The art of hostage negotiations—when you’re the hostage
Earlier this year, a man took several people hostage at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, including the congregation’s rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker. During the 11-hour saga, FBI negotiators were posted outside and trying to persuade the gunman to come out quietly. Meanwhile, another kind of negotiation was happening inside the temple’s walls—between the rabbi and the hostage taker.
Rabbi Cytron-Walker describes how he tried to humanize himself and the other congregation members in order to stay alive. Cytron-Walker told his story to our show’s senior producer, Laura Rosbrow-Telem.
This is our last episode of the season. We’ll be back soon with more negotiator stories. If you have an idea for a Negotiators episode, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
[SUSPENSEFUL INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC]
JENN WILLIAMS, HOST:
From Doha Debates and Foreign Policy, welcome to The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.
This week, on our last episode of the season, we’re going to hear about a hostage negotiation with a twist. Earlier this year, a British Pakistani man took several people hostage at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. He had one demand: the release of a Pakistani woman with alleged ties to al-Qaida who’s serving an 86-year sentence at a federal prison in nearby Fort Worth. The hostages included Charlie Cytron-Walker, the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel. As the standoff dragged on, FBI negotiators posted outside tried to persuade the gunman to come out quietly. And we thought about featuring one of those FBI people on this episode, until we learned that another kind of negotiation had actually taken place inside the synagogue between the rabbi and the hostage-taker.
Rabbi Cytron-Walker was trying to get to know the man who was holding the gun on him. That man’s name was Malik Akram. But the rabbi was also trying to humanize himself and the other members of the congregation. Cytron-Walker told his story to our show’s senior producer, Laura Rosbrow-Telem. We’ll let Cytron-Walker take it from here.
It started off like a very common Saturday morning for me. I was running around trying to get everything ready for the service. I had shown up a little bit later to the congregation than I had wanted to. So I was trying to make sure that the PowerPoint presentation that had all the words of the prayers was loaded up onto the right computer, that I had turned on the projection screens, that I had turned on Zoom. We were in a situation where most of the people were joining us online due to COVID. Everyone wasn’t quite comfortable being back in person. And we had a very small gathering of people that day. And about 15 minutes before the services were supposed to start, Larry says, “Hey, Rabbi, do you know this guy?” And so I look up, and I see this guy. You know, maybe he was homeless. Maybe he was down on his luck. He looked like he had spent the night on the street.
So I went over; our door was locked. And the first thing he said is, “Do you have a night shelter?” This is not an uncommon request at a house of worship. People will come in looking for some assistance. And on this morning, in January, you know, it was lower 30s, which in Texas—it doesn’t usually get that cold. So he did have a couple of bags with him, but they just looked like they were, you know, bags to carry all of his stuff. I opened the door and allowed him to come in, but I stuck with him, because I wanted to hear a little bit more of his story. And so he—I offered him coffee; he asked for tea. As I was fixing him some tea and heating up the water, I was asking about, you know, who he was. You know, he had an accent. Where did he come from? You know, family. This is where hospitality and security go hand in hand. You go over, you meet someone, you get a little bit of their story. That’s a hospitable thing to do. That’s a nice thing to do. But it also gives you that opportunity to size somebody up and find out if it’s something that’s suspicious. I was running behind, but I spent, you know, five to seven minutes with him. Nothing sounded out of the ordinary. He was calm. He looked me in the eye. There wasn’t anything that made me nervous about who he was.
I sat him down at the back of the room. When Jeff came in—so Jeff Cohen, he was the vice president of the congregation—I went ahead and started the service. Shane came in about 15, 20 minutes late. And that’s all the people we had in person. It was me and Larry and Jeff and Shane. It’s the life of a small community.
So I’m leading a prayer about 45 minutes into the service. My back is turned, because when Jews pray certain prayers, we pray towards the east. So I had my back to the congregation, and that’s when I heard the click of the gun.
Like, I heard the click, and I turned around. I hoped it wasn’t the click of a gun. Our building makes noises. There could have been lots of things that it could have been, and I could have misheard it. But I turned around, and everything appeared to be normal. But shortly after that moment, we had a part of the service where there’s silent prayer. And so during that silent prayer, I went over to the back of the room. I let him know that if he wanted to leave, he could leave. If he was warmed up, he didn’t have to stay for the whole service. He hadn’t been to a Jewish service before. But if he wanted to stay, he was welcome to stay. And that’s when he pulled the gun on me.
