Dead Man's Line - The documentary about Tony Kiritsis

The true story of Tony Kiritsis

A TIME OF HOSTAGES

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A reporter's Notebook by Tom Cochrun

From Traces magazine. Reprinted here with permission from Indiana Historical Society. 

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When Tony Kiritsis wired a shotgun to the head of Dick Hall and marched him down an Indianapolis street on a raw February 8, 1977, he took more hostages than the terrorized mortgage banker. For three days Hall lived with a gun to the back of his head, the captive of an angry, ranting man as radio, television, and newspaper consumers followed every development.

 Kiritsis had seized rapt attention and held it even as a Federal Bureau of Investigation behavioral expert plotted a resolution and as the nation’s media wrestled with how to cover the volatile drama. Local law enforcement officials negotiated with him, though Kiritsis had the upper hand. So in control was the aggrieved mortgage client that he wired a drop line from his neck to the trigger so if he was taken out by a sniper, the drop of his body to the ground would engage the shotgun pointed at Hall’s head.

 Kiritsis demanded airtime. He got it and in so doing took local radio and television stations captive as well. The coverage was a confrontational experience and it trapped the nascent live remote television news format into putting an obscenity shouting and emotional madman with a sawed-off shotgun in front of live cameras and microphones.

 In a bizarre “through the looking glass” twist, the besieged media played the event into the life of Kiritsis himself. He listened continuously to WIBC radio’s nonstop coverage. His moves and those of the negotiators, the behavioral control expert, and the police were fed live into the highly charged scene. It was life in a high stakes drama being looped back onto itself.

 During those three days America came to understand the casualties that occur when saturation coverage, lethal risk, contrived negotiations, and rage meet in the shadow of a hostage event. Before protocols of how to respond to terrorist incursions were developed, one angry man put a city, a spectrum of media, and the truth to a severe test. In that time of hostages were combustible moments that became catalysts of change. Key players in the incident and the rules of live broadcast coverage would never be the same as before the Kiritsis story.

 I was a participant and spent most of the three days of the sixty-hour ordeal at the Crestwood Village Apartment complex on the west side of Indianapolis. As a reporter for WIBC radio, my boss was Fred Heckman, the news director, who became a player in the efforts to control and manipulate Kiritsis and his behavior. Before it was over, I was forced to confront my superior and argue that he remove himself from covering what was probably the biggest story of his life.

 Heckman, a future hall of fame broadcaster and already Indianapolis’s most trusted newsman, hired me in 1969. I was just back from a spring and summer in Europe with my bride, Lana. I had been working as a radio reporter in Muncie and had gained Heckman’s attention. It was a period of tumult, the Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy assassinations of 1968, the growing zeal of the antiwar movement, the emergence of a countercul­ture, urban riots, draft board break-ins, the establishment of the Black Panther Party, and frequent street demonstrations with scuffles and arrests or tear gas had created a new manic atmosphere and feeling.

 For eight years I worked with Heckman as first a street reporter, then onto the police beat, city government, the Indiana legislature, and as an investigative reporter. During that time we had many opportunities to take the measure of each other. We often stood toe to toe and sometimes loudly resolved editorial and ethical issues of broadcast journalism in disquieting times. We had great respect for each other and even greater respect for being fair, accurate, and thorough. Heckman was not comfortable with the beliefs and views of some of those people I covered in the antiwar or radical movement, yet he knew they were participants in the often loud and messy business of a democratic republic. They got their time on the air, but often I felt his angry resentment, even though, as I often reminded him, I was only the messenger, just doing my job.

 By the time I carried the message to Heckman that it was time take himself out of the coverage, we had rehearsed the scene time and time again. But first to the sequence that led to the conversation.

 A WIBC reporter, Paul Page, heard on the police scanner that a gunman had stormed into a midtown office and taken a hostage. Page was able to position himself to watch Kiritsis and Hall, both in shirtsleeves, walk a snow-piled side­walk, commandeer a police car, and speed away, bound for the west-side. Television cameras captured some of the scene, but in 1977 radio was the lead medium for breaking news coverage. It was still early in the evolution of what was called electronic news gathering. Television was moving from using film to videotape, and live remote trucks were rare and did not oper­ate as efficiently as they would in a few years. By the time viewers saw the footage on the evening network news, the drama had become a pitched camp, with Kiritsis ensconced in an upper-floor apartment overlooking the courtyard of a complex that was now the domain of the police and media and a few of the residents who were not able to flee to other locations. Kiritsis said he had wired the apartment to explode should the police attempt to storm inside.

