The Birthday Party

"48 Hours" Live to Tell: A federal prosecutor kidnapped at gunpoint recounts his bizarre hostage ordeal

Produced by Sara Rodriguez and Clare Friedland

[This story previously aired on August 6, 2010. It was updated on Dec. 24, 2016]

What if someone wants you dead -- but you live to tell?


On Jan. 21, 1998, the night before his 38th birthday, federal prosecutor Stanley Alpert was walking home in lower Manhattan, when he was kidnapped at gunpoint, triggering a 25-hour hostage ordeal which would range from the horrific to the oddly humorous. Now, Alpert recounts the bizarre events of his kidnapping - from his abduction to his release.


Voice on answering machine: “Hi. It’s Stan. Please leave a message.”


David Prager | Stan’s Friend: It was Jan. 22, 1998. It was Stan’s 38th birthday. He didn’t come to work, and that’s not like Stanley. Here’s a very diligent person with a very high-profile job.

And he had an appointment that he didn’t show up for and didn’s call anybody about. A federal prosecutor was missing and nobody knew where he was.

A group of his friends were throwing him a party at a club in downtown Manhattan. It was his birthday. And he didn’t come to his own birthday party.

Kathleen Flynn | FBI Special Agent: Did he go out? Did he go partying? Did he drink? Was he using drugs? Was he involved in some sexcapades?

You know, they were saying, “No.” You know, he’s kind of a quiet, mild-mannered guy. He wouldn’t just disappear. He wouldn’t just not come to work.

Prager: One possibility was that he was at home, either ill or sleeping or passed out.

When we arrived at Stanley’s apartment, the superintendent didn’t have a key. So one of the guys followed the building superintendent up the fire escape and the superintendent used his elbow to smash in Stanley’s kitchen windows.

There was nothing that indicated that Stanley had been there recently. Then, somebody pressed the answering machine on his telephone.

Voice on answering machine: “Hi. It’s Stan. Please leave a message.”

Prager: You know…beep, happy birthday, from some friend or relative. And then the third message was: “This is your credit card company calling to say there is unusual activity on your card.”

A couple beeps after that it was even worse.

A person called and she said, “I found your wallet in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the garbage…” And that was really scary. Bedford-Stuyvesant is a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn. What would his wallet be doing in Bedford-Stuyvesant?

Somebody said, “Maybe he’s lying in an alleyway somewhere bleeding.” And somebody else said, “Or maybe, he was dead…”

Flynn: This is unbelievable. There’s got to be something more to this story. As we started to look into it, people were thinking this is really way too crazy to be true.

WHERE’S STAN?

David Prager | Stan’s Friend: This was clearly a serious item in New York City. A federal prosecutor is missing. He hasn’t been heard from for 24 hours. People are scared.

Kathleen Flynn | FBI Special Agent: There was sorta this hysteria in the apartment with his friends there. You know, everybody had their theory… you know, of where Stan was and what happened to Stan.

Prager: Certainly it was possible for me that he’d been murdered.

Flynn: You know, we’re sort of trying to come up with a plan of action, when the phone rings. We sort of looked at each other. And we’re like, “Well, somebody get it.”

Richard Meade | FBI Special Agent: So I answer the phone, and the voice on the other end of the phone says: “This is Stan. Who’s this?” So I tell him who I am.

I say, “Are you alright?” And he says, “Yes. I’m alright, but I was kidnapped.”

Flynn: We were sorta kinda stunned by that. You know, he was kidnapped? I mean who would kidnap a United States Attorney?

TWENTY MINUTES EARLIER

Stanley Alpert: I just ran for it. I ran across Prospect Park West and went down one of the side streets on my way to Seventh Ave. It was a pizza place that was open and I start sayin’ to the guy behind the counter, “Can I use your phone? Can I use your phone? I was just kidnapped. Can I use your phone?”

“I’m a federal prosecutor, but - but - but I made it out. You know, can I please use your phone? I gotta call people.” He looked at me like I had three heads.

Meade: And I said, “Stan, where are you?”

Flynn: So all we got on the phone was, “I’m at a pizzeria in Brooklyn.” Stay where you are, we’re coming to get you, stay where you are.

