage, right? Your blood pressure's normal."
Though Ahearne showed extraordinary composure throughout the ordeal, it has had a deep and lasting effect on him. Small things continue to rankle him: the next time he met Leibovici's ex, she was bitter and snappish, aggrieved that she was kept up at all hours by police during the hostage situation. Leibovici's gun arrest from 1984 wasn't for routine possession, but the result of a barricade standoff in a hotel room. That would have been helpful to know. At the lunch, Ahearne's account of his night of torture was jarringly lighthearted, jokey and full of ironic asides, but when he finished, he pulled his jacket lapels back and plucked at his damp shirt. "I still sweat like a pig when I tell that story."
After he became a negotiator, he made use of his experience. "I've said, 'Listen, I've been there, I know what it feels like. Believe me, it's worse as a police officer, when you're completely powerless.' I think it touched people, it's gotten through to them."
Becoming a part of HNT may have aided him in coming to terms with what had happened to him; he'd lived through it, and he could help others survive as well. Jack Cambria might have sensed that it would, or he might have simply admired his unwavering grace under unimaginable pressure. Still, Ahearne felt that the job offer, when it came, was slightly premature.
"I was walking out the door when Jack says, 'I liked the way you handled yourself in there. Did you ever think about coming on the team?"
"I said, 'Thanks… Can I get back to you on that?"