Television has been involved indirectly in countless hostage situations, and critics have often questioned its impact. Is TV capable of simply bearing witness to such life-and-death drama, or does it act as a catalyst for irrational violence? Should hostage-takers, under any circumstances, be allowed to issue their demands on the air? Recently officials at KOOL-TV in Phoenix found themselves answering these questions at the point of a gun. Afterward, with David Sheff of PEOPLE, they reconstructed an evening of terror.
At first anchorman Bill Close, 59, thought that it was some kind of joke, that the gun in Joe Gwin’s hand was a toy. “I was ticked off because we were about to go on the air with the 5 o’clock news,” he recalls. “I said something like, ‘You knucklehead, what’s going on here?’ Then he fired a shot. I went to the phone and told somebody to call the cops.”
Unlike Close, production assistant Luis Villa, 52, knew what was happening the instant the intruder entered the newsroom. “As soon as I saw his eyes, I knew we were in trouble,” he says. As Villa looked on, the gunman grabbed camerawoman Nancy Petrinka, 30. When she fell to the floor screaming, Gwin pointed his .38-caliber pistol at her and ordered her to stand up. “What’s the matter with you?” shouted Villa, tearing off his earpiece. “What did she do?” Distracted, Gwin grabbed Villa in a choke hold, letting Petrinka escape, and pressed the gun to his head. “My temples felt like they were going to explode,” Villa remembers. “Then I stumbled. He must have thought I was trying to escape, because he cracked me over the head with the gun. Then he pulled me up and held me and wouldn’t let go.”
For nearly five hours Gwin kept his revolver to Villa’s head as he demanded that the TV station broadcast his bizarre warning of a worldwide catastrophe. At one point, says Villa, he fired a shot into the ceiling and shouted, “Put me on or I’ll kill him! I mean it!” From time to time he would pull back the hammer of the pistol, and the sharp click would reverberate through Villa’s skull. “Your mind goes blank,” says Villa. “You hear the click and you wait, but you don’t think.”
At his home in nearby Scottsdale, station owner Tom Chauncey was notified of the crisis at once. Driven to the station, he went directly to a police command post, where Phoenix Police Chief Ruben Ortega asked what he wanted to do. “There wasn’t much choice,” says Chauncey. “My one concern was for the lives of the people in the room.” “If we decide we have to put this guy on the air, will you do it?” asked Ortega. Chauncey nodded grimly.
In the sealed studio with the gunman, the hostage and two technicians, Close quickly took charge. A 39-year broadcasting veteran who had lost both legs in a train accident when he was 12 years old, he became the middleman between police and the gunman. Talking by phone with a trained police negotiator, Close spoke cryptically, lulling Gwin into the belief that he was setting up the demanded live broadcast. “Call it stupidity or some kind of sixth sense, but I never thought I would be killed,” says Close. “If anything, I thought I would get shot and it would screw up my vacation, which was due to start the next day.”
At one point Gwin asked for water and let one technician go after receiving it. The other got away later. As Gwin applied wet towels to his own forehead, he momentarily set the gun down beside him. “I thought of going for it,” says Close. “They tell me if I had, someone would have gotten hurt.” Instead, the anchorman wisely kept talking, and Gwin presented him with a 12-page handwritten statement. “It was nonsense about hypnotism, the destruction of Ascension Island, and the bombing of London,” says Close. “He thought the message had to get out to save the world.” By this time police had identified Gwin as a 28-year old cement finisher who lived alone in a Phoenix trailer park, but they still have little information about what made him turn violent.
By 9:30 p.m. the gunman had grown tired of waiting. Though fearful that by putting him on the air they would encourage similar acts of blackmail, the men at the command post felt they had no alternative. But first, at Close’s carefully worded suggestion, they decided to trick Gwin by restricting the telecast to a closed-circuit studio monitor. Gwin, however, anticipating such a ruse, had brought along his own portable TV. When he realized the telecast wasn’t being seen outside the station, he became furious. “I’m through playing games with you,” he yelled, according to Villa, and tightened his grip on his hostage. “I’m going to give you five minutes. If [you don’t do what I ask], I’m going to die and he’s going to die too.” To calm him, Close pretended there had been a technical foulup.
Moments later Gwin finally saw himself on the air and, as agreed, released Villa at once. Seating himself next to Close and keeping him covered with his .38 concealed in a small black cloth bag, Gwin looked on silently as the newsman read his 20-minute statement. Only then, as he had promised, did the intruder finally lay down his weapon. Deliberately, Close leaned over and shook Gwin’s hand. “It was partly out of relief that he had kept his word,” says Close, “but I was also looking at that gun. If I was shaking his hand, he couldn’t change his mind and grab it again.” When the police rushed in, the nightmare was over. The next day Close began his vacation.