Stalling for Time

My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator

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The FBI’s chief hostage negotiator recounts harrowing standoffs, including the Waco siege with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, in a memoir that inspired the miniseries Waco, now on Netflix.

“Riveting . . . the most in-depth and absorbing section is devoted to the 1993 siege near Waco, Texas.”—The Washington Post

In Stalling for Time, the FBI’s chief hostage negotiator takes readers on a harrowing tour through many of the most famous hostage crises in the history of the modern FBI, including the siege at Waco, the Montana Freemen standoff, and the D.C. sniper attacks. Having helped develop the FBI’s nonviolent communication techniques for achieving peaceful outcomes in tense situations, Gary Noesner offers a candid, fascinating look back at his years as an innovator in the ranks of the Bureau and a pioneer on the front lines. Whether vividly recounting showdowns with the radical Republic of Texas militia or clashes with colleagues and superiors that expose the internal politics of America’s premier law enforcement agency, Stalling for Time crackles with insight and breathtaking suspense. Case by case, minute by minute, it’s a behind-the-scenes view of a visionary crime fighter in action.

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Stalling for Time



Time cools, time clarifies; no mood can be maintained

quite unaltered through the course of hours.

--Mark Twain

There it was, hard and direct. "You going to shoot me when I come out?" Charlie said.

"No," I responded. "That's not going to happen. You said you wouldn't hurt anyone. You said you'd drop off the pilot somewhere in the mountains. So there's no reason for anyone to get hurt."

The logic of this formulation appeared to work for Charlie, perhaps because this was his only chance to go on living with Cheryl and their son, little Charlie.

But what I knew that he didn't was that somewhere out in the fields surrounding us, FBI marksmen were poised, waiting to take his life.

A large part of a negotiator's job is to establish trust, yet there are fundamental contradictions in that. In order to convince someone that despite all appearances to the contrary, everything will be okay, you have to project sincerity. You have to make him believe that what you are saying is honest and aboveboard. You have to address his primal need for safety and security by establishing a bond. And on rare occasions, you have to lie.

"Have you ever been on a helicopter before?" I asked.

"No," he said.

"You'll enjoy it. The view over the mountains will be spectacular." Of course, I knew that he would never take that ride or experience that view. Once again, the contradiction: he was hearing what he wanted to hear.

"Charlie," I said, "I need to ask you an important question."


"The helicopter pilot is an old friend of mine. His name is Tom Kelly. I've known and worked with Tom for many years, so I need your absolute promise that you won't harm him in any way. If anything happens to Tom, I would never be able to live with myself."

"I won't hurt him," Charlie said.

About ten days before, Charlie Leaf had abducted his estranged former common-law wife, Cheryl Hart, and their young son from her parents' home in Connecticut. After a seven-year relationship, Charlie and Cheryl had separated two years ago. When Cheryl had finally left him, she said she saw him snap. She moved in with her parents, trying to get on with her life, but Charlie, like so many men in such situations, was not willing to let her go. The way he saw it, Cheryl and little Charlie were his possessions, and he wanted them back. Over the next two years he threatened her and physically abused her whenever he found her. He had once even abducted little Charlie for six months, and gave up the boy only when the police intervened. Cheryl had sought and obtained a restraining order a year ago. The next day, right before he had to go to court, Charlie came to kill her.

It was on Friday, April 1, 1988, that Charlie cashed his paycheck and purchased a carbine rifle, sawing off the gunstock in order to conceal it. Then he drove to Cheryl's parents' house--they were away for the weekend--and pried open a door leading into the garage. He kicked in the door to Cheryl's bedroom with the rifle in his hand. He beat her and raped her before telling her to pack things for little Charlie. He told her that she could go or die.

Fortunately, Cheryl had the instincts of a survivor. She remained calm and said she would come; she convinced Charlie that he didn't have to kill her.

"We can go away," she said. "We can start a new life together with little Charlie."

Cheryl had made it clear by now that she wanted no part of Charlie, yet he wanted so much to believe her that this gleam of hope obscured his judgment. He gave her a few moments to get the boy out of bed and to gather up some clothes. Then they took off in Charlie's car.

Cheryl had no plan other than to try to stay alive. Charlie's plan, to the extent that he had one, was to avoid being caught. Both knew that Cheryl's parents would call the police the moment they discovered she was gone. Both were simply stalling for time.