I put my hands in the air. I didn’t know what his intentions were at that moment, but he quickly asked everybody to move. It was just one big room, right? I mean, we’ve got seating comfortably for, like, 120. And so he had line of sight of everybody. There wasn’t an opportunity to run away. There certainly wasn’t any place to hide. And there wasn’t—with him pointing a gun, there wasn’t any way to really do anything physically at that moment. And so I put my hands up. People moved over. He was concerned that, you know, Shane had a smartphone—like, belt thing, and so he was concerned that that was a gun. It turned out to just be where he kept his smartphone. And then he, he was talking about how he not only had the gun, but he said that he had bombs.
And within a very short order, he had us calling the police to clear the area so that no innocent civilians would be harmed if he had to detonate the bombs. So, it took a little while before we knew what he wanted, but it appeared very clear that he wasn’t just trying to kill Jews. And you had people who were online who are hearing some of this, calling the police. The police arrived less than two minutes. And the police officer who arrived on the scene determined that it was probably a hostage situation.
At some point in time, he allowed us to call our family; like, people were texting. That didn’t bother him at all. I started off, you know, texting the chief of police—because I had a relationship with the chief of police—explaining, you know, the situation, where he was sitting, where he was set up, all those kinds of things, if that—whatever would be helpful. And the chief of police thought it was hilarious that I asked, you know, “Is there anybody else I need to tell?” Because as far as Chief Miller was concerned, everybody knew. [CHUCKLES] From there, to the best of my knowledge, the local police contacted the FBI and got help and assistance. They had hostage negotiation coming out to support us. And I think it was, like, 90 minutes in, we were talking to an FBI hostage negotiator. He was the first one to hear his request that he wanted, you know, an individual released from prison. He wanted a prisoner released. It was that simple.
He wanted to talk to Rabbi Angela Buchdahl. She’s a rabbi in New York. He knew who she was. He really was convinced that Rabbi Angela, who was a prominent rabbi, could snap her fingers. And he even said that he wanted her because she was a prominent female rabbi and, in his words, that it required a female touch. He absolutely believed the Jews control the world, the Jews control the country, the Jews control the media, the Jews control the banks, the Jews control everything. And that America wouldn’t hurt its Jews. And so he would be able to get what he wanted just because a prominent rabbi was asking. He was absolutely convinced. That’s why he picked a synagogue. That’s why he took us hostage that day. And so I left a message with Rabbi Angela.
It took her a little while to call us back, but she did call us back. He gave her a lot of the same information. He thought that this prisoner was being mistreated. He believed the worst. And when Rabbi Angela got back to us, he talked with her. He made this demand that he wanted this prisoner released. Of course, she didn’t know what to do, or how to do that, but she said that she would try. And she was able to, you know, contact law enforcement, explain the situation. She was able to call us back a little while later and say that she was trying. And so he seemed content with that.
After he made his major demands, he told us that he had people in New York, right, that had bombs. He’s holding a gun the whole time. He’s, you know, gathering us together. He was really suspicious of me, because I recognized the click of the gun for what it was. He let Larry, though, kind of sit where he was. Larry’s an elderly gentleman. He repeatedly said that Larry reminded him of his dad. I think that he was very confident. Like he had, in his mind, the way that the day was going to work out. He really believed, he really, truly believed the Jews controlled everything. He kept on saying—over and over again throughout the day, but especially in that first hour—that he loves death more than we love life. That was one of the things he said over and over and over again.
He wanted to get to know us. He wanted to learn a little bit about who we were. He got each of our names. And he would use our names as he was talking with the FBI negotiator. He said, “Look, these are good guys. I don’t want to hurt these guys. This is just what I want. This is my demand, and that’s all I want.” He would say to the FBI negotiator, “Look, there’s all these people that are concerned, that love Rabbi Charlie and that care about Rabbi Charlie. Rabbi Charlie’s a good guy. I don’t want to hurt these people.” At some point in the afternoon, he told us he wasn’t going to hurt us. He said, “You guys are good guys. I just want what I want. I’m not going to hurt you.” And that was his line for a number of hours, until it changed.
