A conversation with the writer and kidnapping survivor.
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.
Question: What skills or strategies did you employ to survive this ordeal?
Stanley Alpert: All the experts—by that I mean the NYPD and the FBI—agree: I should be dead. And some how I managed to get through this horrendous experience. First of all, I stayed very calm. I stopped, I thought, I listened. I didn’t do anything without calculating the power and the import of my words. For example, “Stanley, it’s your birthday. Wow! You deserve something nice for your birthday. How about a sexual favor for your birthday?” Obviously, they didn’t use those words, but I won’t say them on camera here. And going slow and being calm and thinking about it, I realized that if I said no, that might be very offensive. Why doesn’t this lawyer think that our girls are good enough for him? So I was very careful to answer in a way to not offend. So I said, “Well, I’m sure the girls are lovely, but considering my circumstances, I’d really rather not. I made it seem light, yet was very respectful.
And actually many hours later I had the opposite problem because they were smoking marijuana, they were in a good mood, and I’m blindfolded with my own scarf covering most of my face. And one of the men said, “Well, these, you know, Stanley, I think these girls are starting to like you, they’re looking at your lips.” And that gave me the opposite problem because if we went down that path and their girlfriends liked me, they could get angry at me for the fact that their girlfriends liked me. So I had to deflect me in the opposite fashion. And in that instance I used humor, which I think you have to use very carefully in these situations. But humor is another thing in the arsenal of a hostage, but only to be used sparingly and with great care. And I said, “Really? The only reason these girls like me is because most of my face is covered.” And they thought that was hysterical. And they burst out laughing.
Now, the fact is, if you use humor the wrong way, it can twist against you. For example, there was a point at which they, again, they are high on weed, they’ve had sex with the girls, this was the second time around—I was there for 25 hours, and they—one of them started imitating a Jamaican accent. Well, I’m very good at doing all sorts of different accents. And I pondered very carefully whether to go with it and to go where they were. And I made a decision to do it, so I imitated my Jamaican accent for them and they loved that. It was hysterical to them. The thought that this polished, pressed, Caucasian attorney could be imitating a Jamaican accent was hysterical to them. But then they were talking about a store that was owned by Indians. And I thought well, should I do another kind of accent just to have some fun and keep things light and I said, no, let me stop because I didn’t know... as long as I was doing an accent that they were doing, I thought okay, that’s far enough. But don’t take it any further. You just don’t know when they might twist against you.
So I think survival skills. Stay very calm. Think, listen, observe. Understand your circumstances. Also, give up your ego. Give up who you were. I was a Federal prosecutor; in that position I had considerable power. In this position I was in, I had no power at all except the power of my wits, which I tried to get by with. But understand that you’re no longer who you were in the situation and adjust to that. So that’s another principle I would say for survival is to be very flexible. You know? Get in the car, guns pointing at me, you know, if I was inflexible I might have started yelling, fighting... All the detectives I spoke to say, “Listen, you can’t second guess yourself Stanley because you managed to survive.” And I think because I was flexible, I was able to go with the situation. That helped me a lot.
Another thing you need to do is feel some sense of empowerment. I mean, let’s look at my thing. How much control did I have? I had seven people with automatic weapons on me who could have killed me at any moment—and who might have killed me at any moment. And I have no doubt in my mind, nor does the NYPD or the FBI, that they were perfectly capable of doing it. Yet there were certain things where I felt I needed to keep control.
For example, when I first went in, they invited me to take off my shoes. I said—they put me down on a mattress, they took off my trench coat, I kept my sport jacket on, but they invited me to take off my shoes. And you know what I thought? In my head I thought, a guy with his shoes off isn’t walking out. A very powerful symbolism. So, I said, “No thanks, I’ll leave them on.” Because in my mind and I think in the psychology of the room, a man with his shoes on could walk out; a man with his shoes off might not get the chance to walk out. Or, for example, there was the point in time I purposely didn’t ask to go to the bathroom. I didn’t want to ask for anything that wasn’t offered to me, but they eventually asked me if I needed to use the bathroom. I said, “Yes.” And as soon as I said, “Yes” and sort of military alert cocking the guns, pointing them at me. In other words, they were nervous that on the way to the bathroom I may pull something.
