When tragedy came call­ing to OLD HOLLOW

The FBI chief hostage ne­go­tia­tor’s phone rang in the mid­dle of the night, telling him to high­tail it to Sper­ryville

Rappahannock News - - Front Page - By John McCaslin • Rap­pa­han­nock News staff

Men­tion Sper­ryville and peo­ple pic­ture panoramic views and fruit stands, dis­til­leries and art stu­dios, a gate­way to Shenan­doah Na­tional Park and Sky­line Drive. For the na­tion’s top hostage ne­go­tia­tors Sper­ryville is an en­tirely dif­fer­ent study.

When Gary Noes­ner’s phone rang in the mid­dle of the night on April 9,

1988, telling him to high­tail it to ru­ral Sper­ryville, Vir­ginia, the FBI hostage ne­go­tia­tor didn’t need a road map.

As he re­calls in an in­ter­view with the Rap­pa­han­nock News, he’d been in Sper­ryville only months be­fore pick­ing apples with his fam­ily.

The vet­eran FBI agent, work­ing out of the bureau’s Wash­ing­ton Field Of­fice,

was told that an emo­tion­ally ag­i­tated and vi­o­lent man was not only hold­ing his es­tranged com­mon-law wife and their lit­tle boy cap­tive, he said he planned to kill them and him­self.

This lat­est cri­sis for Noes­ner to defuse be­gan on March 31 in Trum­bull, Conn., where Charles An­thony Leaf II kid­napped Cheryl Hart, 27, and the cou­ple’s 3-year-old son, Charles III, from the house the mother and lit­tle boy shared with her par­ents. Leaf had cut the tele­phone lines and kicked in the door, and there were signs of a strug­gle.

Once suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence was col­lected Leaf was charged with two counts of kid­nap­ping and bur­glary. It be­came a fed­eral of­fense — un­law­ful flight — when the three crossed state lines.

“Char­lie and Cheryl had been sep­a­rated for quite awhile fol­low­ing a long his­tory of his ver­bally and phys­i­cally abus­ing her,” Noes­ner would write in his grip­ping mem­oir, Stalling for Time, which af­ter a long run in hard­cover was re­leased in pa­per­back last year by Penguin Ran­dom House as part of 2018’s six-part Para­mount Network mini-se­ries on Waco.

Sper­ryville is the book’s very first chap­ter.

“She had moved in with her par­ents and was at­tempt­ing to get on with her life, but Char­lie, like so many dom­i­neer­ing and controllin­g males, was not will­ing to let her go,” Noes­ner wrote. “The way he saw it, Cheryl and lit­tle Char­lie were his pos­ses­sions. He stalked her and ha­rassed her. Once he ab­ducted Lit­tle Char­lie and held him un­til the po­lice re­cov­ered the boy and re­turned him to Cheryl. Even­tu­ally, she sought and ob­tained a re­strain­ing or­der. The next day Char­lie came to kill her.

“When Char­lie cashed his pay­check . . . he pur­chased a car­bine ri­fle, then sawed off the gun­stock in or­der to con­ceal it. Cheryl's par­ents were away for the week­end, and late that night Char­lie broke into the house and sneaked into Cheryl's bed­room be­fore she could grab the butcher knife she kept un­der the mat­tress.

“‘It's time to die,’ he told her softly. “Cheryl had the in­stincts of a survivor. She re­mained calm and con­vinced Char­lie that he didn't have to kill her. They could go away and start a new life to­gether with Lit­tle Char­lie. Noth­ing in any of Cheryl's prior ac­tions sug­gested she wanted any part of this man, yet he wanted so much to be­lieve her that the gleam of hope must have ob­scured his skep­ti­cism, and his judg­ment. He gave her a few mo­ments to get the boy out of bed and to gather up some clothes, and then they took off in Char­lie's car.

“Cheryl had no plan other than to try to stay alive,” Noes­ner ex­plained. “All Char­lie had in terms of a plan was to try and not get caught. Both knew that Cheryl's par­ents would call the po­lice the mo­ment they re­turned from their week­end trip. And both were sim­ply stalling for time, trav­el­ing south.