Dan Dorsky | Stan’s Friend: We piled in cars. I went with one agent. I remember feeling incredibly frustrated because he wasn’t zooming through the red lights.

Meade: When the agents and detectives picked up Stan in Brooklyn, he was in front of the pizzeria. Right where he said he would be.

Dorsky: When we drove up and I saw him, he looked almost like a skeleton.

Flynn: He looked exhausted. He was really, really nervous. You know, looked like - he’d been up all night.

Alpert: So they drove me from Brooklyn to the 9th Precinct in the East Village and they brought me inside and they put me in a room.

Flynn: And they started questioning him and he started going through his story. And it wasn’t until hours later that we would start hearing the details of that evening. You know, between the drugs and the sex.

David Burroughs | FBI Special Agent: People were like, you know, this doesn’t make sense at all. It was a pretty bizarre story that most people were having trouble embracing.

Flynn: You are kind of rolling your eyes thinking, “Oh, my gosh. This is crazy, this is crazy.”

STAN’S STORY

Stanley Alpert: The night of Jan. 21, 1998, I went on a blind date. It didn’t work out. An hour later I got on the train to come home. 

It was a freezing cold night, one of those bitterly cold - winter New York nights. There was nobody around.

It was roughly 11 o’clock. I was walking down 10th Street toward Fifth Ave. in the Village.

And as I get toward the corner of 10th Street and Fifth Ave., from out of nowhere - I didn’t see it I didn’t hear it before - I feel a tug on my elbow. I spin around [and] there’s a big fat black-barreled automatic machine gun sticking in my gut. There are two guys behind me, shove me from behind, push me out into the street. “Move, move, don’t say a word just get into the f---ing car mother f---er.”

They put [me] in the back seat of the car. I could see the outline of the word Lexus on the dash, so I knew we were in a Lexus.

The guy in front of me starts talking. “What’s your name?” Stanley. “Stanley, let me tell you what we’re going to do. We’re gonna take you to the cash machine and we’re gonna get your money, and if you f--k with us we will kill you. That guy was named Lucky.

The toughest thug was called Sen. He was across to me to the right. Almost by accident, I didn’t want to, I looked at him. Our eyes met and Sen stuck his pistol in my face. He screamed at me, “Mother f---er got big eyes. I should kill you for those big eyes.”

The guy on my right, his name was Ren. Ren seemed to be more of a henchman. He seemed to be the one that would just do what they told him.

They took me to the cash machine at 23rd St. and Sixth Ave. Lucky goes in to get money.

They asked me how much I had in my savings account and I knew I had to tell the truth, because all they had to do was put in my pin number and they can know everything… so I said, “Somewhere around $110,000.” They heard that number and they were amazed.

So that’s the point where the plan shifted. They drove towards the West Side Highway and Lucky started explaining to me what their plan was. He said. “We’re going to hold you overnight and tomorrow morning we’re gonna take you to a bank and you are going to withdraw $50,000. And if you don’t cooperate, we’ll kill you.”

And then he ordered Ren to blindfold me. So Ren pulls my scarf off and wraps it, wraps it around my eyes - my own scarf; ties it tight. Then he shoved me down on the seat next to him in a fetal position and they drove.

I didn’t know where we were going. It was too early to think at that point. I was just petrified. It was the most horrifying moment you could imagine. They decided that they had caught something they wanted to keep for a while: that was me.

THE RIDE

Stan Alpert | Kidnapping Victim: The agents interviewed me with all deliberate seriousness and they kept me there for hours.

Kathleen Flynn | FBI Special Agent: Stan told a story… You know, he’s kidnapped off the street at gunpoint but, um…

Alpert: I had absolutely no clue that they didn’t find my story credible. Not a clue.

You got to keep in mind I’m blindfolded. What you learn if you’re blindfolded, is that you can pick up a lot through your sense of hearing. When we go through the tunnel, it’s at the bottom of Manhattan, I know we’re through that tunnel, because it sounds different. And a few minutes later I can hear us going over a bridge. So I knew we were going somewhere in Brooklyn or Queens.

They pushed me outta the car. I went up a couple steps, through a doorway, couple steps more, through another doorway, down a long, thin hallway and then they shoved me up the stairs. And now I’m trapped in somebody’s apartment. And I can still see a little bit out the bottom of my blindfold. I can see two mattresses on the floor. It looks like a place where people just crash.

