The 911 call to the Marion County Sheriff’s Department’s emergency call center came at mid-morning on February 8, 1977.
“My name is Tony Kiritsis,” said the agitated caller. “I’ve got a 12 gauge shotgun wrapped around a man’s neck. I’ve got a dead man’s line on the trigger.”
So began a 63-hour-long hostage crisis, played out on the new media technology of live television, that stretched from downtown Indianapolis to an apartment on the west side and to the White House and captured the attention of the nation.
“I am the man these people have tried to bankrupt,” Kiritsis told the dispatcher, Officer David Miller, on that Tuesday morning from the offices of Meridian Mortgage at 129 East Market Street. “If they kill me, they kill me first and then he dies. Just as simple as that now hang on a minute.”
Kiritsis was about to put his hostage, mortgage broker Dick Hall, on the phone.
“I’m scared and the situation is just like he says, officer,” said Hall, in the first few minutes of a two-and-a-half day ordeal where every minute he literally wondered if he would live or die.
“I didn’t come up here to look like a (expletive) idiot,” Kiritsis told the dispatcher. “I know I’m (expletive) on a long one way dead end (expletive) street.”
As if predicting the storyline and way he would be portrayed in the public’s imagination for decades to come, Kiritsis told Officer Miller he was, “the most sane (expletive) madman you ever seen.”
A judge eventually disagreed and sent Kiritisis to a state hospital for treatment for ten years.
“Dead Man’s Line” is a new documentary examining the Kiritsis hostage standoff pulling together long forgotten or unknown video and audio tapes, eyewitness accounts and fresh observations of a crisis that forced not only Kiritsis and Hall but also the police and media to make up the rules and responses to an unbelievable turn of events that no one, not even the gunman, could have imagined.
“First of all, the image of seeing a shotgun wired to somebody’s head, that stuck with me from all the way back in the third grade. I remember seeing this on TV,” said co-producer Mark Enochs. “Its amazing to see what the police did to keep Tony calm and prevent a loss of life.”
Enochs said the advent of new live capabilities captured the attention of the television audience marking the first time a life-or-death crisis could play out as it happened before an entire city.
“This was the first time they had the ability to shoot anything live,” he said. “There was no tape delay. This all comes to a head for the news conference that Tony holds because it leads to other ethical problems like, ‘Should we be showing this? Should we broadcast this?’
“Everybody would listen to it, including Tony,” said Enochs. “He was listening to the radio the whole time it was going on. He was wanting to know what was being covered on TV. The media was being reflected back in on the incident.”
Co-producer Alan Berry said, in effect, Kiritis was directing the crisis, which is what an FBI hostage negotiator told the IPD chief was their best hope to keep Hall alive.
“Tony was absolutely in charge and as a matter of fact as it progressed, Patrick Mulaney told Eugene Gallagher to make sure Tony believes he’s in charge because that was part of the key to success was allowing Tony to believe he was in charge.”
“Dead Man’s Line” utilizes the film and eyewitness accounts of former television photographers Jack Parker and Bill Fisher and retired reporter Linda Lupeer to visually trace Kiritsis’ literal first footsteps on East Market Street through downtown Indianapolis with a sawed off shotgun affixed to the back of Hall’s neck, capturing the moment both men slipped on a snow covered street in five degree weather and Kiritsis’ astonishment that the trigger didn’t go off, to the commandeering of a police car and the duo’s journey to an apartment where Kiritis would remain holed up for days, claiming the windows and doors were booby trapped to detonate in order to thwart any rescue attempt while he sought redress for what he claimed was a crooked land deal.
Meridian Mortgage held the note on a piece of property Kiritsis bought at Lynhurst Drive and Rockville Road with dreams of selling large.
After several failed attempts, and refinancing, Meridian Mortgage called in its notes and Kiritsis hatched a potentially lethal plan.
Claiming he had, “nerves of steel,” Kiritis first thought about arming himself with a Browning automatic pistol and gunning down Hall, his father and any other company officials on the street one day at lunch.
Instead, he decided he would take the man he blamed for his financial ruin hostage, then air his grievances and hold a kangaroo court trial at gunpoint in his apartment.
During the ordeal Kiritsis would talk for hours on end with one man, WIBC News Director Fred Heckman, a longtime respected broadcaster the desperate gunman felt he could trust.
After conducting one interview live, Heckman took himself off the air, conferred with authorities and played a key role in keeping Kiritsis on an even keel as audio tapes of those days show an emotional man veering between tears, anger and anguish.
Finally, after tormenting his hostage for three days and two nights, Kiritsis agreed to meet with police and the press, with his victim still held at the end of a gun, for a chance to tell his story live on television.
“Dead Man’s Line” recounts those tense minutes when Indianapolis braced to perhaps watch murder or a fatal shooting occur live in front of the eyes of the audience.