 We were operating out of the apartment of a loyal WIBC listener who had evacuated, giving us her unit with a direct view of the courtyard, and the apartment where Kiritsis held Hall. Kiritsis had demanded a live broadcast apology from the Meridian Mortgage Company. At 9 p.m., about twelve hours into the drama, WIBC radio and WRTV Channel 6 Indianapolis, as requested by Kiritsis, carried his statement. WTHR Channel 13 also had live cameras on the scene and carried it as well. Things then settled down into an all-night stakeout and the arguments between reporters, editors, and the police began. Should the media give into the demands, allowing an armed gunman to have live access to viewers and listeners? Some argued it was appropriate if it saved a life. I was one of those who said it was wrong and dangerous.

 Mark Watkins, WIBC assistant news director, and I had been reporting twice an hour through the overnight. As we called in at 6:30 a.m., an inside editor told us that Kiritsis had called the station and was at that time on the phone with Heckman outlining his full demands. We were told the interview/harangue would air in minutes. Word spread quickly through the complex. ABC News sent a camera crew to our apartment to videotape the radio while the interview played. Heckman apologized for the language about to be broadcast, saying Kiritsis had asked for a time delay, but our phones were not equipped, so the full tape was aired. It was a rant full of repeated obscenities that had likely never been broadcast in America.

 It was at this point that Heckman, onetime chairman of the standards and ethics committee of the Radio Television News Directors Association and an Associated Press board member, was being drawn across the line from observer to participant. Kiritsis had demanded Heckman check with banking and business officials to validate his accusation that a land deal had been ruined by the mortgage company.

 During the second day of the siege, more media arrived and so did Patrick Mulaney, a behavior expert from the FBI Academy. Mulaney speculated that Kiritsis would undergo wide mood swings. We learned Wednesday evening how potentially lethal those shifts could be. WIBC newsman Doug O’Brien reported between 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. on possible use of SWAT team and bomb squad members. Just as he completed his report, senior law enforcement officials stormed into our borrowed apartment. They were followed in seconds by members of the Kiritsis family, who had been across the courtyard in the building occupied by the hostage and gunman. Kiritsis heard our report and had become irrational. He screamed he was going to kill Hall, yelling at officers positioned on the other side of the apartment door to “get out, get out! I’m going to do it!” He thought O’Brien’s report meant an assault was under way. Command officials shouted and yelled that we immediately broadcast a retraction, insisting that lives could be lost. Our team of reporters huddled. We went back on the air reporting that no assault was occurring, that O’Brien’s report was on what could be done. On an update just a few minutes later, Kiritsis’s brother, Jimmy, was on the air “swearing on our mother’s grave” that no plans were being made to rush the building. In fact, we knew, from O’Brien’s source and from mine, that a scenario for rushing the building was being discussed. Command officials were angry about the leak. WIBC afternoon drive-time anchor/editor Lou Palmer was miffed by the command post’s loud demand that a qualifier, which he said “sounded like an apology,” be run. Palmer could see the widening divergence between what was being said by command officials and what his reporters in the field were telling him.

 Once Kiritsis was calm, another long night set in. Mulaney used it to continue his plan, a psychological manipulation of Kiritsis in a war of nerves. What no one knew is that Heckman had been brought into that battle. During the night, on instructions from Mulaney, he made periodic calls to Kiritsis.

 At 2 a.m. Thursday Watkins and I were on the air from the scene as Heckman arrived at the WIBC studios on North Illinois Street to take control of our cover­age, now heading into the third day. We were still unaware that he had spent the night making calls to Kiritsis. A lull had developed at the hostage site until shortly before dawn, when Watkins and I noticed some unusual activity around the command post. The activity continued until 8 a.m. As we called the newsroom for our update report, we got a scrambled message that Heckman was leaving the studio and was en-route to the apartment complex. We were told not to use that information on the air and that another news anchor was filling in for Heckman on the morning news, but would say nothing to explain his absence.

 I went on the air for our 8 a.m. update and reported that Heckman was on his way to the apartment complex. I had been told by a source he was becoming involved in the direct negotiations with Kiritsis on the issue of immunity, and I reported that. Watkins and I acknowledged that we had been asked not to broadcast the details of Heckman’s visit to the command post, but believed it was essential to the story.

 A few minutes after 8 a.m., Heckman arrived and was met by a swarm of reporters. Many of the out-of-town newspaper, radio, television reporters, and network crews were following WIBC’s extended coverage. We had become a pivotal link among the police operations, the hostage apartment, the media, and the listening audience. Later a television news director told me they were taking all of their cues from WIBC. Now, here was the WIBC radio news director and anchor, being interviewed by a gang of television, newspaper, wire service, and even other radio reporters. Heckman told them he had been asked to come by the FBI. He said nothing else. He was whisked into the command room and other reporters looked to Watkins and me for additional information. We had nothing to tell them.