The most obviously terrifying, violent member of the gang was Sen. Actually, I can practically feel him close to me at one point, pointing the gun at me and saying, “Stanley, have you ever see one of these guns? All I have to do is pull the trigger and bam, bam, bam - your brains will be all over that wall.”

Repeatedly they kept cocking and un-cocking the gun, so that I can hear it.

They demanded my father’s address. It was in my wallet. Lucky told me that if I didn’t cooperate with them at the bank in the morning, he would kill my father and they would break every bone in my father’s body.

Dan Dorsky | Stan’s Friend: It always drove me crazy that they picked him of all people. Because, apparently, they thought he was some rich Wall Street lawyer-type.

David Prager | Stan’s Friend Stan was a federal prosecutor, which is a very important job. He’s a person who wants to make an impact on the world. And in many ways, wants to make the world a better place.

Stanley was certainly not born with a silver spoon. He was the kind of guy who had to work for everything he had.

Alpert: I grew up lower middle-class in Brooklyn. We didn’t have a lot of money. I spent all my time out on the streets. I was a little guy, a little skinny guy. So talking your way out of things was one good skill that you needed to learn.

THE GIRLS

Alpert: A few minutes later I can hear the front door of the apartment open and I can hear a bunch of footsteps. I can hear them talking. “Hey, D. Hey, Mystic. What’s up? How ya doing? How’d you do out on the streets?”

Flynn: Mercedes and Mystic come into the apartment - these two teenage girls who are prostitutes -and they’re friends with Ren and Sen.

Alpert: So a few minutes after that, Lucky left the apartment and you got the feeling that people were kinda settling in. Somebody struck a match. You can smell the marijuana.

So then they’re smoking pot and you can hear that there are sexual acts going on. And you know this was [an] awful good thing I was blindfolded, because I couldn’t see what was happening around me.

Flynn: So here is Stan - this sorta reserved U.S. attorney is sitting on a mattress while two people are having sex next to him. And then another couple is having sex across the room.

Oh, my gosh, this didn’t happen. This guy got lost for 24 hours and he needs a good story.

Alpert: And then, you know, when it was over there was a calm in the room. So Sen asked me, “Stanley, what, you know, what would you be doing if we hadn’t grabbed you on the street?”

I’d be meeting my friends for a concert because that day was my birthday. And they heard that and they just burst out laughing. “Oh, my God! We kidnapped the mother f---er on his birthday!”

So, then Sen says, “It’s your birthday, you deserve something nice for your birthday. How about a b--- job from one of these girls? These are nice girls.”

And I said, “No thanks.” Then they kept pushing it. “Stanley, you should take it ‘cause, you know, what I think [is] the girls like you.” So I said, “You know what? The only reason they like me is because most of my face is covered.”

David Burroughs | FBI Special Agent: Here’s a guy who’s been kidnapped, y’ know, he’s sitting there and they’re offering him oral sex… A lot of, I think, the more seasoned individuals didn’t believe it at all (chuckles).

Alpert: I can’t explain it. I just tried to make them not dislike me so that they wouldn’t want to kill me.

CHANGE OF PLANS

Alpert: In the middle of the night, Sen and Ren were openly discussing what their plans were with me. And Sen wasn’t happy with the plan. He didn’t think it was gonna work, it’s not gonna look right.

Flynn: It’s gonna look odd for two black men to be taking this sort of nerdy white man into the bank and he’s withdrawing all this money.

Alpert: So Lucky comes back at four in the morning. And Ren and Sen say, “Look we gotta talk to you,” and they go outside the room. They talk for a couple of minutes. And then Lucky pops his head back in the room and he says, “Stanley, tell me again what you do for a living?” And I say, “I’m an assistant U.S. attorney.” And he says, “U.S.? Oh, no. The FBI’s gonna be after us.” And that’s when Lucky told me that they changed the plan. And he says, “Stanley look, I’ve got good news for you. We’re gonna be taking you back. I’m gonna come back here at seven in the morning. We’re gonna take you back and let you go.”

They stayed outside the room at that point, talking. So did I think they might be planning to kill me? Sure. Until this thing was over, I knew my life was hanging by a thread the whole time.

