may / june 2007:
Law and Disorder
Nine years ago, federal prosecutor Stanley Alpert was strolling the streets of Manhattan on his way home from a blind date when he was kidnapped, whisked to an ATM to empty his bank account, and held hostage for 25 hours. His new memoir explains his incredible escape and what happened next.
Profile by E.B. Solomont | Photo by Chaim Jaskoll
Earlier this year, on January 22nd to be exact, nine years and one day after he was kidnapped, Stanley Alpert simultaneously celebrated his 47th birthday and the publication of his book chronicling the abduction.
At an East Village bar named Crime Scene, Alpert’s friends and family gathered alongside law enforcement officers who were involved in his case in 1998. The dimly lit watering hole — where the outline of a body was chalked onto the floor, handcuffs were embedded into the bar itself, and a wall had been painted to look like a police lineup — was packed with several hundred people moving to loud music.
At the height of the party, the entire group sang “Happy Birthday” when a giant cake was brought out. Several people also took their turns at the microphone, where they focused on Alpert’s uncanny story, the subject of The Birthday Party: A Memoir of Survival, copies of which were stacked in the corner.
Some friends also took turns talking about his dating life (he is single), including a woman whom Alpert met on the subway just before he was kidnapped. (That part of the story also fueled suspicion about its accuracy, it should be said. After they met, Alpert asked her out for tea and she declined. But they did buy cookies together — Entenmenn’s for him and Chips Ahoy! for her.) “Do you know how much money I spent in therapy because I said no and he got kidnapped?” she asked the audience, which burst into laughter.
Finally, the man of the hour was introduced to thunderous applause: “And now, because he survived, Stan Alpert!” Alpert took the microphone, peering into the audience. He thanked his publisher, the men and women of the New York Police Department and the FBI, even those who initially doubted him.
It turns out they were wrong and he was right, although it’s hard to blame them when you consider the facts: On his way home from a blind date in 1998, Alpert — then a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s office — was snatched off a Greenwich Village street by three thugs intent on taking him to an ATM and emptying his bank account. When he had more money saved than they anticipated, they held him overnight in a filthy apartment with their teenaged, prostitute girlfriends. Once they learned it was his 38th birthday, they offered him drugs and sex with the girls. (He declined.) They fed him. They sought his legal advice. Ultimately, they let him go and one kidnapper passed him $20 for cab fare to get home from the remote part of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where they dropped him off.
“There’s something really important, I think, for us to take out of this book,” Alpert told the audience this winter. “Crime takes a toll on society. These are terrible things. We need to fight with all our energy against the scourge of crime.”
Shortly thereafter, Alpert meets me for breakfast to discuss the trajectory of being kidnapped to being set free to writing a wildly popular memoir about the experience.
Several weeks earlier, Tom Cruise and the new United Artists optioned movie rights for the book, following a positive review in the New York Times by William Grimes. “Thank you, Grimes,” Alpert says as we dine at an East Village restaurant, Café Brama. He was enjoying a moment pondering who might play him in the movie. Toby Maguire? Adrien Brody? Jason Schwartzman? David Schwimmer?
(My own view is that Scwhimmer would be perfect as Alpert, who shares the actor’s coloring, his dark hair and full mouth.) Alpert concedes that a Tom Cruise-type character would blast his way out of trouble, and that this role needed a “fairly nerdy Jewish guy who would talk his way out of it.”
The latter, of course, was Alpert’s survival mechanism. In his book and in person, he recounts a process of memorizing certain details like the tile pattern on the floor of the building where he was taken. And in a certain reverse Stockholm process (Stockholm’s syndrome being what occurs when those who are kidnapped align themselves with their kidnappers), Alpert engaged his captors in conversation, even answering legal questions for them, which ultimately made them like him.
“When they finally showed a little bit of humanity, my nature was to go right there,” he says. “In this situation, I didn’t have much choice or I’d be dead.”
Although any skepticism has been dispelled, Alpert takes the opportunity to emphasize that his account is entirely truthful. “I am not James Frey. I am not Augusten Burroughs. This story is 100% true,” he says. Reflective for a moment, he adds, “I’m Cinderella. I’m the rags to riches kid.”
Having grown up in Brooklyn in a Conservative Jewish family (his father is a cantor), Alpert was a prosecutor and handled environmental cases at the
time of his kidnapping. In all, he served for 13 years with the U.S. Department of Justice, as an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York and then as chief of environmental litigation there.
According to law enforcement statistics, Alpert should not have survived.
In recalling the twists and turns of his kidnapping, Alpert says that at certain points, his father and some friends thought he was already dead. Alpert himself — and this is the basis of many, many articles and reviews — survived by focusing on the details that could help him if he were freed. (Those details were used in capturing and prosecuting the kidnappers.)
But at a certain point when his kidnappers asked Alpert if he was Jewish, Alpert says he was frightened that his religion could trigger animosity. He answered honestly, and as it turns out, the kidnappers said they like Jews. Had they known he was Jewish, they wouldn’t have taken him, they said.
Alpert — who in his father’s tradition sometimes leads prayer services — says subsequent Kol Nidre prayers on Yom Kippur have been extraordinarily powerful. “Those words are more significant to me than they ever were,” he says. “It’s not in my control and God can take my life from me at every moment.”
“Bad things happen to good people,” he says, evoking the age-old philosophical question. His theory, he says, is that when bad things happen to good people, the question is what do they do about it. “I was just able to take something horrible, petrifying, and almost tragic … I was able to turn it into triumph.”
Even everyday details reflect that triumph. As he readies to leave Café Brama, he reflects on what he will do the rest of the day. “I’ve got people to sue and memos to write,” he says.
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