The morning of Feb. 8, 1977, shocked Indianapolis. Two men, one with a shotgun attached to his head and the other with his finger on the trigger, walked through the streets of downtown.
That morning, Tony Kiritsis, a former Pontiac salesman, walked into the office of the mortgage broker he said cheated him. Around 9 a.m., Richard O. Hall emerged from his office at Meridian Mortgage with a gun tied to his head. The other end of the wire that held the gun was tied around Kiritsis’ finger.
He called it a “dead man’s line.” If anyone tried to intervene to stop Kiritsis or the police tried to shoot him, his falling body weight would pull the trigger of the shotgun wired to Hall’s head. If Kiritsis was shot, Hall would be too.
A documentary about the incident called “Dead Man’s Line: The True Story of Tony Kiritsis” has just been released. Before its digital debut, the film won best documentary at the East Lansing Film Festival in Michigan last November.
Mark Enochs, 49, and Alan C. Berry, 48, created this documentary over a span of five years. “Kiritsis was just a built-in drama,” Enochs said. “It’s an excellent topic to cover for a story like this.”
They researched the incident and read news coverage from the kidnapping and Kiritsis’ trial. They talked to witnesses, members of the media who covered the event, police officers, the trial judge and defense attorneys, members of the jury and Kiritsis’ friends and family members. Enochs estimated that they spent 25 to 30 hours some weeks working on the film.
The two have been best friends for more than 30 years, since they went to Warren Central High School together. They have also produced other documentaries, including a feature on Greg Ballard and his time as mayor of Indianapolis.
Enochs said his idea to tell the Kiritsis story stemmed from his own memories of the coverage in 1977. He said he remembered watching news reports about the trial on TV during that summer. “I remember several times that summer while they were doing the grand jury trial on Tony, they would show the footage again of him walking Hall around with that shotgun,” he said. “It just always stuck with me.”
As Kiritsis continued to march Hall through downtown, police were spread all around the streets. But there was nothing they could do.
Snow and ice covered the ground that day in February. As Kiritsis and Hall led the parade of police officers around the streets of downtown, some bystanders followed them, watching to see what would happen next.
A police officer moved too close, and Kiritsis spun around to warn him to keep his distance. While turning, Kiritsis lost his footing on an icy sidewalk and fell. Hall went down with him. Somehow, the gun did not go off.
As the men started to stand up, Kiritsis ordered everyone to move back. He commandeered one of the police cars that was following him and forced Hall to drive them back to his apartment, which was full of explosives.
For the next three days, the apartment building was full of police officers and members of the media. Kiritsis’ emotions changed frequently, from one extreme to another. He would talk politely to police one minute, the next he would be yelling and threatening to shoot Hall.
Kiritsis would periodically demand to be on television and would hold “news conferences” that various media outlets would broadcast live.
After one of these live segments, Kiritsis released Hall. As soon as Kiritsis removed the dead man’s line, he ran outside and shot the gun into the air to prove it had been loaded. Police then arrested him. The whole crisis lasted 63 hours.
These 63 hours had a lasting impact on members of the press, however. This incident was a turning point in the media world, said Cleve Wilhoit, former IU School of Journalism professor.
The Kiritsis hostage crisis presented a new opportunity for the media, which also carried new ethical challenges. Because this event was unfolding so publicly, broadcasters took this chance to show live footage of the kidnapping in real time.
Just like this hostage situation captured the attention of many Indiana residents in 1977, it’s continuing to generate interest more than 40 years later.
One particular aspect of this case that created this fixation was that many people seemed to root for and sympathize with Kiritsis. Many people began to view him as a sort of folk hero.
People may have disagreed with his method, but many people showed their support for someone who was standing up to banks. After the hostage situation had ended, some Indianapolis residents called Kiritsis’ defense attorney to offer financial support. People called it the “Tony Fund.”
The fact that the hostage was a mortgage broker only added to people’s unwillingness to condemn his actions. People watching the news coverage were typically much more likely to relate to a blue collar car salesman than to a high-powered banker.
Kiritsis said he believed the bank had cheated him and set him up on a loan payment schedule that it knew he would not be able to meet. “I think it taps into this feeling of regular people not trusting banks,” Enochs said.
Both Enochs and Wilhoit said they thought this widespread financial frustration from the general public was another reason so many people identified with Kiritsis.
“There’s a lot of people who believe that absolutely that bank did do something wrong and that Tony was justified in at least being angry, not so much in the exact way he tried to take his revenge,” Enochs said.
After his October trial, Kiritsis was found not guilty by reason of insanity. When the decision was announced at Market Square Arena during a hockey game, the crowd cheered.
Kiritsis then spent the next decade in mental institutions. He was released in 1988 and lived on the west side of Indianapolis until he died of natural causes in 2005.
Hall is now retired. Other than testifying at Kiritsis’ trial, he had not spoken publicly about the ordeal until last year.
He wrote a book about his experience, “Kiritsis and Me: Enduring 63 Hours at Gunpoint.” Hall also gave a press conference on the 40th anniversary of the event, Feb. 8, 2017, to promote his book.
Hall said he had never talked about Kiritsis with his family, but he was telling his story now because of his children.
“My 7-year-old daughter came home from school and told me, ‘My friend’s mother said Kiritsis should have blown your head off,’” Hall said. He also said one of his sons said, “Dad, I don’t want my kids to think of you as a wimp.”
Hall said he was 82, and that he thought if he wanted to tell his story, he should do it soon.
“From the very start, I thought I was a dead man,” Hall said at the press conference. “I was the bad guy, and Kiritsis was the good guy, and that hurt because we did no wrong.”
However, this was not the predominant view of most Indiana residents. The general public was fascinated by this event, and much of this interest stemmed from the ability to watch the hostage situation as it happened live on the news.
In 1977, most major media companies had just started to purchase mini cameras, which made broadcasting live much easier and more accessible. Journalists across Indiana took this opportunity to air much of this unfolding hostage situation in real time.
On the second day of the ordeal, Kiritsis became a national story, and journalists were flying in to cover it from major news outlets across the country.
“It was one of those can’t-look-away moments, not only for journalists but also for the public,” Wilhoit said. It was the kind of moment that seemed, to many journalists, perfect for a dramatic live broadcast.
Throughout the 63 hours Hall was held captive, Kiritsis consistently demanded the media’s attention. He held mock press conferences and ranted to the audience about his motives and goals, all while holding the shotgun to Hall’s head.
Kiritsis wanted attention, and journalists gave it to him. “What is fascinating about Kiritsis is that he was so media savvy,” Wilhoit said.
One of Kiritsis’ main goals, according to Wilhoit’s analysis, was to draw attention to what he thought the bank had done to him. The press obliged. If they had not aired Kiritsis’ mock press conference, Wilhoit said he is not sure he would have kept Hall hostage for 63 hours.
But it was only after the situation was resolved that journalists began to think deeply about whether or not they made the right choice by showing the live footage, Wilhoit said.
The ethical considerations about what effect the news coverage had on Kiritsis’ actions were only looked at in retrospect. “I think this caused responsible broadcast journalists to think.”
Wilhoit thought out loud about whether journalists would react differently if this situation came up again today. He said he wasn’t sure it would have a different outcome. “Technology outruns ethics every time.”
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