THE MORNING AFTER

Stan Alpert | Kidnapping Victim: In the early morning hours, things got very quiet. There wasn’t much activity. And, you know, I could feel that dawn had come. I could hear buses going by. And I also could hear seagulls.

And then this guy Louis shows up and he’s renting the space to them. Sen and Ren have decided that they wanna get out of there. They’ve got things to attend to. So, they tell Louis, “Here’s our guns. You stay here, you hold these guns, you watch this guy until we get back.”

Louis offered me food. Actually, all of them offered me food at one point or another.

I thought about trying to convince Louis to let me go, because there were hours where the other guys went out. He’s there holding the guns, he’s with the girls. But he was a volatile, paranoid, scared kind of guy. And what I was really afraid of is that if I tried to go down that path, if I tried to convince him to let me go, he’d freak out.

I mean, just pull the trigger on that TEC-9 [and] multiple bullets are gonna come out per second. I’m done.

You know, in 25 hours of being blindfolded and sitting on a mattress, you have a lot of time to think. And what I was thinking was, if I don’t get killed, I’m gonna gather enough evidence so that these guys get put away and they don’t do it to anybody else again.

I had a lot of clues that could help them find these guys. I could actually see the pattern on the tiles as we went into the building. And I tried to memorize the pattern. I can tell it was a railroad flat in an old tenement building. I counted the steps to the first landing, and I counted it to the second landing.

They tortured me, they threatened to murder me, they threatened to kill my father. I couldn’t possibly allow them to do that to another person. I was absolutely devastated by the thought that anybody would hurt my father - ever.

David Burroughs | FBI Special Agent: During the interview, when Stan was sharing about his dad and his concerns about his father, you could see a physical change. Now, it was becoming emotional. This is something he was feeling. And for me, as an investigator, it’s telling me that he’s telling me the truth. We ended up, after several hours of talking to him, believing what he said.

WHERE’S LUCKY?

Alpert: Hour after hour goes by and nobody knows where’s Lucky? Nobody is telling me why he didn’t come back. Nobody is telling me why they haven’t set me free.

About 6 or 7 o’clock, Ren and Sen came back. So there was a period of a few hours when things got lighter. They started getting friendly. They wanted legal advice.

Kathleen Flynn | FBI Special Agent: I think one of them had gotten into some sort of a car accident. And he had some injuries from it. He wanted to know Stan’s opinion that, you know, would he be able to have a lawsuit?

Alpert: He wanted to know how much his case was worth. He had a lumbar problem. He had to go to a chiropractor once a week. He wanted to know how much he could get for his case… He had a lawyer. But he had - look, he had me there. He had a chance for a second opinion.

And then there was this whole period where we everybody sat around like we were at a dinner party telling jokes.

They kept calling me Stephen and I kept correcting them and said, “My name’s not Stephen. It’s Stanley.” And at one point, Ren says
(laughing), “Oh, sorry, Stanley. Our mistake. Stephen’s the guy we did this to the other night.”

And then somewhere around 10 o’clock at night, Lucky comes back; comes bursting through the door. Right away, the mood changed. Lucky was the boss. He’s back, they’re not gonna be joking around anymore.

Everybody is dead serious. Everybody is quiet. And he says, “Come on, let’s go.” And boom - like with military precision - they marched me out the door.

I started to get very nervous. I started to feel palpitations in my heart, I got a sweat on the back of my neck and my forehead; I felt a little sick.

Lucky stopped at the doorway, turned back to me and said, “Stanley, let me ask you something. If you had the chance to put me away for life, would you do it?” I said, “Look, you already told me you know where I live. You know where my father lives. I don’t know who you are. I don’t know where we are. And you say you’re gonna release me unharmed? I don’t think this has to go any further.”

So nobody says a word. Lucky gets out of the car. Until a minute later, I hear the trunk opening. And then I heard the sound of duct tape being pulled off of a roll. And it’s that point that I was positive that my life was over. I was sure they were gonna kill me right then and there.

END OF THE LINE

Stan Alpert | Kidnapping Victim: Suddenly, your whole life flashes in front of you: You’ll never call somebody. You’ll never watch a movie or eat a meal. You’ll never meet somebody with the hope of getting married.

