FBI agent Buck Fry is small and slight with prematurely gray hair that makes him look older than 34. His manner is soft, slow and Southern, and he reminds one of Alan Ladd in the old Western movie, "Whispering Smith." Like Whispering Smith, a railway detective, Fry uses his calm and gentle voice to negotiate situations involving hostages.
Fry is one of a group of FBI agents specially trained as hostage negotiators at the Bureau's academy in Quantico, Va., and stationed in most of the FBI's field offices around the country.
It was Fry, along with Montgomery County Police Sgt. Doug McFee, who negotiated successfully with Stephen Gregory to release his hostages and give himself up at a Silver Spring bank last month. And within days they were at it again - with a gunman in Wheaton holding his son hostage.
A similarly trained agent, Bernie Thompson of the Cleveland field office, was said by the FBI yesterday to be on the scene of another hostage-taking in Warrensville Heights, Ohio, for a similar purpose - to negotiate with the gunman.
And Agent Patrick Mulaney, a stress instructor at the FBI Academy, used as quickly assembled psychological profile to help persuade Anthony G. Kiritsis to surrender recently in Indianapolis after holding a mortgage company executive hostage for three days with a rifle wired to the victim's neck.
When the FBI organized their special course a year ago, George Quinn, the special agent in charge of the Baltimore office, picked Buck Fry to attend. "He's low key, handles people well, and has good street knowledge. He's the kind of guy you want in a situation that's highly volatile," Quinn says.
Now the police training coordinator for Maryland and Delaware, Fry conducts seminars on FBI techniques, including hostage negotiations, with local police forces. In November he gave a three-day seminar to the Montgomery County Police Department.
"At the time," recalls McFee, "we joked about it. Montgomery County had never had a hostage taken, certainly not in the eight years I've been on the force." But within one week in early February came the Silver Spring and Wheaton cases, and Fry and McFee rushed to the scene. "Is this the practical experience of our seminar?" McFee asked Fry when the agent arrived at the Silver Spring bank.
The techniques used by the FBI are not shared, but in the Indianapolis case, Mulaney (who was Fry's instructor at the FBI Academy) put his psychological tools to critical use.
According to this month's issue of New Times magazine, Mulaney listened in on Kiritsis' phone conversations, used a bugging device, and gathered interviews with relatives and friends to assemble information that allowed him to chart the gunman's behavior.
Then, playing on Kiritsis' known claustrophobia, Mulaney cut off the heat and lights in Kiritsis' apartment and had the telephone number changed to stop incoming calls. The imposed sense of isolation eventually drove Kiritsis to surrender without harming his hostage.
Buck Fry grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., the only child of a Navy family. His father died when Fry was only 7. "Being an only child and losing my father when I was so young made me very independent," explains Fry. "It also matured me early in life."
Fry went to college at Florida State and during school became interested in law enforcement. He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in that field and later a master's in education. "But I still wanted to go into the Air Force. The military life just appealed to me. It's a close family organization, much like the FBI," he says.
After serving as a captain in the Air Force security police, he says, "I left because I wanted more of a challenge. At the time I was stationed in Puerto Rico and got to know some of the agents."
That's when he joined the FBI.
Fry is not a fan of police stories on television, nor does he watch shows that depict the FBI handling hostage situations. He has not seen "Dog Day Afternoon," the famous movie showing how FBI agents successfully handled a bank robbery involving hostages in New York City. "I'd rather read a science-fiction book," explains Fry, "or go camping with my family. Real-life hostage negotiations are tough enough, I don't have to watch them in the movies."
Buck Fry was in the Baltimore office when he heard that hostages had been taken shortly after 6 p.m. at Blair Plaza in Silver Spring. With two other agents, he raced to Washington. "I had already telephoned my wife that I was coming home. The office had to call her back and say a problem had developed. Wives learn to expect that and not ask for any explanations, but she heard about the hostages being taken in Washington and knew where I had gone. She tried to go to sleep that night, but couldn't turn off the news reports."
By the time Fry reached Silver Spring, Doug McFee, working from the drug store next door, had established phone contact with Gregory in the bank.
While McFee talked to Gregory, Fry scribbled notes to McFee, making suggestions on how to handle him. It was Fry's idea to send in a six-pack of beer when Gregory requested it. "We got talking about what beer he liked," explains McFee, "and then Gregory asked for a six-pack of Bud. At first we didn't want to give it to him. We didn't want to excite him any more than necessary, but we learned from his friends that he could handle the beer. It did a lot toward establishing his trust in me."
Throughout the seven hours of negotiation, Fry was fed information on Gregory, supplied to him by 50 FBI agents at the scene. They had spread into the neighborhood to find out everything they could about Gregory. Using this information, Fry developed a profile on Gregory. Based on what he had learned, and McFee's phone conversations, Fry was reasonably assured that Gregory wouldn't kill the hostages or himself.
"In a hostage situation you're prepared to wait him out," says Fry. "Only if he had started killing people would we have moved in on him.
While Fry had a good idea of how Gregory would act, he still was not prepared when Gregory demanded to see McFee. This was a new twist, but Fry believed McFee had built up enough trust to risk the walk into the bank.
"Gregory was in the back room of the bank," according to McFee. "He had Jennifer Libee with her back to me and a rifle resting on her shoulder. She was shielding him. When I came through the door I saw a flash and I thought that was it. He fired three times at me, aiming to my sides and over my head. Then he asked me if I was scared and I told him I was. He was only trying to show me that he was in control. And at that point, he was."
McFee was following a primary rule taught to him by Fry: Let the person have his way, but negotiate. Everything that Gregory wanted cost him a hostage. They were freed for a six-pack of beer, a bull horn, and submarine sandwich. "As each hostage came safely into the drug store," recalls Fry, "we'd let out a cheer, and then start worrying about the others."
It was 1 a.m. before the last hostage was released and Gregory surrendered. "It seemed more like a few minutes than seven hours. It was like winning a close ball game," says Fry. "There was no back-slapping, just relief that it was over and that we had won."
Fry got very little sleep that night and for several more nights, "I'd lie awake going over the whole incident and evaluate what we had done right or wrong. It took me a week to unwind."
Fry's actual hostage experience has been limited to the two Montgomery County incidents, and a prison situation in Mobile, Ala., where he was stationed for one year before coming to Baltimore. He expects, however, the recent rash of hostage taking to continue.
"There are people waiting in the wings. They learn how to take hostages from what they see on television or in the movies. They're not smart enough to figure it out themselves. Others get ideas from what they read in the newspaper. They do their homework. As they learn our techniques, we develop more. Sometimes I wonder where it will all end."
Still, every new hostage situation gives Fry more classroom material for his police seminars. He has gone back twice to Quantico for hostage training and now has his own experience to retell. "Using live examples," he sums up, "is the best way to teach. I've been there when they've gone down and it makes a difference in what I teach. But what is really important is knowing that no matter how well I'm prepared each hostage situation is different.
"There are no final answers. When I go into a negotiation I don't know how it will end. I just hope no one gets hurt, the hostages, the criminal or anyone of us outside. So far I've been lucky. In six years with the FBI, I've never fired a gun. I hope I never have to."