No one ever thinks they will become a hostage. While it’s an unlikely event, people are held against their will every year, sometimes abducted and imprisoned by complete strangers and other times held by people they know.
In one recent high-profile case, California parents David and Louise Turpin are accused of imprisoning their 13 children, ages 2 to 29, for years. Their 17-year-old daughter escaped in January and called police, who allegedly found the kids, some of whom were malnourished and shackled to beds and furniture, inside a dark and smelly house. The Turpin parents have been indicted on charges of torture, false imprisonment and abuse. Both have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting an August court hearing.
Other headline-making cases include that of Michelle Knight and two other women, who were abducted and kept for years in a Cleveland-area home—and more recently, three women who were killed during a hostage situation at a veterans home in Napa County, California.
Hostages and kidnapping victims are two distinct categories, but they share many of the same scary scenarios, most obviously that people are held against their will. To find out how one might escape a captor, A&E True Crime spoke with Lt. Chris Zimmerman, commander of the New York Police Department’s Hostage-Negotiation Team.
What’s the first thing a hostage should do when attempting to escape?
Assess the threats against you: Do I have the physical ability to get through the door fast? Do I have access to the door? Are there other bad guys? How close am I to the bad guy? Can I get out without being shot? If I run outside, am I going to run into the getaway guy?
When’s the best time to attempt to get away?
Right away, before they start taking control. You have a better probability of escaping.
How important is it to understand why you are being held hostage?
Most people are thinking, ‘I just want to get out.’ It doesn’t hurt you to know, but if you don’t know, it’s not going to hinder your escape.
So think less about them and more about you?
If you’re held being hostage by a stranger—for example a bank being robbed by a guy with a gun—you have to know: Are your emotions in check enough to have a plan?
In the first few minutes or seconds, the hostage taker is trying to take control of the situation. Once he solidifies his position, it’s going to make it extremely hard to escape. Within the first few minutes you have a lot of decisions to make. If you do not think you can get away without being shot, you should not try to escape.
Should you trust what the hostage taker is telling you?
You can’t trust them. You can’t assume he’s a man of his word or a woman of her word. But [in the case of the bank robber], their primary goal is to get into the bank and get out with the money. If they take hostages, it’s just on top of what their initial plan was.
What if you have an opportunity to escape, but your fellow captives might be harmed if you do?
That is going to be a personal choice. Do you believe he’s going to hurt the other people? That’s going to be a decision [made by each] individual hostage [based on] how they feel.
Should captives try to engage hostage takers or stay silent?
Don’t draw attention to yourself. If you get into a one-on-one with a hostage taker, that means you’re in their line of sight and they can shoot you. Try to stay off their radar.
Should you comply with demands or fight back?
If they’re giving you demands, it pretty much means they have control over you. Comply if they’re reasonable. If you try to push back, they’re going to push back. And guess who has the gun. A human being cannot outrun a bullet.
What if you’re blindfolded?
That’s a really bad sign for the hostage. It’s going to make it really difficult to escape. It absolutely proves to me the hostage taker has planned this event. Now he’s ensuring there will never be a personal connection between the hostage and the hostage taker.
Can an untrained person get out of handcuffs?
It would be extremely difficult.
What about ropes or other bindings?
Do you have the ability to cut them? Most people don’t have the skill set to do it. Do you have keys on your waist? Do you have keys in your pocket? It’s still going to take a lot of work.
Should you try to come up with a plan if you’re in a group situation?
Most likely your communication is going to be hindered by the bad guy. Say you’re in a room full of strangers. Not everybody is going to run out the door. You have to think [about] what’s going to get you through the situation safely.
Every situation is different—what are the variables?
There are so many variables that play into every event: physical ability, environmental design, emotional state. There’s no one-way-fits-all. The best piece of advice I can give is to try to keep your head clear, keep your composure. Try not to draw attention to yourself.
Should people constantly be on guard in their daily lives?
Most people [are] not expecting to be held hostage. The term I like to use is ‘situational awareness.’ I do not want to create a sense of fear where people are constantly looking out in fear. But be observant to your surroundings. Just see what’s going on.
Communication Secrets from a Top Hostage Negotiator
The Turpin Family Abuse Case and Others: Why Do Some Parents Torture Their Children?
Cleveland Kidnapping Survivor Michelle Knight: Healing After 11 Years in Hell