All those things that make up life, for me in that moment when I heard the duct tape pulling off the roll, that was over. And that was really the most horrific feeling anybody can imagine.

So, a second later, I heard Lucky applying the tape to the plastic that was covering the broken window on his car. And then it slowly dawned on me that I had just made a big mistake. Overnight, somebody had broken into his car, smashed the passenger side window. So he was just fixing the plastic.

They kept driving and drove for, I don’t know, maybe another 10 or 15 minutes, and then they stopped the car again and the guy to my right says, “Should we give him $20 for a cab?” Of course, it was $20 of my own money. But that sounded courteous. But they might have been tricking me, I really didn’t know.

That same guy opened the door and… he took me outside, and I’m still blindfolded, and he said, “Put your hands up.”And he says, “You just walk.” So, I took a step, and then another step. And eventually, I think I can very gently hear the Lexus pulling away. So I said, “Are you there?” And nobody answered and I ripped the blindfold off, and I spun around, and they were gone. And that was the happiest moment of my life. It was ecstasy. It was pure ecstasy.

I just ran for it. I recognized that it was Prospect Park. I grew up there; I was there all the time… So I was rushing to find a business or restaurant, something like that where I could go in and make a call.

Flynn: When the phone call came in, that’s when the energy in the room sort of went from zero to 60. Just stay where you are, stay where you are.

The precinct was crazy. It was abuzz with energy. They debriefed him and they started typing up the report. As she was typing it we were pulling it off, she would get half a page typed and we would yell, print it. She’d print it and then we would run with it.

THE HUNT

Flynn: We had one group of people, you know, running down, you know, Ren and Sen. We had another group that was looking for Lucky, looking for that Lexus. We had people looking for the prostitutes.

We ran Mercedes, that nickname, through the NYPD database. Found a young female who’d been arrested a number of times for prostitution.

David Biddiscombe | FBI Special Agent: Our job was to try and see if we could locate Mercedes and interview her.

I’d seen a number of pictures of her from, you know, her rap sheets. There’s these two girls standing in front of this building. …as soon as we walk up, I recognize Mercedes right from the pictures. So I actually say to her, “Hey Mercedes, how ya doing? Hey listen, we gotta talk to you for a minute.”

When you do an interview with somebody, what you want to do is you want to basically elevate the level of threat towards them, which would make them feel like they’re in a world of trouble.

You have no idea. I said, “You and your f---ing friends have basically done one of the worst things you could possibly ever do - you kidnapped a U.S. attorney. And I said, “I’m an FBI agent.” And I said, “And if you’ve ever been in trouble before, you have no f---ing idea what kind of trouble you’re going to be in now.”

Flynn: So she gave up everything that she knew. You know, and she started rambling off Lucky and Ren and Sen. And all of a sudden, it was like, oh, my gosh. You know, everything that Stan had told us she - she confirmed for us. She said she had felt sorry for Stan and had offered him oral sex because it was his birthday and she felt bad for him.”

Based on the information that she provided, we had Lucky’s cell phone number. Every time he turned his phone on we were able to see what cell tower it was pinging off of. So we were able to sort of narrow down where he was. So, we had agents and detectives out in Brooklyn.

Bill Glynn | NYPD Detective [Retired]: A lotta police work is boring. But when you get to the hunt, there’s nothing like it, nothing like it. I’ve always loved the hunt.

The Lexus had a broken window, we were told. But we also had a plate number. And it was about 9 o’clock at night when the Lexus drove by us. So, that’s when our hearts started beating and we gave pursuit.

You know, or you believe, that they’re all armed and you know you just have to be careful at this point, because we just don’t know what’s gonna be the next move on their part.

We pull ‘em over. We’re on both sides of the car. We all have our guns drawn and we’re telling them we wanna see their hands. We wanna see all their hands. The perps we pulled out of the car were Lucky and Sen.

We cuffed each one of them… and we got into our cars and we all drove back to Manhattan. Ren was picked up by a couple of other detectives probably not much later.

Criminals have the idea when they come into an interrogation room, they’re gonna outsmart me. My feeling is if they had brains, all right, we would be in trouble.

