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

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 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, life-threatening 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.

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