Charlie drove south through the night along the eastern seaboard, and somewhere near the Washington, D.C., area headed west into the mountains of Virginia. Charlie liked mountains. When little Charlie was still an infant, he started to build a log cabin, which remained unfinished when Cheryl left him. Cheryl had grown tired of him, of the idea of living in a remote cabin, and of their relationship, and so she left.

On Saturday, April 2, about an hour and a half due west of Washington, D.C., Charlie's car ran out of gas. They abandoned it near Sperryville, Virginia, a scenic little town on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Virginia authorities found Charlie's car on Sunday. By this time, Cheryl's sister had reported her missing when she didn't show up to a planned dinner, so when the police ran the plates, they quickly connected this vehicle with the story of the abduction in Connecticut, then launched an all-out search.

Just outside Sperryville, a sleepy country village where tourists came in season to buy apples and view the fall colors, Charlie took his family once again into the woods. This time, he built a simple lean-to. They made their way to a nearby country store, where they purchased food and drinks and a few other supplies. Meanwhile, all around them, a search went on involving the local police, the Virginia State Police, and the FBI. Helicopters flew over the ridges and valleys, while teams on foot searched the woods with tracking dogs.

This went on for almost a week, by which time the authorities were ready to give up. Then on Friday the eighth, Charlie waited until after dark, then broke in to the same country store he had visited before and stole additional supplies. This confirmed for the police that their fugitive was still in the area, and the next morning they renewed their search. Investigating the burglary, the authorities showed photographs of Charlie, Cheryl, and little Charlie to the store owner, who made a positive identification.

The FBI's efforts in tracking down Charlie and his victims would be led by the Richmond, Virginia, SWAT team, with an assist from members of the SWAT team from the FBI Washington Field Office (WFO). Both groups are tactical operations specialists, that is, the ones who subdue the perpetrators if and when negotiations fail to bring an end to the crisis. In other words, their jobs do not involve establishing trust or empathy, or the contradictions attendant therein.

They made a house-to-house search of the area, and late in the afternoon on April 9, Special Agent Barry Subelsky and his team from the WFO SWAT approached a two-story farmhouse, a weekend getaway place for a successful Washington couple, less than a mile off the main road. The sunlight was fading fast, so they wanted to get this done as quickly as possible.

Barry conferred with Wayne Waddell, SWAT leader for the Richmond FBI office. These two experienced agents, both Vietnam combat veterans, decided that Barry's team would search the ground floor of the farmhouse and Wayne's team would then take the upstairs. Before they moved in, however, they saw something that made them cautious. The electric meter on the outside of the house was humming along at a brisk pace, more active than what one would expect in an unoccupied dwelling.

They summoned an FBI helicopter for support, and it landed in a field some hundred yards away, just as a local sheriff arrived with keys to the house.

Barry's team searched for signs of forced entry but found none. They came up on the rickety porch outside the kitchen and went in through the back door, then fanned out to secure the ground floor. Wayne and his team followed in single file up on the porch, through the kitchen and then the family room, turning the corner near the front entryway, then advancing, slowly and carefully, up the creaking main stairs to the second floor.

When Wayne got upstairs he found Charlie on the floor of the bedroom holding Cheryl and little Charlie in front of him, a gun to her head.

"Back off!" he yelled. "Back off or I'll kill her."

Wayne Waddell had spent hours training for situations just like this, and he knew exactly what to do.

"We're backing off," he said. "Nobody's going to get hurt."

He and the agents moved back down and clustered at the foot of the stairs.

Law enforcement often overreacts to threats of the kind that Charlie made, even though in most cases such threats are merely defensive, designed to keep the police at bay. Some law officers hear only the threatened action, "I'll kill this lady," while failing to hear the conditions under which that action will be taken: "if you try to come in here." That is one reason why the most critical skills of a negotiator are self-control and the ability to help those around you keep their cool.

Wayne had a lot on his mind as law enforcement settled in for the long haul. Mere chance had made him the group's primary negotiator, and his immediate task was to deescalate the confrontation, and then to convince Charlie that he was here to help him. But he also had to lead the SWAT team and coordinate the actions of the roughly twenty FBI personnel on the scene, as well as communicate all of this to his superiors.

Back in Sperryville, other agents and local police officials were setting up a command post at the local firehouse, from which all efforts would be coordinated. State police brought in an armored vehicle, one of those old Brink's trucks that had been converted to a forward command post, which they positioned about a hundred yards away from the farmhouse on the long drive leading to it. Sniper/observer teams took up positions in the nearby woods, and the men inside the house began to wait.

