Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator

Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator

3.7 13
by Gary Noesner

See All Formats & Editions

An enraged man abducts his estranged wife and child, holes up in a secluded mountain cabin, threatening to kill them both. A right wing survivalist amasses a cache of weapons and resists calls to surrender. A drug trafficker barricades himself and his family in a railroad car, and begins shooting. A cult leader in Waco, Texas faces the FBI in an armed stand-off that


An enraged man abducts his estranged wife and child, holes up in a secluded mountain cabin, threatening to kill them both. A right wing survivalist amasses a cache of weapons and resists calls to surrender. A drug trafficker barricades himself and his family in a railroad car, and begins shooting. A cult leader in Waco, Texas faces the FBI in an armed stand-off that leaves many dead in a fiery blaze. A sniper, claiming to be God, terrorizes the DC metropolitan area. For most of us, these are events we hear about on the news. For Gary Noesner, head of the FBI’s groundbreaking Crisis Negotiation Unit, it was just another day on the job.

In Stalling for Time, Noesner takes readers on a heart-pounding tour through many of the most famous hostage crises of the past thirty years. Specially trained in non-violent confrontation and communication techniques, Noesner’s unit successfully defused many potentially volatile standoffs, but perhaps their most hard-won victory was earning the recognition and respect of their law enforcement peers.

Noesner pursued his dream of joining the FBI all the way to Quantico, where he not only became a Special Agent, but also—in the course of a distinguished thirty-year career—the FBI’s Chief Negotiator. Gaining respect for the fledgling art of crisis negotiation in the hard-boiled culture of The Bureau, where the shadow of J. Edgar Hoover still loomed large, was an uphill battle, educating FBI and law enforcement leaders on the job at an incident, and advocating the use of  psychology rather than force whenever possible. Noesner’s many bloodless victories rarely garnered as much media attention as the notorious incident management blunders like the Branch Davidian disaster in Waco and the Ruby Ridge tragedy. 

Noesner offers a candid as well as fascinating look back at his years as a rebel in the ranks and a pioneer on the front lines. Whether vividly recounting showdowns with the radical Republic of Texas militia, the terrorist hijackers of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, and self-styled messiah David Koresh, or clashes with colleagues and superiors that expose the internal politics and power-plays of America’s premier law enforcement agency, Stalling for Time crackles with breathtaking suspense and insight in equal measure. Case by case, minute by minute, it’s a behind the scenes view of a visionary crime-fighter in action.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Sarah Halzack
[Noesner's] memoir…makes clear that this work is practically an art form. His accounts of dealing with right-wing militias, prison rioters, terrorist hijackers and even jealous ex-husbands show that negotiators must be masters of persuasion, pillars of unflappability and skilled improvisers who can make split-second decisions in perilous situations.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Noesner, a former FBI hostage negotiator for 23 years, was the first person to run the bureau's Crisis Negotiation Unit. Looking back, he recalls some major standoffs along with his efforts to understand and interpret the behavior of hostage takers, sometimes finding negotiations thwarted by the actions of his own colleagues. The compelling centerpiece of the book is Noesner's analysis of "what went wrong at Waco" with the Branch Davidians when negotiation and tactical teams were working at cross purposes. After opening with a dramatic account of a man who abducted his estranged common-law wife and their son and was holding a gun to her head, Noesner describes his own "quintessentially American childhood," when he got the idea for his life's work from a segment about the FBI on The Mickey Mouse Club. Drawing on official reports, personal notes, memos, and memories of conversations, he writes with a simple style that nevertheless generates much suspense, recreating past events with a vivid intensity certain to fascinate true crime readers. (Sept. 21)
From the Publisher
Praise for Stalling for Time

"Gary Noesner is a gripping storyteller, and man, does the guy have stories. It's like watching an emotional bomb squad defuse explosive personalities. The big surprise is how recently the FBI learned the basic tenets of what makes a man put the gun down, a discovery story as captivating as the hostage standoffs that illuminate it."
 Dave Cullen, Author of Columbine 

“Gary Noesner has done something remarkable with this book, turning the murky process of hostage negotiations into a set of predictable and clear routes to bargaining success."—Robert B. Cialdini, bestselling author of Influence: Science and Practice

