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Spring 2012

Anatomy of a Kidnapping

Dean of TTUHSC Medical School chronicles abduction in new book

by John Davis

Anatomy of a Kidnapping

For a few moments, he stared into the abyssal blackness of the gun barrel pointed in his face.

Dr. Steven L. Berk, dean of the Medical School at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, admitted that at the time, he didn’t know the difference between a shotgun and a rifle.

Not that it mattered. All that mattered was life or death on that bright Sunday morning in March 2005, when dogs barked, birds chirped and children played in yards. An ordinary Sunday in upscale suburban Amarillo, save for the stranger barking orders at him and threatening his life with deadly force.

Berk wrote about his four-hour ordeal “Anatomy of a Kidnapping: A Doctor’s Story,” which recently was published by Texas Tech University Press. In it, he describes how he used his training as a physician to interact with the man who’d abducted him.

“I was not the usual crime victim, and quickly I saw my captor as no ordinary criminal,” Berk wrote. “I saw his struggle through the eyes of a doctor. If he was addicted to drugs, I had treated the drug addict. If he was a victim of abuse as a child, I had intervened in such abuse. If he was psychotic or sociopathic, such behavior I understood as part of the disease process. Unfortunately, I had learned the consequences of trauma and violence from a big-city emergency room.¬†... But fortunately, however, I had also learned aequanimitas, the ability for physicians to stay calm and rational at all times.”

In 2005, Dr. Steven Berk was kidnapped in Amarillo by a dangerous criminal. Berk chronicles his terrifying ordeal in his new book, “Anatomy of a Kidnapping: A Doctor’s Story.” In the book, Dr. Berk credits his understanding of Sir William Osler’s treatise on aequanimitas with his ability to keep his family safe, establish rapport with his kidnapper and bring his captor to justice.

Listen to Dr. Berk read an excerpt from “Anatomy of a Kidnapping.”

Learn more about the book at anatomyofakidnapping.com.

Aequanimitas was a phrase used by Dr. William Osler, a leading medical instructor at the University of Philadelphia who spoke of the need for equanimity for physicians in his farewell address before becoming physician-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.¬†This became a credo for modern medicine. The Latin word blinked in Berk’s mind as the sound of his son’s guitar twanged from the basement, and thoughts of his wife’s imminent return from church made the situation even more dire.

Only $500 lay between keeping his life intact and his family safe. And so, he agreed. He agreed to act nonchalantly as his son left for church. He agreed to drive convicted felon and drug addict Jack Lindsey Jordan away from his home and family to an ATM, despite the fact that he didn’t know the PIN to access his account.

“I had never actually been to an ATM machine, and I didn’t know my pin because Shirley did all the banking,” Berk said. “He found that hard to believe, so eventually he became very angry and said that he had abducted the stupidest person in the world. He didn’t give up on the PIN number. He wanted me to call my wife, who was at church, to give me the PIN number. The last thing I wanted throughout the whole ordeal was to be involved with a confrontation with the police, because this was a very, very desperate man. I told him that it would be very suspicious to call Shirley and ask for the PIN number. He said ‘No you just tell her you are going out for the big day with the boys, and you need about $500 for beer.’

“I don’t think she would’ve believed that.”

Berk prefaced that his book is not to be used as a primer to handling a hostage situation correctly, and he’s been told by experts that many of the tactics he chose weren’t ideal. Instead, his book chronicles the insights he had during and after the event about life and death, the practice of medicine, the physician/patient relationship and the thinking processes doctors use do deal with a crisis situation.

His story will appear on Biography Channel’s “I Survived . . . ” in four to six months.

After a speaking engagement, we sat down with Dr. Berk to find out how life had changed in the seven years since he was dumped, unharmed, off of Interstate 40 in cotton fields west of Amarillo.

One-on-one with Dr. Berk

Q: When you were driving around, where was his weapon?

A: OK, for most of the time we were riding around, he was in the back seat with the gun in my back. When we changed seats, the gun was over on his driver side, which brings up several other issues with the idea of what you’re supposed to do when you are kidnapped. Of course, a lot of my colleagues–particularly those who are much larger than me–said that in that closed setting I could’ve fought for that gun. In that close setting, it’s hard to think about that. I now know he had experience with fights in prison. I’ve been in one fight in middle school when somebody tried to throw me into the ladies bathroom, so I don’t think that would’ve been a good idea. Then there’s jumping out of the car, which you do think about, especially on the passenger side. But by the time that became an option when we were going from Amarillo to Bushland, the car was moving too fast, and I didn’t think that would work. I think I was fortunate to keep a good dialogue, and I saw his temper and tried to keep him calm. After the initial gun to my head, I thought I might be able to survive this. I think in general, each situation is unique and each person has to figure out what’s best for them. It’s probably different for how big you are and if you are a male or a female.”