So, again there, I felt the need to maintain some control even though they’ve got the guns, they’re in control. Still I wanted some small bit and I stopped. And I said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” I didn’t even get up. I said, “Whoa. Hang on a second. Relax; I’m not going to do anything. All I’m gonna do is go to the bathroom.” And they calmed down and then we went to the bathroom. And I didn’t get shot.
Another example of me getting some control was when I first got in there, they kept calling me “Steven.” And I kept saying, “My name's not Steven, its Stanley.” And they thought this was really funny. “Oh, sorry Stanley. Steven’s the guy we did this to the other night.” And it turns out later they’d actually taken him to the bank, not to the apartment, gotten his money and then left him in the backseat of his own car.
I felt that it was very important not to be called “Steven.” I felt that it was important to be called by my correct name—my name’s Stanley—because my identity was my life. If I’m a real person with a real name, then you’re less likely to kill me, and so I maintained that bit of control. I think that’s also... to feel a sense of some empowerment. And if you read the studies of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, what they say is that people get Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because they felt a complete disempowerment. They felt a complete lack of control. I was in a situation that was out of my control for the most part, but where I could find, I used it. And also, I gathered clues the whole time. So that to me, although purely psychological, was a form of control for me to have. So I think all those things helped me survive.
Question: Is it important to humanize yourself to your kidnappers?
Stanley Alpert: I think that to survive a hostage situation, it’s very important that you humanize yourself. That your captors view you not merely as a target, not merely as some stray lawyer with too much money, in their view, that they picked up off the street. Of course, I was an assistant U.S. attorney at the time. I wasn’t making as much money as they thought. But rather to view you as a person that was a human being, which is a strong incentive for them to keep you alive.
So I tried to do that. Right away when I was in the car with them, they asked me whether my watch was gold. And on instinct I said, you know, “I don’t know particularly, but my father gave it to me for graduating from law school.” I wanted them to realize that I’m a human being with a father. Turns out that actually backfired on me because they later threatened to kill him. Maybe I planted that idea in their heads. But I had a real feeling that they ought to know that.
I also tried the good-guy-lawyer thing. You know, I’m an environmental lawyer, who at the time was an environmental prosecutor. I ran in our district and I felt like, if I told them I was a good guy lawyer: I’m doing good things. I’m trying to help save the planet, I’m try—I mean, I didn’t use those words, but those ideas that they might be less likely to kill me and actually that backfired too. Because one of the toughest thugs, who went by the name of Sen said that was ridiculous. Why would I be suing ExxonMobil to get money out of them that goes to the Federal government when that money belongs here in our community, which was his point of view. So that too didn’t work, but it was another effort to try to humanize myself.
Now, another way to do it was to be very nice and kind no matter how they talked to me. Another way to do it was sort of midway through this, they decided to toy with me and get a little free legal advice. So they asked me actually some very serious legal questions. One of them was about how one of the guys had been, what he claimed, falsely arrested and he wanted to know if he could bring a lawsuit even though he had given a false name to the police. Now you can imagine a Federal prosecutor is not in a position to assist somebody who has given a false name to the police. But I was struggling for my life. So I asked a lot of questions, found out the facts and then I gave him a legal theory by which he might be able to win. I said, “Well,” you know, “You could say the reason you gave the false name was that you felt frightened by the police themselves because they had falsely arrested you.” Now I give you this, this is definitely not one of my prouder moments. And as a Federal prosecutor, I would never try to manipulate something in that way, but here I was just trying to hold onto my life.
By giving them positive legal advice, a positive theory that they could feel good about, that was a bonding experience. And you need to humanize yourself and bond with your captors in order to enhance your chance of surviving.
Question: Should you ever try to deceive your captors?
Stanley Alpert: So for the most part, you’re in the experience, I was as kind and friendly and responsive. I tried to be a good listener. You know, one guy was complaining about how his father wasn’t nice to his... you know, his father wasn’t nice to his mother. I tried to be very decent and kind. And I was honest most of the time. But in the art of survival, which in my case was also the art of war, there are times when it’s critical that you use a weapon that all fighters use, which is to deceive the enemy.