“So Eugene Gallagher had a plan where he had a gun in one pocket and where he had a handkerchief in the other,” said Enochs, “and when he would pull that handkerchief out, that was the signal to the others around him who knew what was going on that he was going to shoot him. Bill Fisher in the movie says three times he started to pull that handkerchief out and three times he put it back so it was real close in a couple instances.”
In the film and still photographs of the final news conference you can see the apprehension in the eyes of the police and the witnesses, Hall’s beleaguered submission and Kiritsis’ raging paranoia amid the uncertainty of how the standoff would end.
Finally Kiritsis, believing he had a deal in hand to avoid prosecution, relented and retreated to an empty apartment off the community room at the complex to detach his gun from Hall’s neck and call a stop to the crisis he put in motion.
“Actually what we have on audio is the actual arrest where Tony realizes he’s been duped by the police, by Eugene Gallagher and them, and its pretty interesting the conversation that goes on between Eugene Gallagher and him,” said Berry. “Fred went with them and he had on him a personal recorder. So nobody has that, so what was said in there, Fred and Tony are talking, there’s banter, Tony’s celebrating, then you can hear them start to disconnect the gun, there’s a lot of tense police around there, they’re making sure, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing?’ And then Tony, once they get it all unhooked, takes the shotgun out the sliding glass door and fires it and I just can’t imagine what that felt like to the other people in the room but thanks to Fred we have that audio version of that.”
Kiritsis was found not guilty due to reason of insanity, which led to a change in Indiana law to include a finding of guilty but mentally ill.
Berry said amazingly the court record no longer exists but he has film of Kiritsis exploding inside a Marion County courtroom during a pre-trial hearing.
“We made up for it by talking to jurors who were on the trial and talking to the judge and the lawyers on both sides, the plaintiff and the defense,” said Berry who tracked down one former Kiritsis attorney living in exile in Morocco and found even eyewitness accounts didn’t always square up with the facts from four decades ago. “It had been a while since they had talked about it and I think they were excited to talk about it again.”
Berry said a key factor in understanding the mindset of Tony Kiritsis and what drove him to his madness that week was examining the way he was raised, details supplied by his brother Jimmy Kiritsis.
“When you understand his upbringing, it doesn’t justify the ends, it never sets the record straight with Richard Hall,” said Berry. “Uncle Tony, brother Tony was a good dude. If you were a friend or a family member he would do anything for you.”
Ten years before strapping a shotgun to the back of Richard Hall’s neck, Kiritsis had taken his own sister hostage and chased a natural gas line crew across the lawn of his trailer with an ax.
“There’s two sides to Tony,” said Berry. “I think that he was a bit loony for sure and I also think that he was probably a good guy to his friends and family.”
What remains stunning all these years later is the mixed reaction then and now to what Kiritsis did and the public thought of his hostage.
“We just could not find the facts that justify saying that Richard Hall did any swindling of Tony Kiritsis,” said Enochs. “If you just post a couple things on facebook or youtube and all of a sudden you have an army of people that come up and say expletives toward Richard Hall and bankers.
“He was saying things that a lot of people felt. Doesn’t mean it was real and it doesn’t mean it was a fact but he was saying things that people could relate to. So when Tony says he’s a, ‘GD national hero,’ maybe not national but in the state of Indiana, he was definitely a hero to a lot of people and I think today he probably still is a hero.”
When it was announced that Kiritsis was found not guilty by reason of insanity, an Indiana Pacers crowd at Market Square Arena let out a cheer.
“We hope this film kind of sets the record straight for a lot of peoples’ misgivings about it,” said Berry.
The filmmakers interviewed more than 40 people, three of whom have since died.
Hall has only recently ended his silence on the ordeal with the publication of his book, “Kiritsis and Me: Enduring 63 Hours at Gunpoint.”
“We would have loved to have interviewed Dick Hall for sure because he’s a big part of the story,” said Enochs, “but if you look it, he was pretty much an innocent bystander because Kiritsis wasn’t after Richard Hall, he was after the father.
“I don’t know that it was really about him. It was really about Tony.”
Kiritsis died of natural causes in Speedway in 2005, long before Enochs and Berry conceived of the project.
“There’s so many things I would want to ask him but I wouldn’t have any guarantee he would give me a credible answer,” said Enochs. “I think he would be mad because it doesn’t show him as the shining hero in the end.”
“Hey, you don’t have to be scared,” Kiritsis told Hall when they were locked in his office and on the phone to the 911 dispatcher during the first minute of the next 63 hours. “I’m telling you, I’m a hell of a man, baby. I’m a hell of a man.”
Even at that early moment in the crisis, Kiritsis thought he knew what the public would think of his hostage taking ploy.
“They’re gonna think I’m a big man.”