Hostage crisis ends at Gateway Center, Downtown
By Margaret Harding, Bobby Kerlik and Jeremy Boren
Published: Friday, Sept. 21, 2012, 9:28 a.m.
A mentally disturbed McKeesport man who told Facebook friends during a standoff on Friday that he wanted to die released a hostage unharmed from a Downtown skyscraper after a six-hour ordeal that brought part of the Golden Triangle to a halt.
Klein Michael Thaxton, 22, threatened to shoot people, and police worried he had a bomb; however, he was armed with just a kitchen knife and hammer when he chose a random victim to hold hostage, police said.
“He was suicidal, he was despondent,” said Pittsburgh police Officer Matt Lackner, who negotiated with Thaxton by phone. “His primary issues were failure to find employment and the break-up of a relationship.”
It was the latest in a pattern of violent, erratic behavior for Thaxton, who was kicked out of the Army, struggled with mental illness, had multiple runs-ins with police and served time in the Allegheny County Jail in the past two years, according to court records, family and friends.
“I'm just so relieved,” said his aunt, Stephanie Moore of Knoxville. “I just didn't want anything to happen to him or anybody he had in there.”
Thaxton walked into C.W. Breitsman Associates on the 16th floor of Three Gateway Center about 8:15 a.m. holding something that looked like a walkie-talkie, witnesses said. He surrendered about 1:50 p.m., freeing company owner Charles Breitsman, 58, of Ligonier.
“God bless that no one was injured,” police Chief Nate Harper said.
When police led Thaxton from police headquarters about 5:25 p.m., he told reporters, “I'm going to jail, bro.” He declined to answer questions on his way to the county jail, where he was held on charges of kidnapping, aggravated assault and terroristic threats.
Thaxton woke up “in an evil mood” and biked away from a Beechview halfway house about 3 a.m., Harper said. He ended up outside Three Gateway Center, where he ate a candy bar and walked inside when he saw that security didn't check identification.
“This is totally random,” Harper said. “The only reason he went in was because women were freely walking in.”
Thaxton didn't need a security card to get onto the 16th floor. He passed by an office and decided he would “victimize” Charles Breitsman after seeing an iPhone, computer and TV in his office, Harper said. They wrestled over the knife before Thaxton regained control of it and threatened to kill Breitsman, Harper said.
Lackner began speaking to Thaxton by phone about 9:30 a.m. with help from Lt. Jason Lando and Officer Ed Cunningham. Although a criminal complaint said Thaxton threatened to kill his hostage about 50 times, Lackner said he began to think it was unlikely Thaxton would hurt Breitsman because he could hear their conversations.
“He was calling him by his first name,” Lackner said. “He was saying things like, ‘Charlie and I are cool.' I could hear Charlie on the speaker phone, and he was relaxed.”
Thaxton asked officers to shoot him several times, Lackner said, and also focused on a break-up with a girlfriend. Police played Thaxton a recorded message from her and negotiated a deal. Thaxton released Breitsman, surrendered and, once he was in custody, he saw her face to face, Lackner said.
Thaxton was unemployed and struggling since his release from a halfway house in Centre County in June, said his uncle, Parris Thaxton, 44, of State College.
“There's stress in everyone's life, and he just went about dealing with it the wrong way,” Parris Thaxton said. “I think it was a big cry for help.”
Thaxton's relatives hugged and cried when they learned he was safe. His mother, Ronda Thaxton, said she spoke with him during the negotiation.
“I told him I love him,” Ronda Thaxton said. “I told him we could fix this. We can get him the help that he needs.”
Klein Thaxton's ex-girlfriend said he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, but she was shocked to learn from police that he had taken a hostage.
He may be “reacting in the wrong way to the pressure, to the stress. He's not a violent person,” Parris Thaxton said. Court records indicate otherwise.
Police charged Klein Thaxton with robbery, simple assault, receiving stolen property and other crimes in connection with a carjacking in July 2011 that ended when police arrested him in Uptown after a chase.
As part of a deal with prosecutors in which Thaxton pleaded guilty, Thaxton's military service and mental illness qualified him for treatment in a Veterans Court rehabilitation program. He agreed to receive inpatient treatment in Pyramid Healthcare in Wilkinsburg, a behavioral clinic.
Thaxton was a private in the Army. He enlisted in December 2008 and received an administrative discharge in June 2010. He served as a combat engineer based out of Fort Riley, Kansas, records show. He was not deployed during his service. Within weeks of departing Fort Riley, Thaxton was in trouble.
McKeesport police Officer Bryan Morris arrested Thaxton in June 2010 because the “actor was very uncooperative” during a fracas on Ravine Street and they thought he might be a danger to himself, court records show.
He pleaded guilty and the next day was arrested by McKeesport Officer Sidney G. Summers for fighting. He pleaded guilty again and spent one day in the county jail.
Ronda Thaxton said she last saw her son a couple of weeks ago. He came to her house, washed clothes and spent the night.
“Being a mother, I felt in my heart that something was wrong, that he was going through some issue, but I don't know what.”
Klein Thaxton posted to his Facebook page throughout the incident, and police were monitoring it, Harper said. On the page, Thaxton listed himself as having attended several high schools, including Schenley, Carrick and McKeesport, and said he graduated from Triangle Tech trade school.
“This life im livn rite now i dnt want anymore ive lost everything,” Thaxton posted just after 10 a.m.
Several people responded with posts telling Thaxton to call them and that they loved him and help was available.
Police shut off portions of Downtown, and nearby buildings kept workers inside as the drama unfolded. They began reopening streets and buildings about 2:30 p.m.
A woman who works at C.W. Breitsman ran into another office on the 16th floor and yelled “call 911” when Thaxton walked inside, witnesses said. The woman said her father told her to get security when she saw a man in his office holding something that looked like a walkie-talkie, said Penny Thomas, who works in another office on the 16th floor.
Workers locked the door and turned off the lights until security arrived, Kathi Dvorak said.
“It was almost like you couldn't comprehend what was happening,” Dvorak said. “I'm still shaking inside.”
Harper said SWAT units contained Thaxton in a suite and allowed workers from evacuated offices to return to floors below the 16th.
Workers said security at the front door is light. Those who enter with a confident air can walk past the security desk without being questioned.
“There's no security at all. You just waltz in. That's a problem,” said Jim Stewart, who works on the 16th floor.
A statement from Debra Donley, general manager of Hertz Gateway Center, said Gateway Center “is committed to safety.”
She said Gateway worked directly with Harper to address the safety of workers and that crisis counselors will be in the building lobby at 7 a.m. Monday.
Staff writers Carl Prine, Brian Bowling, Adam Smeltz, and Adam Brandolph contributed to this report. Margaret Harding, Bobby Kerlik and Jeremy Boren are staff writers for Trib Total Media.
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