“Char­lie drove through the night along the Eastern seaboard un­til they headed west into the moun­tains of Vir­ginia. Char­lie liked moun­tains. Years be­fore, he had built a re­mote cabin in the woods in Con­necti­cut for Cheryl and him to live in. The cabin was crude and had no in­door plumb­ing or elec­tric­ity, but he had ex­pected Cheryl to be happy there, du­ti­fully await­ing his re­turn from work each day. But she quickly grew tired of him, the cabin, and his abuse, and so she left.

“About an hour and a half due west of Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Char­lie's car ran out of gas. They aban­doned it near Sper­ryville, Vir­ginia, a scenic lit­tle town on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Moun­tains. In this small and sleepy coun­try vil­lage, where tourists came in sea­son to buy apples and view the fall col­ors, Char­lie took his fam­ily once again into the woods and this time built a sim­ple lean-to. He then took Cheryl and Lit­tle Char­lie to a coun­try store nearby. They pur­chased a few small items, then came back that night af­ter clos­ing time to break in and take enough food to re­ally sus­tain them.”

Leaf in the woods

Lt. Jeff Brown of the Rap­pa­han­nock County Sher­iff ’s Of­fice had no rea­son to be­lieve Leaf and his cap­tives, ob­jects by now of a na­tion­wide man­hunt, were any­where near Vir­ginia, let alone Sper­ryville. He was pa­trolling along Route 612 in Old Hollow when he came upon an aban­doned 1973 Chevro­let Nova. There were no li­cense plates on the car, and its metal ve­hi­cle iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­ber was pried from the dash­board.

But search­ing the car, the RCSO lieu­tenant dis­cov­ered per­sonal pa­pers bear­ing the name Charles Leaf. There was also a re­ceipt for a gun pur­chase, and a child’s cloth­ing.

“They showed pho­to­graphs of Char­lie, Cheryl, and Lit­tle Char­lie to the store owner, who made a pos­i­tive iden­ti­fi­ca­tion,” Noes­ner con­tin­ued, at which time the RCSO “called in the Vir­ginia State Po­lice and the FBI, and mem­bers or these law en­force­ment agen­cies formed into teams and spent sev­eral days search­ing the woods and foothills with track­ing dogs and po­lice he­li­copters, but to no avail.”

Rap­pa­han­nock County Sher­iff John Henry Wood­ward said later that the lean-to, con­structed in the woods above where the car

“When Char­lie cashed his pay­check . . . he pur­chased a car­bine ri­fle, then sawed off the gun­stock in or­der to con­ceal it. Cheryl’s par­ents were away for the week­end, and late that night Char­lie broke into the house and sneaked into Cheryl’s bed­room be­fore she could grab the butcher knife she kept un­der the mat­tress. “‘IT’S TIME TO DIE,’ HE TOLD HER SOFTLY.”

was aban­doned, was con­cealed in such a fash­ion that it was prac­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble to spot from the air. It was when Leaf moved through the area at night that he no­ticed a va­cant farm­house, where he would even­tu­ally be dis­cov­ered.

Iron­i­cally, Leaf and his two cap­tives en­tered the house — a week­end get­away place that later be­came the Ap­ple Hill Farm Bed and Break­fast and now is a pri­vate home — af­ter it had been cleared by FBI tac­ti­cal teams. When authoritie­s de­cided to recheck the home, and ul­ti­mately con­fronted Leaf, the kid­nap­per re­treated up­stairs.

“The sun­light was fad­ing fast, so they wanted to get this one last search done as quickly as pos­si­ble,” Noes­ner ex­plained in his book. “First they checked all the win­dows and doors, look­ing for any signs of forced en­try. The give­away was the elec­tric me­ter on the out­side of the house. One of the agents no­ticed that it was hum­ming along at a brisk pace, more ac­tive than what one would ex­pect in a house that was un­oc­cu­pied.

“This was about the time that one of the FBI he­li­copters sup­port­ing the search landed in a field some hun­dred yards away. The lo­cal sher­iff also showed up at about this time and pro­vided the keys to the house.”

Less than a mile from Route 211 on Old Hollow Road, the house “was old and each foot­fall made the wooden steps groan and creak,” Noes­ner con­tin­ued. “The men ad­vanced slowly, care­fully, un­til Char­lie Leaf ap­peared at the top of the stairs. He held Cheryl in front of him, a gun to her head.

“‘Back off!’ he yelled. ‘Back off or I'll kill her.’”