 One of the ironies of this rapidly changing story was that as Watkins and I huddled in our apartment to call Palmer at home, Heckman left the command post and was interviewed by all of the media, except his own station. In our impromptu ethics discussion, we decided if Heckman knew more than he could use on the air, he should abandon the story. We could use him as a source, but he should not direct our coverage plans. Most of the reportage was unscripted. It required a critical judgment made on the run, and we believed that Heckman had been compromised by his involvement in the negotiations and could not be fully forthcoming.

 When he got back to the studio I called and asked if he “could use all of the information he had been made party to?”

   “No.”

   “Well, we think for reasons of ethics, if you can’t go with all you know, you should come off the story. Sorry, but we think that is what should be done.”

    “Thanks for your concern, I know what you mean but you are overruled.”

 Heckman told me what he knew “was not essential to the story, merely background.” He told me later that he had been briefed on the psychological ploy that was to be used.

 When Heckman left the apartment complex, he told the other reporters “things were optimistic.” This is the quote we had missed while were discussing what to do about his involvement.

 All morning “optimistic” became the word command officials and family members used repeatedly. The sun shone that day for the first time in weeks and the temperature warmed into the upper for­ties. As midday came, a surprising mood settled over the media building and command post. Sandwich and donut platters were delivered and Indianapolis police and Marion County sheriff officials, some of whom had not been seen for hours, began mixing with reporters. There were jokes. Spirits were high. Back in the command post Mulaney was like a wizard pulling his levers, trying to resolve the still serious crisis where Hall’s life and, perhaps, the life of others, was still at risk.

 By the time Watkins, O’Brien, Page, and I gathered for a private conference, we had all surmised the strategy. Mulaney was trying to get Kiritsis to come out and to surrender in the sunshine. Each of us had worked our sources and knew the “sense of optimism” was manufactured and the ruse had begun that morning when our own news director had voiced the word. We were being played, but it was in an attempt to save a life. For an hour the four of us, all veterans of the police beat, debated and discussed the ethics of the matter. We were troubled by Heckman’s involvement, bothered by the burden of Kiritsis’s continuous listening, exhausted, and aware how the other media had begun to buzz about “WIBC’s involvement.” The meeting was emphatic and spirited and the ethical and philosophic issues ensnared in the incident were intricate and involved the risk to human life, but we settled on a game plan.

  Watkins would report on the strange mood shift at the scene, and I would report that Mulaney was playing a head game, trying to get Kiritsis to surrender and agree to a negotiated settlement. O’Brien and Page would work on learning what they could about the negotiations.

 Later I called Heckman and confronted him with the fact the media had been played with the “optimism” mood to try and sway Kiritsis’s mood.

  “Is it obvious?” He sounded tired.

  “To us, yes. A helluva lot. Everybody but Sullivan (Pat Sullivan of the New York

Daily News) is buying it.”

  “Is it obvious?”

  “We are going to continue to report the hype and manipulation angle in our reports.”

  “Do what you think is right,” he said.

  That was my last word with Heckman until later that night when he called to say he thought it would be over before too much longer. An hour later he arrived at the complex. Three hours later Kiritsis made his move.

 I spent most of the ensuing three hours in a glass enclosed stairwell looking directly at the window of the apartment where Kiritsis was coming unraveled.

 I shared the space with members of the SWAT team. Repeatedly a sniper relayed to the command post that he had a fix on Kiritsis as he would pass by the window. Repeatedly he was told to stand down. I stepped out of the stairwell to go on the air when the coverage came to me. I relayed to the SWAT team what our reporters had learned about the status of the negotiations. We were told the issues were almost resolved and that Kiritsis would release Hall, send him downstairs, and that he would follow and come across the courtyard into the lobby of the build­ing where the media had camped near the command post.

 What occurred was a bizarre scene that remains an indelible memory for me. Kiritsis emerged from the building with Hall still wired to the shotgun at the back of his head. Kiritsis was screaming, curs­ing, jerking the gun, which in turn jerked Hall’s neck and shoulders. As Kiritsis walked, photographer’s lights and flashes lights, making the scene all the more Feiliniesque. Police radios on the SWAT commander and officers crackled as that team and another squad of sharpshooters continued to call they had Kiritsis in the sights and could take him out. Other radio messages were that Kiritsis has reneged on his side of the deal, to release Hall. “What the hell is he doing?” was a repeated question from the police.

I was on the air describing the scene. As soon as Kiritsis and Hall passed a point beyond my view, Page and Watkins began their description from another vantage point. I retreated from the stairwell and dashed down the hall toward the lobby. As I passed through the door, the scene that greeted me was extraordinary. Kiritsis stood in front of the crowded, hot room. Hall, with the gun at his head, stood in front of him. Both men were trapped in television lights that only heated the already manic swarm of tension. Like an audience in shock, a crammed pack of reporters stood, sat on the floor, leaned against the lounge furniture, the wall, and each other only feet from the cursing, screaming gunman. A line of television cameras, from networks, local crews, and out-of-town stations created the first line for a wide eyed audience. I was struck by how one of the network reporters, who only hours before had stood beneath the Kiritsis apartment window intoning with a macho bravado how “a mad gunman stood only feet away,” was now cowering behind his photographer. Behind and to the side of Kiritsis stood a pack of police and negotiators Heckman was close to Kiritsis and pictures captured a solemn and glum countenance. Kiritsis had broken his word that he would first release Hall, and many wondered what he might do.

