This story is reprinted from The Fresno State Alumni Association as written by Marisa Mata. Originally published in the May 2017 issue of the Fresno State Alumni Association Newsletter.
It’s 2 a.m. FBI Agent Roger Myers has just been woken by a phone call from Nashville’s airport security. A plane has been hijacked. Hostages have been taken.
The plane lands in Florida to refuel, and is met by a group of FBI agents. The hijacker’s demands are refused. The plane is disabled by gunfire. The hijacker is frustrated. He takes his own life, after killing two hostages. A court case is brought against the FBI in 1971. The FBI director says it’s time to create a crisis negotiations program. He asks Thomas Strentz to develop and direct the program.
Strentz was born in Chicago, to a couple that didn’t finish high school. After seeing the effects of World War II, Strentz’s parents stressed the importance of education to him and his brother, who both now hold doctorate degrees.
Strentz said, “After the war they would say, ‘Immigrants only have their education, even Hitler couldn’t take that from them. And now [in the US] they’ve got wonderful opportunities.’ They were always incredibly supportive, and education has always been a powerful force in my life.”
After struggling in school with dyslexia and graduating from high school in 1955, Strentz enlisted in the Marines as a way to take a break from school while serving his country. He did, however, take courses at Fresno City College before becoming active in the Marines in 1957. Strentz decided to refocus on his education on 1959.
“After being in the Marines, stepping back, watching life and seeing what mattered, it reaffirmed my intent to go back to college.”
Strentz graduated in 1961 with a degree in social studies, and began working at the Fresno County Welfare Department. He returned to Fresno State in 1964 for a Masters in social work, earning his degree and reentering the workforce two years later. But jobs in this field were disappearing because of budget cuts, and Strentz found himself in search of another job in 1968.
Strentz was told by a neighbor, who was a police officer, about job openings in the FBI. He decided to apply. A year later he was working on criminal and security cases for the FBI in San Antonio, Texas.
He was relocated to the field office in Washington DC in 1970, and stayed there for three years. During this time Strentz was one of the founding members of the Behavioral Science Unit at the newly opened academy. Strentz then moved to the FBI’s office in Quantico, Virginia.
“After the FBI was successfully sued in Downs v. US, I was selected to develop a hostage negotiations program for the FBI. I did the required research and then designed, developed and directed the FBI hostage/crisis negotiations program from 1976 until 1985.”
“I spent many months in Australia, where I helped the New South Wales Police design, develop and run a national program for Australian crisis negotiators. I have written three books and over 50 articles on crisis negotiations, hostage survival and profiling.”
Since retiring in 1990, Strentz has been honored with a Top Dog Award from Fresno State and has continued to teach about crisis management and negotiations and hostage survival around the world. He has most recently lectured in Hong Kong and South Korea.
“Every hostage taker has a story to tell, and you’re typically going to be dealing with criminals, anti-social personalities, paranoid schizophrenics, suicidal subjects and the politically motived. I looked back at old therapy textbooks to see how to deal with those different personalities and also consulted with my MSW instructors, who were extremely helpful…And I credit the MSW program at Fresno State for giving me the education to help me in this negotiation program. Lord knows how many lives were saved because of it.”