THE PARTY’S OVER


Bill Glynn, NYPD Detective, Retired: My end goal is to solicit the truth. I wanna know the truth. If I have to cry or laugh in an interrogation room to get the truth, I’ll do that. If I have to be their friend, I’ll do that.

The first interview I conduct is with the defendant, Lucky. 

He kept saying, “I didn’t do anything wrong, I know my rights.” And he says, “And I’m - I’m havin’ a lot of trouble with remembering… even what’s going on in the last few days.” He said, “I had a very, very bad time.” He says, “It really screwed up my mind.”

I said, “Well, why don’t you tell me about your bad time?” So he went on to tell me how two male blacks came over to him, approached him, pulled out guns and forced him into his car. And while they were drivin’ him around, they brought him to different banks and gave him an ATM card and they made him withdraw money. I said, “You gotta be kiddin’ me.” I said, “That’s horrible.”

Ren or Sen told him to go back to Brooklyn, to an apartment they had over in Brooklyn. And he went back to the apartment there and he said, “My sole objective here was to calm Stanley down. I could see he was a little bit nervous.”

He said, “I really liked Stanley, I thought he was a nice fella and I felt really bad about him.” He said that Ren and Sen were bad guys and that they were more than willing to kill this guy. And he insisted that they had to let him go.

I tell you, it brought tears to my eyes that he was such a concerning human being and that he was so concerned about Stanley. Once I had that, I had really more than I needed.

Richard Meade | FBI Special Agent: Louis walked into the precinct and surrendered, and said to the desk sergeant, “I understand you’re looking for me,” and told him who he was.

Glynn: Right away, Louis didn’t strike me as being very intelligent. And I said to him, “Louis, I got Lucky, I got Ren, I got Sen, I got Mercedes… And they’re all sayin’ you’re the ring-leader. You’re the guy that set this up for Stanley.” I said, “Don’t say a word.” I said, “Before anything, I want to know are you gonna be on my team or their team?” And he looked at me and said, “I wanna be on your team.” I said, “You got it.”

He said, “I didn’t do anything. He said, “It was my apartment. All I did was sit with Stanley… I had nothing to do with the kidnapping, all right. And I really shouldn’t even be here.”


Glynn: If criminals had brains, we’d be out of business.

It’s 12 or 15 hours later. Now we got everybody wrapped up. Now we have everybody in a big holding cell. And I’m on the other side of the squad room, and I got my foot up on the desk, and I’m smoking a cigarette and I hear, “Psst, psst.” I’m lookin around, I hear, “Psst.” And I looked across the room, and it’s Louis, and he’s got his face in between the bars. So I go walkin across the room, and I said, “What’s the matter?” He says, “I wanna know, am I still on your team? I said, “Yes, you are.” And with that I fell right to the floor (laughs).

Kathleen Flynn | FBI Special Agent: When they picked him on the street, they had no idea that this mild-mannered man was going to turn out to be an amazing, amazing witness.

David Burroughs | FBI Special Agent: He truly had to have a survival instinct in order to get through an ordeal like that.

Glynn: He was great, he was the best.

Burroughs: He was able to joke with them. He was respectful. He was polite. 

Meade: The things that Stan remembered, the evidence he gave us, was critical in solving this case. Absolutely critical.

Stan Alpert: They eventually all decided to plead guilty. The girls got shorter sentences and the men got substantial time.

Glynn I personally believe that they got what they deserved. There was no doubt about it. We have the right to be able to go from point A to point B without being accosted by people with guns and dragged off and held somewhere against your will.

A WAKE-UP CALL

Alpert: Looking back, the post-kidnapping part of my life is really better than the pre-kidnapping part of my life. I think I learned some important lessons.

These days, I live life more fully. A year after it happened, I got myself a dog, which I’d wanted for a long time. It’s a little silly, but I went out and bought myself a little Cabrio convertible. Just recently, God finally blessed me and had me meet somebody who I fell in love with. ...I managed to get married, which was one of the happiest moments in my life.

And so in many ways, this kidnapping was a wakeup call to me. It made me realize how precious life is.

Lucky, Ren, Sen and Louis received sentences ranging from 15 years to life. Mercedes received six months; Mystic was never charged.

Stanley Alpert has written a book about his ordeal called “The Birthday Party.” Click to read an excerpt.