“Tortured people, desperate moments, dangerous solutions.  Stalling For Time takes us deep into the lethal world of hostages, sieges, and terrorsism. Gary Noesner, a thirty year veteran of the Bureau, has written a landmark work that’s both a nail-biting thriller and an expose of timely importance. This is a must-read not only for true crime fans but for every cop and G-Man in the country.”
—John Huddy, bestselling author of Storming Las Vegas
"Stalling for Time reads with the page-turning intensity of a first-rate thriller, only everything here is, remarkably, true. In finally opening up about his craft -- about his 30 years spent reasoning with unreasonable people in situations that were literally life and death -- Gary Noesner has written an essential book about the fine art of communication. For anyone who wants to know how to stay cool under fire, this book is indispensable."—Douglas Stone, best-selling author of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

"Gary Noesner has written an account of his decades-long career as a hostage negotiator that is so gripping it grabs the reader by the throat. It's a spectacular read and every word of it is true."
Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc. and The Osama bin Laden I Know

“An intense, immersive narrative, making [Noesner’s] real-life experiences read like episodes of a good cop drama. By the end of the book, readers will be impressed by the number of crucial moments in which Noesner has played a significant role—from the Achille Lauro hijacking in 1985 to the Freeman militia standoff in Montana in 1996. Vicariously entertaining.”—Kirkus Reviews

“The world doesn’t need me to tell them that Gary Noesner has been there, and done that.  There are hundreds of living victims across the globe that are living testament to Gary’s abilities to successfully negotiate, or teach others effective crisis negotiation.” —Lt.  Tom Monahan, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Dept., Director, Southern Nevada Counter-Terrorism Center
“Crisis Negotiations requires experience, a cool head, the ability to think on your feet in the face of extreme threat ... and Gary personified each and every element.  It was an honor to work with him and to learn my skills from the very best.”—Byron A. Sage, Retired FBI Crisis Negotiator
 “Due to his effusive personality, ability to articulate his broad knowledge and experience, and renowned sense of humor, Gary Noesner is undoubtedly the foremost federal ambassador to American law enforcement in the field of critical incident management in general and crisis negotiations in particular. Experienced and knowledgeable crisis negotiators have learned that when Gary Noesner speaks we need to listen. It is in large part due to Gary and a very few others that crisis negotiations enjoys the noble position of respect and effectiveness both within and outside the U.S. that it does.”—William "Bill" Kidd, Crisis Negotiator since 1974 San Francisco PD and Sonoma County Sheriff's Office 
“Gary Noesner’s passion for the art of hostage/crisis negotiations has influenced hundreds, probably thousands, of police negotiators in the world.  His enthusiasm for this highly perfected skill is contagious.—Bruce A. Wind, Crisis Negotiator, Seattle Police Department

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sold by:
Random House
Sales rank:
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt



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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet 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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Scott_C More than 1 year ago
Stalling for Time is former FBI negotiator Gary Noesner's memoir of his career. He gives first hand experiences of many of the high profile sieges of the last decade. These include the stand offs at Ruby Ridge and Waco Texas, but also many of the hostage situations that were not prime time news. He gives readers an inside look at how these situations are run, and where the mistakes were made when things did go wrong. During the first few chapters, I found myself riveted to the title, his chronological writing style allows the reader to not only follow Noesner's thought process, but also learn, as he did, through the situations that arise. This first person perspective makes the first 150 pages very interesting. As the book continues on though, the once interesting accounts start to become repetitive. What once was fascinating, now seems more like a listing of events. For the last few chapters, the book seems to drag on. In the last four or five chapters of the book Noesner starts to describe how the use of unnecessary force is bad, but never truly highlights why negotiation is good, only that it is better. My final problem with this book is the lack of statistical data. Mr. Noesner attempts to make a point that negotiation should always be used before tactical force. While I did leave the book understanding why he believed this, I did not feel that he gave enough data to completely back up his argument. Noesner suggests something along the lines of: Sieges usually end better after all negotiation efforts have been exhausted, but never gives the percentage of how much better the outcomes are. In the end, Noesner does an excellent job in writing a book that accurately describes the life of a hostage negotiator. While the book does get boring at times and is lacking in statistical data it is still a must-read for anyone that is at all interested in learning about hostage situations. Noesner does not only do an excellent job of explaining his life, but also leaves the readers with lessons that he believes can be applied to all aspects of life. To him, "You might even say that all of life is a negotiation."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
simba23 More than 1 year ago
I thought this book would be really interesting and it was, in many respects. Unfortunately, the book often drifts into score settling with former colleagues and has an unattractive undertone of "I was always the smartest guy in the room and knew what was best, but my superiors ignored me/made bad decisions." Read it for the interesting descriptions of hostage situations and negotiations and try, challenging as it may be, to overlook the rest.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lili55 More than 1 year ago
Noesner takes true-life situations and makes them read like fiction. Very compelling read. Way to go, Batman!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago