Dead Man's Line - The documentary about Tony Kiritsis

The true story of Tony Kiritsis

The Long Cold Walk

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February 8, 1977

Like most mid-winter mornings in central Indiana, the day was born in bitter cold and didn't warm up much from there. It had snowed recently, but most of what was left along the streets of downtown Indianapolis had gone gray and black with exhaust.

Up on the fourth floor of the building at 129 East Market, the secretarial staff at Meridian Mortgage opened the doors at 8 a.m. to find a client already waiting outside, a man familiar to them.

Anthony G. Kiritsis had visited the mortgage firm frequently over the past four years. Curiously, he was wearing only a cardigan sweater over his short-sleeved shirt despite the frigid weather. With his left arm in a blue sling, Tony precariously carried a department store box, perhaps for a suit, and what looked like a rolled up blueprint with his free arm.

He told the receptionist that he wanted to see the chairman of Meridian Mortgage, M. L. Hall, a man Tony had been working with on a west-side real estate deal. However, the receptionist informed Tony that M.L. Hall was on vacation in Florida, but that Hall's son Richard, a director at Meridian Mortgage and president of several other Hall family-owned businesses, would be in the office shortly. Tony said he'd be happy to wait.

Dick Hall arrived at 8:08 a.m., and as he entered the office, he wasn't surprised to see Tony Kiritsis waiting for him. Hall was quite familiar with the talkative and sometimes overly suspicious client. He had witnessed many heated discussions between Tony and his father since Tony had taken out a loan from Meridian Mortgage to develop his property. With a March 1st payment looming, Hall was actually pleased to see Kiritsis. It might mean that Tony had found a way to settle his debt.

Of course, it would probably also mean enduring another uncomfortable confrontation with Tony, one likely to include profane epithets and accusations, but so be it. One conversation was a small price to pay if it was the last one Hall would ever have to have with Tony Kiritsis.

He asked Tony to come into his private office and noted the sling, recalling that Tony had been wearing the same sling a few days earlier at his last visit to Meridian Mortgage. At the time, Tony had explained that he was going to have an operation on his arm. Hall asked how the surgery had gone, also noticing that Tony was carrying a suit box from a department store and a rolled-up blueprint about three feet long. He assumed the blueprint contained Tony’s latest plans for what he wanted to do with his property in Speedway.

As Hall took off his overcoat and moved behind his desk, Tony asked if he could close the door, saying his jockey shorts were bothering him and that he wanted to adjust them. It was an unusual request, but Tony often said unusual things. Without giving it much thought, Hall allowed Tony to close the door while he looked through some documents on his desk.

A few moments later, Hall looked up to see that Tony had taken his arm out of the sling and was pointing a gun at him, a .38 pistol that he’d concealed within the sling. He cast the blueprints aside — they'd apparently been nothing more than a ruse to make Hall think he wanted to talk about his land. Like the sling and the .38, the blueprints and the suit box were tools to set the stage for Tony's main act and the invention he was most proud of: his dead man’s line.

He ordered Hall to take off his suit coat and tie and sit in his chair with his back to Tony. Then from the suit box, Kiritsis produced a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun and a length of steel cable that he used to wire the gun barrel to the back of Hall's head. The steel cable ran from around Hall's neck through the shotgun's trigger guard to a ring on Kiritsis' index finger. If Hall or Kiritsis accidentally fell, the shotgun would go off. If Hall tried to get away, if law enforcement tried to intervene, or if a sniper shot Tony, the shotgun would disintegrate Dick Hall's head.

Tony had also removed the gun's safety mechanism when he had sawed off the barrel and the stock, and now that he'd wired up the gun, he handed the safety to Hall. Tony then called the newly implemented 911 emergency hotline. When the dispatcher answered, Tony stated that he had taken a man hostage at gunpoint and proceeded to launch into the first of his numerous, animated tirades against Hall and Meridian Mortgage.

Polite one moment, enraged or intensely sad the next, Kiritsis seemed to have little control over himself. The more he talked, the more he revealed how great of a threat he posed. Two blocks east at IPD Headquarters, police were scrambling to get any information they could about the gunman, and those who could hear him on the phone were all desperately wondering whether they were negotiating with a man in a fit of anger or a man having a very public and potentially lethal psychological breakdown.

After 50 minutes on the phone where he continuously asked for friends of his who were on the force, a police escort out of the building, and a car to drive off in, Tony's impatience boiled over. At 9:04 a.m., he hung up the phone and moved Dick Hall out of his office and into the lobby just as the first IPD officer, Ray Brunk, made it up the stairs to the fourth floor.

