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Crisis negotiator recalls Hagerstown standoff

July 31, 2011|By DAN DEARTH | dan.dearth@herald-mail.com
  • Josh McCauley
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

Crisis negotiators never know when a routine day will develop into a life-or-death situation.

That was the case June 10, when Deputy 1st Class Josh McCauley, a crisis negotiator with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, was called to a standoff on Dual Highway near Hagerstown.

“I was just the closest to the phone when we got the call,” McCauley said.

McCauley said he had been a negotiator for only eight months before he was called to the standoff.

On that day, authorities said they received a call that Randy Houston McPeak, 43, of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., had killed his ex-girlfriend, Heather Harris, in a home at 1606 Dual Highway. Harris, 37, died June 15 from two gunshot wounds to the head.

McPeak has been charged with first-degree murder, second-degree murder and 12 other counts in connection with Harris’ death.

McCauley said he negotiated with McPeak for seven hours before he surrendered.

The standoff was McCauley’s first act as the primary negotiator at a major event. He said he relied heavily on training that he received from the FBI and help from other members of the Washington County Crisis Negotiation Team to convince McPeak to come out of the house.

“The last thing that I want to do is take personal credit for what was team effort that day,” McCauley said. “Though I was the most vocal that night, I’m sure that without each of them doing their assigned tasks, the night would have ended a lot differently.”

McCauley said the other members of the negotiating team fed him information about the situation while he and McPeak talked on cellphones. When the cellphones died after about three or four hours, McCauley said, the two were forced to speak face to face.

He said he was a little nervous at first, but felt safe knowing that he was being backed up by the Crisis Negotiation Team and other officers who responded to the scene.

McCauley said negotiators are called upon to speak to people in some type of serious crisis. He said hostage situations are rare, but when one happens, the safety of the victim is the top priority.

“Whether the subject has committed some type of crime or they are having an episode of mental illness, the people that we speak with are experiencing a constantly changing range of emotions,” McCauley said. “Our job involves listening and guiding the person through these swings in emotion until positive, rational decisions can be made. Our end goal is the safety of the public, law enforcement, the suspect and any victims involved.”

McCauley said he completed a 40-hour crisis-negotiation course that was taught by the FBI in Baltimore.

He said the course teaches participants to ask open-ended questions — ones that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

FBI Special Agent Marina Murphy, crisis negotiation coordinator for the FBI office in Baltimore, said the 40-hour negotiation course is taught over five days to police officers and new federal agents. During the course, students learn listening skills and role-play hostage scenarios with experienced negotiators.

“We get their stress level pretty high to get them to work through these situations,” she said.

Murphy said students in the course also discuss recent negotiation cases to determine what was done correctly and incorrectly.

She said the course teaches students to focus on everyone’s safety during a real-life negotiation. But the safety of the hostage and the police officer always comes first, she said. The safety of the hostage taker comes second.

“We want to get everyone out safely,” Murphy said. “We try to keep the hostage taker talking and slow everything down.”

Murphy said the FBI pays for the cost of the course.

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