The agents who had en­tered the home — mem­bers of FBI SWAT teams from Wash­ing­ton and Rich­mond — “played it by the book. ‘We're back­ing off . . . No­body's go­ing to get hurt.’

“And as the agents moved back down the stairs, the in­ci­dent at Sper­ryville be­came a clas­sic law en­force­ment stand­off.”

Sper­ryville as a tool

Hav­ing an­swered the late-night call and told to take over the hostage ne­go­ti­a­tions in Sper­ryville — where the ab­duc­tor was de­scribed as in­creas­ingly ag­i­tated and vi­o­lent — Noes­ner tells the News he wasted no time jump­ing into his fam­ily’s sta­tion wagon, reach­ing Rap­pa­han­nock County in un­der an hour’s time.

“In those days and at that hour the Fair­fax and Cen­tre­ville ar­eas were noth­ing [like to­day], just a straight shot to Sper­ryville — pure open coun­try,” he re­calls.

Gary Noes­ner would even­tu­ally be­come found­ing chief of the FBI Cri­sis Ne­go­ti­a­tion Unit, Crit­i­cal In­ci­dent Re­sponse Group, and while a sig­nif­i­cant fo­cus of his 30-year FBI ca­reer was in­ves­ti­gat­ing Mid­dle East hi­jack­ings, he was a hostage ne­go­tia­tor for 23 years, the last ten as the bureau’s Chief Ne­go­tia­tor. In that ca­pac­ity he was heav­ily in­volved in right-wing mili­tia stand­offs, religious zealot sieges, prison ri­ots, ter­ror­ist em­bassy takeovers, airplane hi­jack­ings, and over 120 over­seas kid­nap­ping cases that in­volved Amer­i­cans. Among his more note­wor­thy cases was the Branch Da­vid­ian con­flict in Waco, Texas, where he was tasked with try­ing to deesca­late the stand­off, and the Belt­way sniper case.

Now re­tired and liv­ing near Smith Moun­tain Lake in Vir­ginia, Noes­ner has ap­peared be­fore hun­dreds of law en­force­ment and cor­po­rate groups in all 50 states and over 40 coun­tries, lec­tur­ing on hostage ne­go­ti­a­tion, kid­nap­ping, ter­ror­ism and work­place vi­o­lence. And through it all he has never for­got­ten the open­ing chap­ter of his book — the tech­niques learned in Sper­ryville to defuse tense, lifethreat­en­ing en­coun­ters when an ab­duc­tor warns that he isn’t com­ing out alive — nor are his cap­tives.

“If you can take the con­ver­sa­tion away from the cri­sis at hand, and work hard to cre­ate a re­la­tion­ship of trust — even when you’re on the op­po­site side — where you might get them to go out and sur­ren­der,” he ex­plains to this news­pa­per. “De­flect and steer the con­ver­sa­tion to­ward some­thing less ar­gu­men­ta­tive and find some com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence, de­velop a level of trust — talk about camp­ing, out­doors, con­struc­tion of the farm­house we were in. I had learned that he’d built a cabin in the woods, so we talked about how you build a cabin . . .

“So that’s a tech­nique, and while it’s not the first time it hap­pened, it be­gan [to be FBI doc­trine] af­ter Sper­ryville — how we can be­gin to teach to move away from the cri­sis at hand . . . with top­ics you’re dis­cussing, cre­ate the op­por­tu­nity to de­velop co­op­er­a­tion. At the end of the day we knew that he would not have ul­ti­mately come out of the house if we had not de­vel­oped a cer­tain rap­port and level of trust.”

Then again, as Noes­ner ad­mits to the News: “It’s a bit odd to write a book about fool­ing a guy and killing him.”

The take­down

Noes­ner re­calls this week that he spent eleven hours talk­ing to Leaf — “we talked to each other in great de­tail. Part of my ap­proach was to make him think he was go­ing on a he­li­copter ride [to free­dom], although I clearly knew he wasn’t . . . . The best way to do that is to paint a men­tal pic­ture of what he was go­ing to see, and by do­ing that I helped con­vince him it was go­ing to hap­pen, that this is for real.

“I painted a pic­ture of those beau­ti­ful [Blue Ridge] moun­tains,” says the ne­go­tia­tor, “where we have a pilot who will leave you, although again I knew there would be no flight or drop off. But it re­in­forced the no­tion that this ride was go­ing to hap­pen.”