JENN: You’re listening to The Negotiators, a collaboration between Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. We’ll be right back.
[SUSPENSEFUL INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC]
JENN: Welcome back to The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams. We return to the story of Charlie Cytron-Walker, who was the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, when a gunman walked into his synagogue one Saturday morning earlier this year and took several people hostage. By the afternoon, some 200 law enforcement officers had gathered outside the building, including a few dozen FBI agents who flew out from bureau headquarters in Quantico, Virginia. Okay. Here’s Cytron-Walker.
CHARLIE: A lot of conversation. We were just trying to humanize us; personalize us, right? That was a big part of what we were trying to do. We tried to help him see us as real people. It was made easier because he was asking. And I think that he was just trying to get some basic information so that he could personalize us to the negotiators; so that he could say, “This is Jeff, and Jeff has a wife. Jeff has kids. I don’t want to hurt Jeff. You don’t want me to hurt Jeff.” I think that might have been part of it. But we played into that. We kind of shared a little bit. We talked a little bit about ourselves. And we talked a little bit about theology. We—you know, he talked a little bit about his life; not much. And I really tried to keep the focus on me. He had his finger on the trigger of the gun basically the entire day. He allowed us to go to the restroom. We would go one at a time. You couldn’t see the restroom from the sanctuary. And so each of us had the opportunity to get out of there. It just would not have gone well for everybody else, which says a lot about the people that we were in the room with. Everybody came back.
Well, so the FBI was talking about a good show of faith and, you know, letting somebody go. And then Shane was having some heart issues, or at least he made it look like he was having some heart issues. And at one point in the afternoon, he says that he’ll let Shane go. And so Shane says, “Look, let’s let Larry go.” Larry’s the older gentleman. It was a little bit more trouble for him to walk. He was going to the restroom more often. And he agreed. And he kept—and again, “Larry’s like my father, reminds me of my father.” And so he allowed Larry to go and walk right out the front door. And so then there were just three hostages. And so that turned out to be a very—a real help, because the three of us were more mobile.
So this is how the day progresses. He would get on the phone with family and relatives, and he would explain the situation. “Yeah, I’m in America. Yeah, I’ve taken some hostages.” [CHUCKLES] “I’ve got a gun. We’re surrounded by the cops. We’re surrounded by police.” That’s how he started the conversation. I heard that kind of a thing over and over and over again. It was shortly followed by, “Stop crying. Why are you crying?” You know, he introduced us to his kids, like, on a video call. And then he fired off a round. He fired the gun, which was terrifying. He put a hole in the ceiling. [CHUCKLES] Why? Because he was showing off for his kids. And then he apologized. He felt really bad about that. But none of us were expecting it. It was very surreal.
We had a, a loaf of challah, a nice, wonderful bread that we have for the Sabbath. We were able to order in pizza. He worked with the FBI negotiator to get some pizza in. When we brought the pizza in, like, this ice machine was in the kitchen. It’s loud and it makes noises. And I thought he was going to shoot me! You know, there were moments in time where I thought, oh, great, the ice machine is going to make a noise, and he’s going to kill us because it surprised him, or because he thought that the FBI was coming in, or something along those lines.
After the first couple hours, I was pretty successful in really trying to be the focal point for the conversations. You know—and we were listening, responding. He was preaching at us. There was a little bit of pushback. There was a little bit of, “Well, that’s not exactly right.” But it was a lot more empathy, listening with empathy, just trying to hear him, give him a sense that he was being heard, that he was being understood. And all the while, looking for an opportunity for him to let his guard down. We were trying to humanize ourselves, and we were also looking for an opportunity where he was distracted, an opportunity where his hand wasn’t on the trigger, where maybe he put his gun down.
I’ve taken sessions and workshops, not only on things like Stop the Bleed, you know, that first aid. Sessions on situational awareness. In the active-shooter trainings, the general sense is if you’re able to, you want to run and get out of there and escape. If you’re not able to do that, then you want to find a place where you can lay low, where you can hide. And if you’re not able to do that, if you don’t have any other options, then you need to be able to take action and disrupt, to fight to, to not make it easy on the gunman.
