Time: July 25, 2017, 5:20 p.m.
Location: WestStar Federal Credit Union, Las Vegas, Nevada
An armed man walks into a credit union just east of the Strip and demands cash. He collects about $19,000 from the terrified tellers who look on in horror as he takes one of them hostage.
The criminal forces his captive to leave the bank with him. He carjacks a couple at gunpoint and orders them to drive him and his prisoner to a Harley-Davidson dealership near the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign.
He enters the dealership to buy a getaway bike and his victims take the opportunity to escape. They drive to a nearby gas station and call 911. Authorities arrive at the motorcycle store and arrest the assailant.
Police identify the suspect as William Ethridge and book him on charges of robbery, kidnapping and vehicle theft.
Think Like a Victim
Clearly, William Ethridge is no criminal mastermind. His victims are lucky they were able to emerge from the ordeal without any physical injuries — in other cases, hostages have not been so fortunate.
What would you do if you were taken hostage by a dangerous criminal who had no qualms about holding innocent people hostage until their demands were met?
The fact is criminals often take hostages when they have a larger goal in mind beyond petty thievery. For example, taking hostages is one of the most profitable ways fringe groups fund terrorist activities. It’s also an effective way for terrorists to garner attention for their cause.
If you’re taken hostage, the first 30 minutes are the most critical. This is when most victims will panic, which may irritate the hostage-taker and provoke them into making a rash (and possibly deadly) decision.
Should you ever find yourself in a hostage situation, here are six things you can do to survive that first half hour — and hopefully make it home to your loved ones unharmed:
- Don’t let it happen. I realize this is easier said than done, but try to avoid being taken at all costs. Always be aware of your surroundings, no matter where you are. You can be snatched just as easily from a place you regularly frequent as you can from unfamiliar territory. If you have the opportunity and ability, fight back and try to disarm the hostage-taker. Don’t be afraid to be brutal and focus on critical targets: eyes, throat, groin, and shins. If, however, the criminal has a gun and has already taken a family member or will harm someone else if you don’t go with them, you probably won’t have any choice but to do what they say.
- Be a good witness. When fighting back is not feasible, being a good witness is your next-best option. For example, if someone walks into a bank and hands the teller a note saying they have a gun (but you don’t see one), you should not intervene — just be a good witness and note the following: What gender is the person? How tall are they? How much do they weigh? What are they wearing? Do they have any identifying marks? Along the same lines, if you’re taken hostage, take a mental picture of everything you see. This could help police track you down and lead to a safe rescue. If the hostage-taker allows you to speak to anyone, try to relay any information you can safely share.
- Remain calm and don’t panic. Criminals take hostages in a desperate attempt to achieve their goal (whatever that may be). They are usually not very calm because the situation they’ve created is stressful. The calmer you act, the more inclined the hostage-taker will be to calm down. Try not to patronize the criminal, however, or tell them what you think they want to hear. You often see this in the movies, but the fact is it will most likely make the situation worse.
- Always be thinking. If you are taken hostage, you should be on the lookout for opportunities to escape and, most importantly, never give up. Every single second, you need to be scanning your surroundings and analyzing the situation, looking for the right moment to jump out of the car or fight back or run out of the house. If you are constantly thinking, hopefully, there will be a moment when you can free yourself, so never give in to the fear that all hope is lost.
- Leave clues. This may be difficult to remember in the moment (and I know it doesn’t sound pleasant) but you need to leave a trail of DNA evidence so it’s easier for authorities to track you. Pull out some hair and drop it as you’re being taken away. Force yourself to throw up or give yourself a (minor) cut so you can leave a trail of fluids to lead investigators to where you’re being held.
- Stay low. If you are being held somewhere and a rescue team enters, immediately hit the floor and stay low. Your captors will probably panic and start shooting anything that moves. The last thing you want is to get caught in the crossfire. Additionally, don’t try to be a hero when the cavalry comes. Simply stay down and allow the rescue team to do their job. The FBI Hostage Rescue Team is one of the best in the world and they are well-trained to deal with this scenario.
While Hollywood often likes to portray hostages overpowering their captors and killing the criminals, you need to remember this isn’t always the reality.
But the fact is 80% of hostages taken around the world do survive this nightmare. All you need to do is play it smart and remember these six tips so you can live to see your loved ones again.