In the open­ing chap­ter of his book, ti­tled “It's Time to Die, Sper­ryville, Vir­ginia, April 1988,” Noes­ner wrote: “There it was, hard and di­rect. Char­lie said, ‘You go­ing to shoot me when I come out?’

“‘No,’ I re­sponded. ‘That's not go­ing to hap­pen. You said you wouldn't hurt any­one. You said you'd drop off the pilot some­where in the moun­tains. So there's no rea­son for any­one to get hurt.’

“The logic of this for­mu­la­tion ap­peared to work for Char­lie, per­haps be­cause this was his only chance to go on liv­ing with Cheryl and their son, Lit­tle Char­lie. What I knew, that he didn't, was that some­where out in the fields sur­round­ing us [five] FBI marks­men were poised, wait­ing to take his life.

“How do you con­vince some­one that, de­spite all his nat­u­ral fears, ev­ery­thing will be okay? You do it by pro­ject­ing sin­cer­ity, by mak­ing him be­lieve that what you are say­ing is hon­est and above­board. You ad­dress and over­come his pri­mal need for safety and se­cu­rity by es­tab­lish­ing a bond of trust. And, on rare oc­ca­sions, as in this case, you do it by ly­ing.

“‘Have you ever been on a he­li­copter be­fore?’ I asked.

“‘No,’ he said.

“‘You'll en­joy it. The view over the moun­tains will be spec­tac­u­lar.’ Of course, I knew that he would never take that ride or ex­pe­ri­ence that view. What I didn't know was how much he truly be­lieved that he was go­ing to be able to fly away un­touched.

“‘Char­lie, I need to ask you an im­por­tant ques­tion . . . The he­li­copter pilot is an old friend of mine. His name is Tom Kelly. I've known and worked with Tom for many years, so I need your absolute prom­ise that you won't harm him in any­way. If any­thing hap­pens to Tom, I would never be able to live with my­self.’

“‘I won't hurt him,’ Char­lie said. The real ques­tion was: Would Char­lie hurt the woman and the child he was hold­ing hostage on the sec­ond floor of this farm­house?”

To the FBI’s sur­prise, Noes­ner now tells us, when Leaf “fi­nally did come out of the house the lit­tle boy was strapped to his back [wear­ing] a bathrobe. His nose was pressed into the back of his fa­ther’s head. His wife was inches in front of him. So that was the tar­get as it pre­sented it­self to the five snipers out there. And I’m in the back of the house at this time, and the var­i­ous sniper po­si­tions were [re­lay­ing], ‘No shot! No shot! No shot!’”

With lit­tle time left to re­act, the FBI threw some flash-bang grenades into the equa­tion, sim­i­lar to very loud fire­crack­ers, at which point Leaf fell onto one knee. And as he was go­ing down, the lit­tle boy’s head and body “drifted back” be­hind his fa­ther, Noes­ner de­scribes it, cre­at­ing an open­ing for a marks­man to fire a deadly shot.

Noes­ner stresses it wasn’t the end­ing he and other law en­force­ment of­fi­cers ever de­sire — when ide­ally a per­son puts down their weapon and sur­ren­ders peace­fully — but the pri­or­ity in the Sper­ryville case and any sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion are the in­no­cent vic­tims. The hostage ne­go­tia­tor has de­scribed his gut feel­ings af­ter such out­comes as a mix­ture of re­lief and anger.

The re­tired FBI agent says he has driven through Sper­ryville “many times” since the 1988 tragedy in Old Hollow and de­spite what hap­pened to him and oth­ers here he will al­ways view it as the beau­ti­ful “quaint vil­lage” so many oth­ers know it to be.

“‘YOU GO­ING TO SHOOT ME WHEN I COME OUT?’” “‘No,’ I re­sponded. ‘That’s not go­ing to hap­pen...’


Gary Noes­ner, found­ing chief of the FBI Cri­sis Ne­go­ti­a­tion Unit, was dis­patched in the dark of the night to other­wise sleepy Sper­ryville. To­day’s tran­quil en­trance to the Old Hollow house where tragedy be­fell in 1988.


Af­ter los­ing the trail near a hunt­ing cabin in Old Hollow, state po­lice tac­ti­cal team mem­bers dis­cuss their next move.


FBI agents search the hollow dur­ing the 1988 hostage search.


Charles An­thony Leaf II with his son, Charles III.

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