In this big open room, we didn’t have a chance to run—not collectively, not all together. There was no place that we could hide. And so the question was: would we have an opportunity where we could disrupt him, where we could do something that was enough of a distraction that we could all get away, where we could fight or subdue him so that everybody could get away? And we didn’t know what his level of training was. We didn’t know anything about it. It appeared, to the best of my knowledge, right, that he had held a gun before. He wasn’t nervous about that. It was very comfortable for him. It seemed like he wasn’t—it wasn’t his first time holding a gun.
So we…I think we all—whether it was when he wanted a drink, when he wanted some, you know, or those kinds of things—we were constantly looking, looking, looking, waiting, waiting, waiting. Is this the right time? Is this the right time?
He was getting increasingly agitated as the night wore on. He was yelling at the negotiator. He wasn’t getting what he wanted from the FBI, and he said that he wasn’t going to be compassionate any more. He told the negotiator that he was going to have us get down on our knees and that he was going to kill us one at a time if he didn’t get what he wanted. We were terrified. All of us thought that we were going to die. At one point in time, I was literally begging for my life. That wasn’t a good tact, and so I changed it. But that was just where I was in that moment. I really thought that we were going to die, and it really seemed like we had run out of time.
He gets off the phone with the negotiator that last time. And he had been yelling, he had been extremely agitated. And then all of a sudden he gets very calm and asks for some juice. And I’m thinking to myself, “This is it. He’s going to kill us.”
And I go into the kitchen. You know, we had juice, but he ends up deciding on a—on a pop, on a soda. And so I gave him the soda and a—and a cup. And so he starts preaching at us one more time. And he’s got the cup filled with liquid, and for the first time all day that I really could see, for any kind of extended period of time, he didn’t have his hand on the trigger. He had his hand over the top of the gun. And he didn’t have his hand on the trigger, because he was holding this cup of liquid. And I said, “This is it. We’re either going to die or we’re going to escape.”
The other two guys were a little bit closer to the door, the emergency exit. I was much closer to him. And I told the guys to run. And I picked up a chair that I’d been eyeing all day, right? Like, this chair was not far away from me, and in one motion, I was able to pick it up and throw it at him, feet forward. I had a, a ton of adrenaline. And I didn’t look back. I was out the door. Shane and Jeff had gone out before me. And I knew exactly where I was going. I got around the corner of the building. I got down on the ground so they knew that I wasn’t the shooter. And they called us over to them.
And so the three of us got up and, and were able to get over to the FBI area, behind the big vehicle with the SWAT people. And the time we went out the door—maybe it was 20 seconds later—we heard the explosion of the FBI breaching the building. And we learned later that, at the time I was telling the guys to run, that the FBI, just a few seconds earlier, had made the—had made the—basically came to the same conclusion that we had. That we didn’t have time; if there was a time where the FBI was going to come in to rescue us, that that was the time. And I’m just grateful that we got out of there beforehand, so I didn’t have to experience the flash grenade. I didn’t have to—or anything along those lines. I didn’t have to watch somebody, you know, get killed.
When I was in rabbinical school, we went through a chaplaincy training called CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education. And that helps when you’re visiting someone in the hospital. I mean, as, as clergy, we have this very powerful and very humbling opportunity to be with families and their most vulnerable. And how do you support those families in those moments when you have all of your own emotions? And so we have training and we have practice on how to be a calm, non-anxious presence. And I tried to bring those trainings in those moments. And I can’t say that I was calm and collected all the way throughout, every step of the way. But almost every step of the way. And I’m just grateful that everything worked out and that we were able to get out of there alive.
JENN: Charlie Cytron-Walker is now the rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
The Negotiators is a partnership between Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. Our production team includes Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show’s senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton and James Wolley for helping create the show.
Foreign Policy is a magazine of news and ideas from around the world, and we encourage you to subscribe. Just go to foreignpolicy.com/subscribe. Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation, where the most urgent issues of our time are discussed and debated. Tune in at dohadebates.com.
This is our last episode of the season, but we’ll be back soon with more negotiator stories. And hey, if you have an idea for a Negotiators episode, feel free to email us at email@example.com. Until then, I’m Jenn Williams. Thanks for listening.