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How Lee County hostage negotiators train for the unpredictable

Hostage negotiators talked to bank robbery suspect for 48 minutes
LCSO Hostage negotiator
Posted at 10:00 PM, Feb 19, 2024

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Back on Feb. 6, Lee County deputies surrounded the Bank of America at the Bell Tower Shops. Inside was a man, armed with a knife and holding two hostages. At the front door was a hostage negotiator, trying to calm the suspect down.

We hear about negotiators — see them in movies and TV shows, but Fox 4 dug into what actually happens during a negotiation and what it takes to be one in a field where seconds can potentially mean life or death.

Sheriff Carmine Marceno says they negotiated with Sterling Alavache for 48 minutes before one gunshot ended his life. Marceno says Alavache held a knife to a hostage. It's an ending says they try to avoid.

"Peaceful resolution is our number one goal," Marceno said.

The Hostage Negotiation Team says they train based on the county's own incidents and others around the nation. Marceno says they also go through an extensive 40-hour training at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

They also learn how to approach each situation.

"How to deescalate, how to, under extreme circumstances, verbally talk in a calm manner to try to do everything possible to get peaceful resolution," Marceno said.

Negotiators will talk as low as possible, but enough to where the person can still hear them. When a person is excited or yelling, negotiators still try to have the same tone.

Through the process, Marceno says they will build a rapport by letting the person vent and tell their side of the story. During this time, negotiators will not criticize them in order to minimize the situation.

"What is their ask, what is their need, what makes them tick, what do they want," Marceno said.

In the case of Alavache, Marceno says the suspect only wanted to talk to the deputy who got to the bank first, not the negotiator.

Their training calls for them to change negotiators to build rapport if the other negotiator isn't able to connect with the person.

The Hostage Negotiation Team says unlike the movies, they will not send in a deputy or law enforcement as an exchange for a hostage — that's just something you will see in movies.

With the bank robbery, the negotiator was talking to the deputy. She was telling him what to say to Alavache for 48 minutes.

"We don’t dictate how fast negotiations are," Marceno said. "If our suspect in the Bank of America kept talking to us, he doesn’t present deadly physical force, we would stay there for days and days and days, if need be, because there is no limit."

While some of the eyes and ears came at the front door, they also sent in a robotic dog to provide Alavache water. It also gave deputies a look at the situation beyond what they could see.

Some of what could be heard also came from an open 911 call. Joy Benedict, a dispatcher, listened to everything from a bank phone.

Benedict also had a hostage negotiator with her.

So she was also like, trying to get the attention of the person that was inside of the bank, so that she could try to understand what exactly he was needing in that time," Benedict explained. .."so not only could we help people inside, but also alleviate the situation."

While the negotiator worked, Benedict relayed everything to the deputies at the bank.

"At the end of the day we have to remember that our job is literally the safety of not just the people in the Bank of America, but also for the deputies going in," she said.

The team says most of the hostage negotiators interact with barricaded people with unknown hostages. However, in this case, they knew what they were working with.

Marceno says it's a situation everyone trains for — from the deputies to the negotiators.

"Our goal is to have peaceful resolutions, save lives and take our suspect into custody," he said.