How Did Ashley Smith Remain Calm?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," March 14, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.


ASHLEY SMITH, HOSTAGE: He asked me what I thought he should do. And I said, "I think you should turn yourself in. If you don't turn yourself in," is what I said, "if you don't turn yourself in, lots more people are going to get hurt and you're probably going to die." And he said, "I don't want that to happen."


ANDREW NAPOLITANO, GUEST HOST: Ashley Smith (search) during a seven-hour hostage ordeal at the hands of Brian Nichols (search). She could easily have become another victim, but she kept her head, talking to Nichols about God, his life and miracles. Finally he let her go. And then she called 9-1-1.

Joining me now is Larry Chavez, a former senior hostage negotiator for the Sacramento Police Department. So Larry, how did she do it?

LARRY CHAVEZ, FORMER HOSTAGE NEGOTIATOR, SACRAMENTO POLICE DEPARTMENT: She did a wonderful job. She started by calming him and first of all, maintaining control over herself under the gravest of circumstances.

NAPOLITANO: What would you have done had the Atlanta Police engaged you to communicate with him, either by cell phone or land line or directly talking to him in an effort to get him out of there with the gun, without harming Ashley?

CHAVEZ: I would have started exactly the way she did: I would have attempted to calm him and talk to him, let him know that we're there not to make the situation worse; we're there to preserve the life and safety of everybody present.

NAPOLITANO: When you negotiate with someone who is extremely hostile, extremely unstable, has an awful history — you would do this negotiating aware of the fact that he had just killed four people — how do you establish rapport with this person? How do you get him to trust you? How do you get him to think you're not just another cop who wants to do him in?

CHAVEZ: He, first of all, knows you're another cop, but we let them know that we're not there to make the situation worse. We're there to preserve life and his safety and well-being — everyone's safety and well-being. And we establish ourselves as professionals. We convey that to this individual and the individual will respond to it, generally, favorably.

NAPOLITANO: All right. Normally, when you're negotiating, each side wants something. In this case, of course, he wants freedom, which is extremely unrealistic, and you want him locked up and you want the gun away from him and you want the hostage relieved safely.

How do you get to that position? You really don't have anything to offer him, do you?

CHAVEZ: There's nothing to offer him under these circumstances other than the idea that he will be treated fairly and humanely in the system, disregarding what happened earlier.

NAPOLITANO: Now, you'd have a tough row to hoe with this guy. He obviously has such disdain for the system. He did what few people have done in all of American history, which is execute the judge that was trying him in the courtroom in which the trial was taking place.

Why do you think he would believe anything that you would say? This guy is anger and madness personified.

CHAVEZ: I agree with you, but we're at a point in time in this case where he was actually starting to wind down.

What had come to him is the fact that with the passage of time, he had a diminished commitment to the cause that he had. And I'm not quite sure whether he knew what his cause was to begin with. It was to inflict injury, inflict death and to leave. But with the passage of time, he started to realize that what he did was wrong and he was hurting many, many people, besides the victims themselves.

NAPOLITANO: Do negotiators prefer to be face to face with the hostage taker that is literally in the same room? Or do you prefer to be remote, where you're talking to him, either through closed-circuit television or just by a cell phone?

CHAVEZ: Well, for effectiveness I'd love to be face to face. With that you can see body language, you can see the feedback. You can see what your words are doing to the individual and what affect it's having on him.

But, as a matter of reality, from the law enforcement perspective, that's not going to be the case. We're generally going to talk to a landline; we're going to talk to a cell phone, or possibly even a P.A. system.

NAPOLITANO: Would the police ever go into an environment, would you as a police officer, a sergeant, an experienced negotiator, ever go into an environment where he has a gun and you don't, relying just on your wits and your ability to negotiate with him especially when there's an innocent hostage in the same room?

CHAVEZ: Well, we've had situations where we have a barrier; we'll be talking from an armored car while talking to an armed person. I've had that occur to me several times.

And we just deal with the person as if the barrier isn't there. He knows why the barrier's there and as a matter of reality, no law enforcement commander would allow a negotiator to be face to face with an unarmed individual.

NAPOLITANO: Do you ever talk to the hostage when you're negotiating with the hostage negotiator, either to give her any hints or any consolation or any comfort?

CHAVEZ: Quite frequently we'll have situations where the hostage taker will put a hostage on the phone at our request to confirm that the hostage is indeed in good condition. And from that point, I would tell that hostage, instruct the hostage to remain calm and not to make the situation worse. What this young lady did here in North Atlanta was a wonderful job. She did it without training.

NAPOLITANO: The young lady truly was heroic, both for herself and for the whole community because who knows what this guy could have done if he had harmed her and then had left.

What advice do you give to somebody who is in the hands of a mad man with no warning and no opportunity to prepare?

CHAVEZ: One of the things I would tell this individual, in addition to remaining as calm as possible, as to the extent possible, try to humanize yourself. Let them know that you're a person.

Show pictures of your family; are there pictures of the family present? Let them know that's your son or daughter and let them know that without you, this person would be alone in the world. And this is exactly what she did without the training.

NAPOLITANO: Obviously your goal is to get the hostage taker to give up. Is your goal ever to kill them?

CHAVEZ: There are situations when it has been deemed that the person's going to be a danger to other people regardless of what we're attempting to do. There are situations where that person will be taken out.

NAPOLITANO: All right.

Was a hostage taker involved in this case, or did he just walk out and give up as a result of what this lady said to him and her escaping and calling the police?

CHAVEZ: She had a tremendous impact on him. This situation could have been reversed: she could have panicked; she could have made the situation worse. She could have been screaming and yelling and agitating this individual.

Instead, she chose to calmly read to him, let him know the errors of his ways and actually give him advice on what he should do.

NAPOLITANO: Just give me your opening line to him if they called you in and said, "Larry, we need to you come down to Atlanta and negotiate with this guy. Here's the story." What are you going to say to him to start out with?

CHAVEZ: I'm going to say, "Sir, we're here for the preservation of your safety and we will guarantee your safety disregarding what occurred earlier in the day."

NAPOLITANO: Larry Chavez from the Sacramento Police Department, a hostage negotiator extraordinaire. Thank you for joining us, Larry.

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