Q: Unlike many victims who take their experience very seriously, you tend to look at it with a little bit of levity. Is that just a coping mechanism or did you find humor in some events after the fact?

A: I think maybe both. I remember early on making too much of a joke about it, and that was probably a coping mechanism. But now when I look back on what happened, there is a humorous side to the bizarre nature of this meeting between myself and this individual.

Q: How would you compare the experiences you’ve had throughout your career to this abduction experience?

A: I think the process is not that different between being a doctor in a medical emergency and having a situation like this, because it’s the same process of staying calm and thinking rationally. A lot of the process is the same, and that’s why I like to use the term aequanimitas.

Q: Aequanimitas–was that something you were actually thinking at the time, or is that something you used in the book to describe what you were doing?

A: It was both, because as a professor, I was teaching Osler’s teachings to the students during emergencies and during difficult situations. So that was something that was always close to my thinking on a day-to-day basis.

Dr. Steven Berk

Dr. Steven L. Berk is dean of the School of Medicine and executive vice president and provost at TTUHSC.

Q: In the beginning, when you had a shotgun pointed at your face, you were panicking internally. Throughout your ordeal, was there ever a time when you were able to see this person as a human and know he was also seeing you as a human so you could both let your guard down a little or at least feel a little more comfortable in that situation?

A: For the most part yes. It was back and forth, and there were times when he was really telling me about his life and what had happened with his wife and his mistakes. Those made me feel like things were going very well. But it had its ups and downs. He had a couple of temper tantrums, and that made me realize that he could do the wrong thing at any time. When I looked at his hand and saw teeth marks on his fingers, I knew that he had hit somebody sometime fairly recently. So it was on and off. Sometimes feeling comfortable about things, but also recognizing he had a temper and had a history of violence. In the beginning, it was petrifying. Your heart is beating so fast. We are wired to kind of do the wrong thing in an emergency. You know, you have to overcome that initial physiological response.

Q: How do you remember coming to terms that day with the fact that you could die?

A: Well, you do think about various things left undone. For a big part of this though, I wondered how my son gets out of this. It’s bad enough if you are going to be killed that day, but you certainly don’t want your son killed. You definitely think about your family first. I feel that’s a victim’s natural first step is ‘how do we make sure nobody else gets involved in this situation.’

Q: When you saw him in the beginning, were you diagnosing him at all? Were you noticing signs of withdrawal from methamphetamine or anything like that?

A: I was thinking about that, but there were no signs of acute intoxication. He was telling me that he was an amphetamine user, so I was thinking of somebody who had potential for violence from those facts he had given me. And then, I did think of this idea of a sociopath who wasn’t that upset about the crimes he was committing.

Q: How did you think about him as a person in the beginning, and how do you think about him now? Is there anger or animosity, or is it more of a diagnosis of a sick patient, and is that how you still see it now?

A: I had a certain element of sympathy during the kidnapping because he was telling me about how badly his life had gone and his mistakes. He was telling me how he accidentally killed his wife, which was the only person he really ever loved. There was some true doctor-patient back-and-forth trying to understand ‘why are you doing this now, what led you to this.’ Now I would have to say after the trial, there were a lot of other victims that testified during the sentencing phase, and you lost any kind of sympathy pretty fast. He had no repentance at the trial phase, so I would have to say my opinion of him deteriorated during the week of the trial. The more I found out about him the less sympathetic I was.

Q: Do you feel that writing the book helped in you healing from the event?

A: It may have. I don’t think I wrote the book as a way of dealing with the issue, but I think it probably helped put things in perspective.

Q: How do you think the Steven Berk of seven years ago compares to today?

A: There was a period of time when I did not know if I was going to make it through that day or not. And then, when you get that new lease on life, you’re not hurt, you’re not injured, nobody in your family has been affected, then you have a new appreciation. All of us have a tendency to just assume that one day we will be the same after the other, and it reminds you that if there are things you want to do, then get them done.

John Davis is a Senior Writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing at Texas Tech University.

You can purchase “Anatomy of a Kidnapping” through the Texas Tech University Press website or at Amazon.com.

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Nov 24, 2015