Stanley Alpert is a former federal prosecutor and the author of "The Birthday Party," a memoir about how he survived being kidnapped on his 38th birthday. Alpert spent 25 hours held hostage by men who offered him drugs and threatened to kill his father, but he eventually convinced them to release him. Using clues he had memorized while captive, Alpert then lead FBI and NYPD agents to his kidnappers within mere hours. Alpert is also an environmental lawyer and a former federal prosecutor.
Big Think's interview with Alpert, in which he recounts his experience and gives advice about how to survive a kidnapping, is part of our Ultimate Survivor Stories series.
Question: What is your survival story?
Stanley Alpert: It was January, 1998. I was walking home through the streets of Manhattan. As I reached the corner of 10th Street and Fifth Avenue, suddenly from out of nowhere, I felt a tug on my elbow. I spun around and there was an automatic machine gun sticking in my gut. Two men behind me: “Move, move, get in the car!” And they shoved me out into the street and forced me into a waiting new Lexus sedan. In the car there was a third man; he stuck a pistol in my face. They took me to a cash machine. They told me if I didn’t cooperate with them, give them my numbers—full cooperation—they would kill me.
When they saw that I had significant money in savings, they decided to keep me. They drove me to an apartment in Brooklyn where they repeated threatened to kill me. They told me they could pull the trigger and blow my brains out if they chose to. They also said that if I didn’t cooperate with them in the morning by going with them to the bank and helping them get my savings, that they would go to my father’s apartment and murder him by breaking every bone in his body.
And it’s a 25-hour ordeal that I went through. Much of it frightening, some of it actually funny because you can’t keep up that level of threat forever and they started relaxing later on and sort of bringing me into their world. They smoked marijuana, and then they had... and this was actually in addition to being a robbery and a kidnapping ring, it was a prostitution ring. So the prostitutes came back to the place. And I was blindfolded, but I could hear that the perpetrators were having sexual relations with the prostitutes and also smoked marijuana.
And then when they were relaxed, they decided to toy with me. Sort of see what they had brought home. So they asked me what I would be doing right then if they hadn’t kidnapped me. And I said, "well actually it’s my birthday"—hence the name, "The Birthday Party"—"It’s my birthday and actually I’d be meeting my friends later tonight to celebrate. And they thought that was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. And they decided to offer me marijuana, which I politely declined since I was a Federal prosecutor at the time. And then they offered me sexual relations with the girls, which today everyone thinks sound very funny, but he very fact is, in that moment, that was one of the more threatening things they could do because I couldn’t afford to be violated that way, and at the same time, I couldn’t afford to offend them. And so I had to be very careful in the way that I refused it.
So, the atmosphere, it was a macabre comedy. At times absolutely frightening, at other times humorous. And ultimately over a period of 25 hours, I was able to build a positive relationship with my tormentors. And I think that was a large part of why they decided not to kill me. Another part of why they decided not to kill me was because they realized I was a Federal prosecutor and while they were not particularly scared, as they said, by "New York City’s Police,” they were, but not particularly so. They were more afraid of what the FBI might do to them. I think they realized they grabbed a hot potato and at the end of it, they decided to release me. They drove me to Prospect Park in Brooklyn where they let me go.
Question: How did you help lead the FBI to your captors?
Stanley Alpert: My friends had been planning to meet me at The Bottom Line to go to a concert and I didn’t show up and they were very alarmed. And after quite some time, they ended up going to my apartment and having the super break in. They saw I wasn’t there. There were two bone-chilling messages on my answering machine. One was from a woman who had found my credit cards on the street in Bedford-Stuyvesant earlier that day; remember, we are now 25 hours after I was grabbed. Another was from the bank saying, “Mr. Alpert, there’s been unusual activity on your cash machine card.”
So my friends sort of analyzed it and some of them were Federal prosecutors. And they determined that in all likelihood I was dead, at best perhaps I was sitting in a hospital in a coma somewhere. And they first called the police and they thought about it a little more and they said, "Well a missing assistant U.S. attorney, we should really call the FBI."
So my apartment had become a crime scene. Now, I was released in Prospect Park. I ran up to a pizza place in Park Slope where after some considerable prodding, I managed to convince the cold-hearted guy behind the counter to let me use his phone, upon which I called my father to see if he was okay because he had been threatened. They said they would kill him. And he told me to call my apartment because that was where the FBI and the NYPD and my friends were stationed, sort of looking for me; which I did.
They came to pick me up in Park Slope. That night, they spent many hours interrogating me, learning the full story once and then taking me through it again in a question and answer form. And I didn’t know it at the time, but I found out much later that after they heard the story, they actually went outside and said, “That story is the biggest pile of crap we ever heard” because it didn’t add up for them. Who gets kidnapped on his birthday, offered sexual favors, offered marijuana, almost a party that went on in the room, and who walks out alive? It’s very unusual.
So they didn’t believe me at first, but they still investigated and the following morning, a massive manhunt of 120 FBI agents and NYPD detectives began. They quickly found that my details added up. For example, I explained to them that prior to being kidnapped, I’d met a young woman on the train and I walked with her to 6th Avenue and we bought chocolate chip cookies together. And they actually went to the supermarket and the manager remembered us and actually pulled out the receipt for the cookies. And it was those small details that convinced the agents of the FBI and the New York City detectives that actually the story was true.
And I was a witness like they hadn’t seen before because it’s a pretty dumb idea to kidnap a Federal prosecutor. And so the entire time that I was in captivity, I was trying to stay active... both so I could catch them and also just as some feeling of control in my situation. And there were so many clues that within 48 hours with this massive team of FBI and NYPD, they rounded up the perpetrators and put them in prison.
Recorded August 9, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller