I started out in the hostage rescue business as a ninja, one of the guys with the fancy black suits and the high-powered rifle. Following a police career that began with walking a beat, I trained as a sniper and became part of the New York Police Department’s 9 Truck emergency service unit. Most days, I felt one very small step removed from being a superhero. Nothing, I mean nothing, was too big for me to handle. I believed—hey, I KNEW—I could solve any problem.
One day I responded to a building where a drug dealer was holding a group of other drug dealers hostage. Now I have to admit, the fact that the other hostages were drug dealers themselves—well, let’s say that gave the situation a certain slant, and it was definitely something I thought about as I set up my shooting rest across the courtyard from the apartment where they were being held.
But things were put into slightly different perspective when I found out something else—the drug dealers had a four-year-old daughter, and she was being held hostage with them.
I went from superhero to impotent bystander in about three seconds, because I could see that no matter what any of the members of our unit did, saving that little girl with our high-powered rifles would be nearly impossible. The apartment was dark, there were only a few windows, the lines of sight were bad, night was falling. If the gunman decided to kill that kid, her only hope was God, not us.
I got down, put my Steyr on the rest, and took my position. I asked my shooting partner, Tony Sanpiatero, “What kind of a weapon does he have?”
Tony answered, “He says he has a machine gun but he’s full of shit.”
As I began squinting into the scope, a barrage of .45 caliber slugs exploded from the apartment across the way. The hostage taker had a World War II–era “grease gun”—a primitive but deadly hand-held machine gun—and emptied at least half the clip at the building where my partner and I were sitting. Glass flew everywhere, dust, dirt, you name it. About the only thing the gunman didn’t hit was us.
Somehow, I managed to stay calm and look down my scope. All I could see was the muzzle flash, a blinking yellow and red flame at the left corner of the window. My finger tensed on the trigger.
Shooting would have been the worst thing in the world I’d ever done, because I didn’t really have a target. I couldn’t 100 percent guarantee a hit. Sure, I could have fired at the flash and probably nailed it. But that might or might not have gotten the bad guy. And probably’s not good enough when you’re working 9 Truck.
In little more time than it takes to blink an eye, the firing stopped. Fortunately, the bad guy hadn’t hit anyone.
“Well, I guess he’s not lying,” I told my partner. “He sure as shit does have a machine gun.”
You have to have a pretty dark sense of humor to be a city cop. You laugh to get rid of the tension sometimes, and that was one of them.
Unfortunately, it was about the only laugh we had for the next several hours as the impossible situation dragged on. The hostage negotiators made contact and started talking to the bad guy. Finally, the commander told us the situation had stabilized. No shots had been fired for a while; there seemed to be no imminent danger.
He was doing more than keeping our spirits up. At that point our rules of engagement changed. We no longer had a green light to fire.
And of course, the gunman came dead in my scope maybe three minutes later.
How tempted was I? A squeeze of the trigger and the whole thing would be over.
I thought about the little girl. Here was my chance to save her. Part of me, a large, large part of me, wanted to squeeze the trigger. I could visualize it easily. The bullet would nail the SOB dead between the eyes. He’d fall back on the floor. The girl would be free.
I’d be a hero.
Except, to shoot I’d have to disobey orders. I untensed my finger and just watched as the hostage taker moved out of sight.
Time dragged. Finally, roughly twenty-five hours after the situation began, we got word that the bad guy was coming out. The girl, the other drug dealers, and the bad guy came out of the apartment. The crisis was over.
One other person remained inside—a woman who’d been hiding there from the very start. She’d ducked under a bed and kept quiet the whole time.
The bed was right behind where I would have shot the hostage taker when I had him in my sights.
Would she have been hit by my bullet if I’d fired? If the shot went through his body clean, would it have nailed her too?
I honestly don’t know. Thank God it’s one of those things we never will know.
What I do know is that everyone in the apartment got out without any injuries. They were saved not by a ninja, not me, but by a hostage negotiator—a mouth warrior. Another member of the response team had used words, not bullets, to save five people. He was the hero today, a true hero in every sense of the word.
Until that point, I hadn’t really considered how important the negotiators were. I hadn’t even thought of them as being part of the team. My view of the world was through a high-powered scope. It was a powerful view, but a limited one.
Make no mistake: If we hadn’t had our guns trained on him, no way the bad guy would have given up. But from that day on, I realized how important negotiators were. I had a different view of the team concept of handling difficult situations. And I was very glad I hadn’t blown everything by disregarding the rules that underlay the team approach and taking my shot.
The rules had been drawn because the commanders had stood back at the start and realized the goal in that situation wasn’t to plug the guy; the goal was to get everyone out alive. To meet that goal, everyone had to do his or her job. Even if that meant not shooting when the suspect was in their sights.