As dusk settled in, Wayne and his team decided to turn on the lights. Charlie didn't like this. In response he fired several shots at the lightbulb in the ceiling above the second-floor landing, shattering the bulb and sending shards of glass in all directions.

"Relax! Relax!" Wayne yelled. He kept his guys cool, avoiding what could have been a bloodbath right there and then. It was going to be a long night.

Wayne now realized he would need a trained negotiator to talk to Charlie. He called in another agent from the Richmond FBI office, Gray Hill, who soon arrived, still in civilian clothes, and assumed the task of talking to Charlie from the bottom of the stairs. Their conversations over the next couple of hours were sporadic, and in the few exchanges that took place Charlie remained adamant: he was not going to give up without hurting Cheryl and the boy. Hill was a veteran agent and had taken the FBI's two-week hostage-negotiation training course, but this was his first actual hostage situation. His job at this point was to relieve Wayne and hold the fort until a resolution strategy was in place. An hour went by, maybe two. Then Charlie called down with his first demand. "We need our clothes out of the dryer. We need you to get the clothes and bring them up here."

It actually had been Cheryl's idea to break in to the farmhouse, with clean clothes as the objective. There had been some wet weather in the mountains and she and the boy had been cold and miserable. She had convinced Charlie that they needed to take a warm bath and wash their clothes, which were still in the dryer when Wayne and his crew entered the house.

Gray was nothing if not cautious, a negotiator who would play it by the book, and the book says that you do not give a hostage taker anything without getting something in return. His answer to the request for the clothing was no. He did not want to empower Charlie by making concessions to him without getting something in return. But at the same time, he continued to emphasize the themes that Wayne had established: No one had been hurt. The charges that might be brought against Charlie at this point were not that serious. The FBI didn't want to see anyone hurt.

These are all standard tactics of hostage negotiation: to minimize the consequences the perpetrator will face once the siege is over, and to assure him that he won't be hurt if he surrenders. The other essential part of the message is that harming someone will only make matters worse. Even so, there are times when playing it by the book won't get the job done, and when a more experienced negotiator might be more willing to improvise. This would prove to be one of those times.

It was after one in the morning when the phone rang on the nightstand next to my bed in my home in Fairfax, Virginia. I heard a voice telling me that it was FBI headquarters, calling to tell me about what was going on in Sperryville and asking me to report to the command post there as soon as possible to assist with negotiations and eventually take over direct communication with Charlie. As the negotiation coordinator for the Washington Field Office, I'd been involved with previous such incidents and I knew the drill.

While I would have preferred this call at a more convenient hour, I felt the usual charge of excitement that comes with responding to cases of this kind. I quickly jumped out of bed, threw on my clothes, and told my wife, Carol, that I would call her when I could. This was my job, like it or not. I had just come back from an assignment overseas and my FBI car--my "G-ride"--was still parked at the office, which meant that I would have to take the family station wagon. As I got in the car and backed out of the driveway, the absolute calm of the quiet suburban street once again reminded me how different my life was from that of my neighbors.

The trip would normally take about ninety minutes, driving out of Fairfax through Warrenton. My family and I had been to Sperryville the previous year to pick apples, so I knew the way. There was almost no traffic at this time of night, and, not having my light and siren, I edged over the speed limit cautiously and made it in about an hour. When I reached the command post at the fire station in town I was given directions to the farmhouse a little ways up the road. I was told to speak to the Assistant Special Agent in Charge (ASAC), Virgil Young.

I showed my identification to the trooper on the scene, parked near the armored truck serving as the forward command post, and approached the small group of men standing out in the cold.

- About the author -

GARY NOESNER retired from the FBI in 2003 following a thirty-year career as an investigator, instructor, and negotiator. An FBI hostage negotiator for twenty-three years of his career, he spent ten years as the bureau's Chief Negotiator. Following his retirement from the FBI he became a Senior Vice President with Control Risks, an international consultancy. Noesner has appeared on numerous television documentaries produced by A&E, the History Channel, Discovery, TLC, and National Geographic. He is the founder of the National Council of Negotiation Associations, which represents about eighteen organizations and thousands of law enforcement negotiators nationwide.   He continues to do consulting work for Control Risks part-time.

More from Gary Noesner

Stalling for Time

My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator


Stalling for Time

— Published by Random House Trade Paperbacks —