Down in the first floor lobby, the police waited to hear back from Brunk as soon as he secured the fourth floor door, but after a minute or two of unsuccessfully trying to raise him on their radios, the police had to assume that Brunk was on a different channel and couldn't hear them. Officer David Coffman volunteered to go up and tell Brunk to switch channels.

Coffman with his shotgun in hand cautiously started up the stairs, but when he got to the fourth floor, Officer Brunk wasn't there. Coffman had to hope that Brunk had just stepped inside the fourth floor lobby to get an initial idea of what was going on, but when he heard someone shouting, he feared Brunk was in trouble.

Brunk had already entered the fourth floor lobby to investigate the source of loud, agitated profanity, and there near the elevators, which had been shut off by now, he saw a man holding a shotgun to another man's head. At first, he thought he was dealing with a straightforward hostage crisis, and in an attempt to defuse the situation, Brunk came closer and closer to Tony while calmly asking him what he was so mad about.

Kiritsis seemed to sense that Brunk was about to rush him, and he pulled the .38 out of his waistband and jammed the barrel into Brunk's stomach, saying, "I want you to look at this," indicating the dead man's line. "I don't think you understand just how serious this is."

Even with the .38 in his gut, Brunk focused on finding a way to disconnect Hall or disable Kiritsis, but up close, he could see that the rig was too tight and the cable too thick. Brunk had no choice but to step back, and only then did Kiritsis put the revolver back under his belt.

A moment later, Officer Coffman came through the stairwell door and was stunned to find Brunk confronting two men connected to each other by a shotgun and a length of cable. One of the men, the gunman with the crew cut and the sideburns, was angrily demanding a police car.

Coffman walked right up on Kiritsis and put his shotgun to Tony's head, a persuasive move to get someone to back down. But Tony was unfazed. He just kept talking, assuring the officers that he meant them no harm, adding, "I like the police."

As Brunk, Coffman, and Captain Don Mills, who had just made it up the stairs, stood there and examined what Kiritsis had done with the shotgun and the cable, they slowly began to grasp just how dire Hall's situation was. To complicate matters, Kiritsis had put a brown leather sleeve over the middle part of the shotgun to protect the breach from anyone trying to jam something in there that would render the gun useless.

The police also noted the butt of the .38 sticking up out of the front waistband of Tony's pants. How could they possibly neutralize one of Tony's guns without the other one going off? Their best hope was to keep Kiritsis on the fourth floor until the rest of the building could be surrounded and secured, but again Tony intuited their strategy and started shoving Hall toward the stairwell.

For the last hour, Hall had been holding the shotgun safety in his hand, and now as Kiritsis prepared to take the stairs, he ordered Hall to hand the safety over to Officer Brunk as proof that he meant business. Then he ordered Officer Coffman to clear the bottom floor of police and started marching Hall down the four flights of stairs.

Near the bottom, Indianapolis News reporter Skip Hess had entered the building and had barely started up the steps when Hall and a shouting Kiritsis appeared above. Hess could see the silent police officers behind Tony, each with his weapon out and pointed at the ceiling, powerless but at the ready should a solution reveal itself.

As they came down the steps, Hess pressed himself up against the wall to let the two men by and got a good look at Dick Hall who seemed scared and humiliated, nearly choking as Kiritsis pushed him forward with his head held up stiffly and tilted back, his eyes darting around for a way out of this that wasn't there.

At 9:10 a.m. and despite the temperature hovering around 10 degrees, Hall and Kiritsis were coatless as they came out the front door onto East Market with an unsuspecting city before them.

But Tony made a mistake here, one that would place himself, Dick Hall, the police, and the public in extreme danger for the next half hour. Instead of going to the right to where he'd parked his own car in a nearby lot, Tony headed left and immediately seemed lost as he wandered west down Market Street, then south onto Pennsylvania.

Halfway down the block, he ducked into a parking garage where, strangely, Tony ran into a man who knew him. When Kiritsis asked to borrow the man's car, the man backed away, saying no, and a few minutes later at 9:15 a.m., Tony reemerged from the garage and steered Hall south along Pennsylvania before turning west onto Washington, a main thoroughfare through downtown Indianapolis.

By now a growing number of police officers and detectives had arrived on the scene. Some cleared pedestrians out of the way ahead. Others followed Kiritsis and Hall, trying to learn what Tony wanted while also maintaining a reasonable distance. At first, a few policemen drew their guns but were told by experienced officers to holster their weapons, though experience was a relative advantage here. No one in any of the branches of law enforcement that would become involved had ever experienced anything like this.

