Use of social media made Pittsburgh hostage situation unique

Hard to focus with 700 flooding suspect's Facebook page

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Pittsburgh's police negotiators practice and train for the rare scenario in which they will be forced to persuade a hostage-taker to release his victim. But they had never encountered a situation in which the hostage was communicating with hundreds of people over Facebook.

That was the case on Friday, when a group of negotiators set out to persuade a military veteran to free a businessman he held at knifepoint inside an office at Three Gateway Center, Downtown. The officers quickly realized they were not the only people vying for the man's attention.

Klein Michael Thaxton, 22, posted comments and generated more than 700 responses from friends before authorities shut the page down toward the end of the six-hour standoff. Social media complicated the efforts of negotiators, whose goal is to keep a hostage-taker engaged and focused on them so they can peacefully resolve often volatile situations.

While some of the messages were "supportive" of Thaxton, others were "ridiculous" and it was unclear what would incite the unstable young man, Lt. Jason Lando said Tuesday. He was a "coach," helping Officer Matthew Lackner conjure up ways to keep the delicate conversation flowing amid digital interruptions from the rest of the world.

"This incident brought that to light," Lt. Lando said, adding that the pitfalls of social media are something the police bureau's 24-member negotiation team will likely train for in the future.

Police officials, who have credited the efforts of Lt. Lando, Officer Lackner, Officer Ed Cunningham and others with ending the standoff that gripped Downtown, showcased their work and training for reporters Tuesday.

A preliminary hearing today for Thaxton has been postponed because he has been unable to get clearance from the Allegheny County Jail's behavioral clinic, his defense attorney, Blaine Jones, said. He said Thaxton has a litany of mental health problems and did not intend to hurt his hostage, employee benefits expert Charles W. Breitsman Jr. It was in Mr. Breitsman's office where, police said, Thaxton armed himself with a hammer, a kitchen knife -- and an iPhone and computer for writing Facebook posts.

"He was basically crying out for help," Mr. Jones said. "He was in the depths of despair," and, like many young people, he "found comfort posting things on Facebook."

Police are used to dealing with explosive emotions, but that made things tough for the negotiators, who try to establish a one-on-one relationship and trust with a hostage-taker. Communications with outsiders can be distracting.

Still, as they always do, Officer Lackner tried to find "hooks" to empathize with Thaxton. A starting point might be work, school or personal relationships, which are often the source of strife.

"We may even ask him, how did you find yourself in this situation? For the most part, people want to tell their story. Listening to them is a cheap concession," Officer Lackner said. "We said to him time and time again, we're trying to give you a different perspective, you're seeing the world in a different way right now, and it's not good."

Thaxton's emotions ran a gamut. Officers eventually tape-recorded messages from those close to him, including his ex-girlfriend, whom he demanded to see upon his arrest. Still, Officer Lackner said, negotiating isn't about caving to demands or making promises officers can't keep. Officers don't lie during negotiations, he said.

Their work paid off, Lt. Lando said, when they saw Mr. Breitsman safely leave the building and hug family members.

"We're just happy this resolved the way it did," he said.

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Sadie Gurman: or 412-263-1878.


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