Features
   

 

Negotiating Danger as a
Day Job


July 29, 1987, 5 a.m.: “There he is — the guy in the green pickup truck! Hey, it’s now or never — let’s take him down!”

FBI Special Agent John O’Neill, BA’63 (R), finishes his radio transmission and then hits a button under the dashboard, activating his siren. A moment later he’s attached his red flasher to the dash, and the pursuit is on.

Driving the pickup is one of several inmates who escaped from the New Mexico State Prison at Santa Fe. He had been serving three life sentences for murder and sexual assault. According to police, he’s also heavily armed. Reportedly, he’s a lifetime criminal with nothing left to lose.

O’Neill manages to pull the pickup over and orders the fugitive out. A few tense seconds pass … then the door of the truck opens and a .357 revolver flies out and goes skidding across the pavement. The culprit starts to exit the vehicle with both hands raised. Almost simultaneously, the backup units arrive and the suspect is cuffed.

This time, thankfully, no one gets killed. And, a violent criminal is once again behind bars.

 
He’s quick to point out that he first began to build his combat skills while developing tactics for and competing on the FDU fencing team.

Although O’Neill doesn’t know it, this arrest on Harbor Boulevard in Garden Grove, Calif. — less than a mile from the peaceful, family-oriented world of Disneyland — will earn him the Federal Bar Association Medal of Valor. But the lawman is just happy to put the incident — and many others like it — behind him.

After surviving an action-packed FBI career that lasted nearly 30 years, O’Neill says he’s greatly enjoying his new life as a man of leisure. “I’m retired now, and that’s with a capital R!” the 65-year-old former FDU English major chortles happily. “These days, I spend a lot of time walking in the woods with my three dogs, while meditating on some of my more colorful assignments of the past — and thinking about improving my rather humble golf game.”

O’Neill recently moved to Pinehurst, N.C., with his wife, the former Patricia Gerrard, BS’63 (R) — a former FDU cheerleader and an award-winning kindergarten teacher whom he’d met at Fairleigh Dickinson in 1959. Thirty years later, in 1989, O’Neill “rediscovered and fell in love with her,” and the couple married.

The years between their meeting and the marriage were quite eventful for O’Neill. While serving two tours of duty as a Marine Corps captain assigned as a forward air controller (FAC) in direct support of infantry units in Vietnam, he coordinated numerous close air-support missions with attack aircraft. And, he’s quick to point out that he first began to build his combat skills while developing tactics for and competing on the FDU fencing team.

“I tried out for the soccer team as a freshman, and it was soon obvious that I would not make the All-American squad,” he recalls. “So I asked myself if there might be some other sport where I might have a better chance to succeed, and I decided to give saber fencing a try.

“I learned a great deal about the importance of being able to outthink and outmaneuver your opponent, and I won my share of bouts — although you won’t be reading about my career in any fencing journals!”

A few years after joining the FBI in June of 1969, O’Neill discovered that he could tap this talent — as a specially trained “critical-incident negotiator” with an uncanny ability to go one-on-one with dangerous fugitives and somehow coax them into surrendering without resorting to violence. During the next two decades, he faced dozens of situations in which he had to “talk down” armed bank robbers who’d taken hostages, or escaped felons who had vowed to die before allowing themselves to be recaptured — or even a group of armed religious zealots who were threatening mass suicide.

“The sad reality was that Koresh knew how to touch the right buttons on people, and most of his followers were quite willing to die with him that day.”

That last scenario unfolded in the spring of 1993, during a harrowing 51-day standoff at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in which O’Neill did his best to prevent the charismatic cult leader David Koresh from wiping out his entire religious community. “I talked with Koresh by telephone four or five times during the standoff — for several hours at a time,” O’Neill recalls. “He was actually a very personable individual and quite friendly most of the time. But when it came to his religious banter, you could see that he wasn’t going to budge an inch.

“We tried every strategy we could think of, because we were really trying hard to save the children. We made some good negotiating progress with a few of his lieutenants — but Koresh himself simply refused to relent. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a perfect example of what I have come to call a ‘functioning delusional psychotic.’

“We did our best to find a peaceful solution,” says the weathered lawman, with a note of real sadness in his voice, “and it hurt pretty badly when the entire compound blew up. Of course, we had no way of knowing that Koresh had wired the place from top to bottom with explosives and incendiary devices.”

In the end, more than 80 members of the Davidian sect — many women and children — perished in the firestorm that swept through the compound after Koresh and his followers triggered the incendiaries. “It was a terrible tragedy,” says O’Neill, “but I do think we had done everything we could possibly do to prevent that outcome. The sad reality was that Koresh knew how to touch the right buttons on people, and most of his followers were quite willing to die with him that day.”

 

Although the Waco siege ended in disaster, the vast majority of O’Neill’s critical-incident negotiations ended peacefully, he says. “It was arduous, nerve-wracking work at times,” adds the native of Harrison, N.J., “but if I established ground rules for our discussions, and if I showed empathy and understanding for the hostage-taker on the other end of the telephone line, we could usually achieve a positive outcome in which nobody got hurt and the individual we wanted got taken off the street.”

Because of his demonstrated expertise in negotiating successfully in extremely dangerous situations, O’Neill was selected by FBI headquarters to become a member of the elite critical-incident negotiating team (CINT), handling major American hostage incidents worldwide.

The assignment took O’Neill to New Delhi, India, and Srinagar in Kashmir, India, along with the jungles south of Caracas, Venezuela. He also lectured on his expertise at Scotland Yard’s Hendon Training School for law enforcement officers in England.

So how does an FBI negotiator learn to overcome his own potentially paralyzing fear while bargaining with a desperate fugitive with hostages or moving in to make a dangerous arrest? “The key thing is to avoid thinking about fear and concentrate on rapport and tactics,” observes O’Neill.

“I think the key to getting through those dangerous situations is just to apply your experience and keep focusing on the task at hand,” O’Neill says with a quiet smile. “Instead of imagining all the things that could go wrong, I always told myself to think positively and get into the hostage-taker’s head. I had a job to do, and then I just went ahead and did it.

“All things considered — and in spite of the occasional bad days — I’ve found that to be a pretty good philosophy to live by!”

T.N.

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