 For twenty-five minutes he ranted, cursed, cried, laughed, and displayed a roller coaster of emotion and anger in what appeared to be a tormented and highly volatile state of mind. There were points in his rage that I wondered if we might not witness a brutal execution before our eyes and before the cameras. Television stations and networks were trying to cover the fantastic and grotesque event, but were worried about the possibility of beaming a murder live into homes. The obscenities also had stations cutting into and out of the room. American audiences had never seen or heard such a moment.

 After his diatribe, Kiritsis seemed to tire. He released Hall and was immediately surrounded by some of those standing near him, though he continued to hold the shotgun. He was quickly taken to a room near the lobby. Page, acting on a tip, had gone to the outside of the building and was sneaking up to the room where Kiritsis was going to be held. Suddenly Kiritsis’s arm and hand emerged from a sliding door as he discharged the gun into the air. Again, WIBC had exclusive information on the gunshot heard throughout the complex. Page also had a fright.

 The hostage moment was over, but the legacy of the incident reverberated for years. Kiritsis was found not guilty by reason of insanity. At the time Indiana law required the prosecution to disprove a defendant’s claim of insanity. The law would later be changed to put the burden of proof on the defense. Kiritsis continued to challenge the legal and mental health system. He was finally released in 1988 and died on January 28, 2005.

 A couple of people may have benefited from the three-day affair. A freelance United Press International photographer, John Blair, won a Pulitzer Prize for a photograph taken during the incident. Mulaney demonstrated that a hostage crisis could be resolved with out a loss of life by using his intricate psychological chess game.

 On balance though, there were rifts, discord, and challenges that left an unsettling legacy. Kiritsis negotiated what he thought would be a $ 5-million settlement without prosecution. Repeatedly the media had asked, on the record and off, for dissemination or for being held until the incident was over, if prosecution and police officials intended to keep their word. Repeatedly they said yes. They lied to Kiritsis and to the media.

 The incident was a unique moment in American culture. There was a confluence of new electronic media capability and a hostage taking that seized attention. It was played out in a kind of running gamble. Broadcasters gambled with giving airtime upon demand. Prosecution and police command officials gambled with the media’s gullibility.

 They pressed their psychological strategy with media manipulation and betraying the truth, hoping Kiritsis would buy the lie of an offer of immunity. Heckman gambled with journalistic canons saying to one interviewer he was no longer a journalist but someone involved with trying to save a life. I gambled with my career by telling the boss that in essence the staff had mutinied and wanted him out of the captain’s chair.

 During our tense, wearied, afternoon meeting on the ethics of the moment, we may have approached a kind of resolve. We recognized we were at a unique point, where humanitarian and journalistic values and ethics were at odds. We gambled on reporting on the angle of the psychological manipulation that was under way. An unstable man, already pushed to a breaking point, was listening. We believed that was a kind of intimidation. It was a time when many in journalism and broadcasting carried a sense of public responsibility and idealism. We were conflicted. At the time we sensed that a dignity may have been lost and a principle was violated, but lives were saved. It was difficult then to know if there were any winners or if it just ended in a kind of tired truce.

 It is hard to imagine a scenario today when broadcasters would turn over their airwaves to a hostage taker or terrorist. That lesson was learned in Indianapolis in February 1977. Hostage negotiations have today become a fine behavioral science and even fodder for Hollywood. Mulaney helped create that new kind of crisis resolution strategy during those three days. WIBC’s almost twenty-four-hour coverage was bold and if not groundbreaking, then rare. Today news is a twenty-four-hours, seven-days-a-week medium and live coverage is the norm.

 Heckman and I recognized that when Kiritsis took Hall he jerked a large piece of history with him. For years Heckman and I revisited the affair, and for years it was the grist for seminars, workshops, and discussions. Despite my role in challenging him, I continued to work for Heckman two more years, and we remained friends until his death in 2001. We were both fervently aware of the signal light of his direction, in the midst of the hyper stress and exhaustion of the life-or-death drama. “Do what you think is right.” He did and I did.

 That time of hostages was no fairy tale. It was as gritty and as difficult as it appeared. It ended well though, even if nothing again was ever the same.

 Tom Cochrun worked for a variety of Indianapolis media over the years, includ­ing serving as anchor for WTHR Channel 13 and news director at WISH Channel 8. He is now retired and living in Cambria, California. In 2010 he was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame. •