Saldivar tapes show police negotiators' hard task
By ALLAN TURNER Copyright 1995 Houston Chronicle
8:33 PM 10/20/1995
With the barrel of her five-shot .38-caliber revolver pressed to her head, the hammer cocked and ready to fire, a sometimes lucid, sometimes sobbing Yolanda Saldivar teetered on the brink of eternity.
For 91/2 hours on March 31, Corpus Christi police cajoled, empathized and soothed, finally convincing the suicidal woman to drop her weapon and face the legal consequences of killing Tejano star Selena Quintanilla Perez.
And while the city's police hostage negotiation team had existed three years -- handling on average a case each month -- never before had its performance been so closely watched by so many people.
National hostage negotiation experts said the task that faced Corpus Christi officers is among the thorniest in a field that is "more of an art than a science."
"When you're dealing with a bank robber who's taken a hostage, you know a bit about his background," said Mayer Nudell of Falls Church, Va., noted hostage negotiator and author. "He wants to get away. He's looking for a way out. You don't always know what you're dealing with with the suicidal. It can be a minefield." With a potential suicide, added Phillip Lyons, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, "You don't have much to negotiate about. There's not necessarily something they want."
How daunting the task facing Corpus Christi police became publicly evident for the first time last week when prosecutors introduced as evidence six hours of audio tapes made during negotiations with Saldivar. During the standoff outside a Days Inn where Selena was shot, Saldivar, cocking and uncocking her pistol, repeatedly wailed that she wanted to die. More than once, she admitted she hadn't the courage to take her own life and begged police to shoot her. At other times, she resisted surrendering, expressing fear that police would kill her after she stepped from her truck. Lt. Leo Benavides, commander of the department's seven-officer negotiation unit, noted that episodes such as the Saldivar standoff are not atypical for his officers.
Most of the cases involve potential suicides or disturbances growing out of domestic disputes. To maximize the versatility of his relatively small unit, he said, negotiators have been chosen for the special skills they can bring to the job. "It's like having a Lexus, a BMW, a Mercedes and a Jaguar," he said. "They're all fine automobiles. All the officers are fine officers, but you look for that little extra. One is a former military man and is used in cases where the subject is former military; another is very religious; I have a woman on the team."
In the Saldivar standoff, Benavides' point man was Larry Young, a 37-year-old uniform division sergeant. Young, an African-American, has been with the department 15 years, and like other officers on the negotiating team, he has gone through psychological testing and specialized training. His successful negotiations in Saldivar's case led defense attorney Doug Tinker to call him the "hero" of the story. The tension of the hot-and-cold, off-and-on exchanges during the Saldivar standoff was shown in a half-inch thick stack of notes negotiators passed among themselves as afternoon wore on into evening.
The papers were introduced as evidence in the trial. Notes passed to head negotiator Young included suggestions that he turn the conversation to God. "Ask her if she believes in the Virgin of Guadalupe," read one. "The mother of God will help you." Negotiators, too, appealed to her feelings for Selena, pointing out that the singer had affectionately called Saldivar "Buffy." The notes also advised concentrating on Saldivar's family. "There must be some reason to live -- your family, your mother. Can you think of one reason to live?" Another warned: "She feels ashamed for her family. Reminding her of them brings pain." "It sounds like you have had a lot of problems recently," one note suggested. "Can you tell me what happened yesterday?" Aware of Saldivar's hatred for Selena's father, Abraham Quintanilla Jr., negotiators sought to use the bad feeling to their advantage. "If you are not here," one note observed, "Abraham will get away with it." "You need to come out, so you can clear things for others," a note suggested. "So everyone can get to understand the truth." Another advised simply: "Calm down. You need to calm down."
At one point, negotiators became alarmed when it became apparent that Saldivar was listening to radio news broadcasts about the standoff. Officers tried to convince Saldivar that the media were mistaken. When she sobbed that the radio was broadcasting news of Selena's death, officers sought to calm her by asking: "Do you believe everything the media says about O.J.?" Lyons at Sam Houston State, an institution known for its criminal justice program, said controlling the scene in a vehicle can be extremely hard. "Standard procedure in a building is to cut off electricity," he said. "You still have potential problems with transistor radios. In protracted events -- and the Saldivar standoff was relatively short -- it's not unheard of for radio signals to be jammed.
The idea is to isolate hostage-takers, even when a person has, essentially, taken himself hostage." With the murder trial in progress last week, Corpus Christi police were unavailable to explain their negotiation strategy. But others noted that the overriding goal of negotiators is to establish a rapport with the subject. "As a negotiator with a suicidal person," said Clint Van Zandt of Fredericksburg, Va., a former FBI chief hostage negotiator, "I try to establish a psychological umbilical cord between myself and that person. If the person says something positive, I feed that back in a positive manner. "If negative, I try to spin it away or rephrase it in a positive, palatable, life-saving method." Nudell, president of the International Association of
Counterterrorism and Security Professionals, said a key aspect of such negotiations is simply to keep the other person talking. "Think about yourself," he said. "If you get upset about something and keep it to yourself, it can make you more upset. Sometimes just explaining something to someone else has a calming effect." A hostage negotiator, Van Zandt said, is a "fisherman." "I don't go out with just one lure,"he said. "I've got a psychological tackle box full of lures. If a person hits on it, run with it. If he rejects it, I can't pack up and go home. "I'm going to go into negative situations in my life, how hard it is to have a positive marital relationship, the downsizing of corporations --let's talk spirituality, biblical --whatever I can to identify as a source of strength. "All I'm trying to do is tie a knot in their rope to hang onto."