At 9:21 a.m., Tony pushed Hall into the entryway of Richmond Brothers, a local clothing store on Washington Street, perhaps to get out of the wind, perhaps to buy some time to think of what his next move should be. The proprietor had already locked the front doors, so all Tony could do was take shelter for a few moments, which allowed the detectives and uniformed officers to assess Kiritsis and possible ways to rescue Hall.

The way Tony's emotions shifted from one extreme to another was nerve-racking to watch. He cycled back and forth between frenetic rage and odd bouts of respect. He talked about how he had a lot of friends in law enforcement and that he meant no harm toward the crowd of police trailing him. Then a switch would flip, and Tony would start yelling that if the police didn't want Hall to die, they'd better stay the hell back, all while jerking Hall around so badly it was a true wonder that he stayed on his feet.

For now, all the police could determine was that the rig looked plausible. If they rushed in to disarm Tony, they had no way to guarantee they could stop him from firing the shotgun. It was more likely that any aggressive move would put Hall in greater danger than he was already in.

It also became clear that even if all that they did was shadow Tony, a natural accident could pose a threat. If the gun was wired up as tightly as it appeared to be and if the shotgun was really loaded — and law enforcement had to believe it was — then all it might take for it to discharge was one stumble. One unthinkable misstep. And regardless of who tripped, Hall would be the one to die.

Saving Hall was in the fore of IPD Officer J. Michael Grable's mind as he approached Kiritsis and Hall crossing Illinois Street. At the time, Grable was the only officer on the force who'd had hostage negotiation training (though minimal), and he came forward to initiate a dialog, because even now nobody knew what Tony wanted exactly. Holding his hands out to show that he was unarmed, Grable called out to Tony, and Tony responded by telling him he was getting too close, that he'd better back off.

"Are you crazy?" Kiritsis growled at Grable. "Do you want me to kill this guy?"

Tony started walking Hall away from the Illinois/Washington intersection. Then suddenly enraged, he doubled back to chastise the police some more, and when he did, Tony swung Hall around with too much force. The momentum tripped Kiritsis up, and he stumbled, tugging hard on the dead man's line as he went down.

Here it was. The unthinkable misstep.

Reacting out of instinct, some police drew their guns. Some prepared themselves for the double-barrel to go off, and from the paralyzed look on Tony's face, the police knew he was expecting the same thing.

Miraculously, though, Hall squatted down when Kiritsis lost his footing. If only one of them had fallen, the tension on the cable would absolutely have triggered the gun. Be it instinct or accident, it may have been the one time that Hall had any direct control over surviving this ordeal.

However, in the very next moment as Kiritsis and Hall prepared to get back up, Tony's free hand went to his midsection, revealing the .38 revolver — the gun he'd already pulled on Hall and Officer Brunk — in the front waistband of his pants. Several police officers who were just noticing the weapon brought their guns up again. If Tony took out the revolver and aimed it at police, even if it was inadvertent, the police would have to shoot him, and in this scenario, Hall would almost certainly die as well.

But Tony merely adjusted the .38, and slowly he and Hall made it to their feet and continued west.

For the entire walk from Meridian Mortgage, IPD Officer David Coffman had stayed close to Kiritsis, constantly looking for an opportunity to disarm Tony, and now as they left Illinois behind, he thought he might have found one.

When Hall and Kiritsis had fallen, the wire around Hall's neck had loosened some, and the shotgun barrel had pulled away a bit from Dick Hall's head. It wasn't much, but Coffman thought that if he struck at the right moment, he might be able to grab Tony's shotgun and point it up at the sky. As they approached Senate Street, Coffman prepared himself to go for it the moment Tony stepped up onto the curb, a moment when he'd be more focused on his footing than on Coffman.

But without another officer to secure Tony's .38 still stuffed down the front of his pants, Coffman might very well get himself shot and lose Hall anyway. It was tantalizingly difficult, but just as Brunk had earlier, he had to abandon the idea.

Around 9:35 a.m., having walked over a half mile with the public watching the whole thing like a slow-moving parade, Kiritsis and Hall reached Senate Street. Here an IPD officer was standing out in the middle of the intersection and blocking traffic with his patrol car. Like an invitation, the driver's door was open, and the motor was running.

Kiritsis seized the opportunity, and moving toward the unoccupied cruiser, he told Officer Coffman to turn around and took his handcuffs. Tony then backed his way in through the driver side of the cruiser and pulled Hall in after him.

With Tony in the passenger seat, he ordered Hall to drive west with their red light flashing and a procession of police and media following closely behind. No one had any idea where they were headed. Some assumed Tony was making a run for the airport, perhaps to leave the country or hijack a plane.

But Tony Kiritsis wasn't going on the run. Escape hadn't even entered his mind. Not when everything he wanted was right here in Indianapolis.