So toward the very end, right before they were planning to take me back, or said they were planning to take me back, the leader of the gang turns to me and says: “Stanley, if you had to chance to put me away for life, would you do it?” So what do you say? If you say yes, you’re dead. If you say no, you’re dead. I mean how stupid are they? So, I needed to give an answer that was a little more nuanced and obviously I couldn’t tell the truth. Because the fact is, putting my own experience aside, I couldn’t possibly let them do this to any other human being again. I couldn’t live with that on my conscience if I didn’t try to get them. So I thought about it and I said, “Look, you already told me you know where I live. You know where my father lives. I don’t know who you are; I don’t know where we are. You haven’t hurt me so far, and you say you’re gonna release me unharmed. I don’t think this has to go any further.” And in giving that answer I was deceiving my enemy, which was critical in that moment. I couldn’t tell the straight truth, yeah, I’m a Federal prosecutor, of course as soon as I get out of her I’m gonna get the FBI on your ass and get you locked up. I couldn’t do that. So there are times when you have to deceive the enemy and that’s what I did.
Question: Do you still struggle with the trauma of your kidnapping?
Stanley Alpert: So my physical survival was done 25 hours after they picked me up. My psychological survival was at another level. As I mentioned before, people with PTSD tend to feel a complete lack of control, and it’s very painful. I mean, when you think about it, especially for a man. Okay, men have this sense that somehow they’re supposed to be Rambo, they’re supposed to be able to blast their way out of any situation. That’s sort of a subliminal message that we’re taught.
I didn’t have much control while I was in there except for the psychological games that I could play, the effort to influence them and what they were doing, and also gathering clues. So I had, as much as I could. Once I got out, my control went through the roof because suddenly I had a very big, tough gang on my side. I had 120 very smart, very tough, NYPD detectives plus FBI agents all working to solve this crime. And they will tell you that they do it because they actually care about the victims. They actually care about the person that it happened to and they actually care about making sure it doesn’t happen to somebody else. They were out in a sweep across the city. That was very empowering.
Another thing that helped me psychologically in the aftermath was I was surrounded by friends and colleagues. And after all, if you’re at the U.S. Attorney’s office, there’s a certain power in that. And all these dozens of people from the U.S. Attorney’s in Brooklyn to the Department of Justice in Washington were calling me, were offering me help, were telling me how much they were happy that I survived. That was helpful too. In order words, a sense of community is very powerful, psychologically. So I had power on my side in seeking the people who did this to me, plus a wonderful sense of community around me. So that was very helpful to me in terms of easing the pain and getting past it.
And another thing that was really good and really helpful was: how do you take a bad situation and turn it positive? Well, I had been tortured psychologically for 25 hours. I had been threatened repeatedly with death; they threatened to murder my father. This was hideous. But the question in life is not: "Why do bad things happen to good people?"—although that’s a very important question. The real question is: "When bad things happen to good people, what do you do with it? How you transform it?" Because something bad is going to happen to all of us. We know that. It just is the way of life. The question is, how do you adapt? Remember, I said be flexible earlier, and turn it into something positive.
So I decided to dedicate the energy from this negative experience to writing a book. So I wrote "The Birthday Party, a Memoir of Survival," to memorialize these events; to purge them, which was very successful in doing; and also to give my thanks and credit to these wonderful officers of law enforcement who really... they didn’t save me physically, what they did was they saved me psychologically because by rounding up the criminals within 48 hours after I’d gone, that gave me peace. I could walk the street and know that these guys weren’t out there doing it to someone else. I think that if that hadn’t happened, if I’d either been harmed physically or if the perpetrators hadn’t been caught and really given their just due. I don’t think I’d be sitting here talking about my survival story. I think I’d be in a very different place.
So, I think that my physical survival ended 25 hours later and my spiritual and psychological survival continued through this wonderful empowerment and also purposeful focus that I could take the experience and I could do something positive with.
Recorded August 9, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller