"Stop government experimentation!"
Ralph Tortorici was a paranoid schizophrenic who took hostages at the State University of New York at Albany on December 14, 1994.
Tortorici was born sometime in 1968 at Albany Medical Center. As a child, he was intelligent, athletic (even being a part of the varsity wrestling team at the seventh grade), a fan of chess, and very popular. In his teenage years, however, he became very aggressive and antagonistic towards family members. In his twenties, the first signs of his schizophrenia began to show, in which he believed the police and several family members were following him through several microchips implanted in his brain, teeth, and penis; in reality of the latter, Tortorici had a deformed urethra that required three surgeries to fix. After the third surgery, Tortorici went to join the National Guard and was recommended for Officer Candidate School; he was later honorably discharged. Sometime in 1990, Tortorici entered SUNY-Albany and studied in the fields of world religion, government, and psychology, which fueled his delusion of a worldwide conspiracy. In August 1992, when he was 24, Tortorici went to the University Health Center at SUNY-Albany to complain of a microchip in his penis and asking to be given an X-ray, to which he was referred to the Capital District Psychiatric Center by a psychiatrist. Four months later, after being released, he went to police barracks in a nearby town to confront authorities about an alleged microchip implanted into his teeth; again, he was referred to the same psychiatric center. As a result of his delusions and increasing instability, Tortorici became addicted to drugs, including marijuana. His mother referred him to the Albany County Medical Center, where an evaluation diagnosed him as having cocaine intoxication, suicidal ideation, and depression. On November 29, he was arrested for minor cocaine possession.
The SUNY-Albany Siege
On December 14, 1994, about ten months after his referral to the Albany County Medical Center, Tortorici, then 26 years old and a senior at the school, snapped and went to SUNY-Albany, wearing a blue sweatshirt and camouflage fatigues. He was armed with a .270-caliber Remington rifle and a hunting knife, and also carried two dozen rounds of ammunition, all of which he acquired through unspecified means. He had the rifle and ammunition stored inside a duffel bag, and the knife concealed in his belt. He, apparently at random, entered a lecture hall, where Professor Hans Pohlsander was teaching a class of 35 students about the history of ancient Greece. Just after 9:00 a.m., he took everyone inside hostage after Pohlsander approached him and asked if he was a student in the class. At the time, the university had been under fire for its lax security measures, and as a result, some hostages initially believed it was a surprise test of the internal security system. Tortorici ordered several students to barricade the doors to a subterranean room with desks and chairs before forcing 25-year-old Scott Gushlaw to squirt a fire hose into a hallway outside of the classroom, presumably a means to slow down responding tactical units via slippery floor. In the first few minutes of the siege, he released two students when they began crying hysterically. This was soon followed by the release of Pohlsander and three more students, whom he instructed to deliver messages to President Bill Clinton, several other officials, and local news reporters. Pohlsander promptly alerted campus police, and dozens of city and state police officials responded to the scene at about 9:30 a.m.
As the siege quickly unfolded, classes were canceled, students milled about at the scene, and the university telephone switchboard malfunctioned due to excessive calls from worried parents. Three hostage negotiators were eventually deployed to talk with Tortorici, who demanded to speak to President Clinton, the Governor of New York Mario Cuomo, the university's president, and financial-aid officials, but made no other specific demands. He threatened to kill the hostages if the demands were not met. At one point during the siege, Tortorici shot at two of the negotiators, but missed both. At another point, he stated his belief that doctors implanted a computer chip in his brain during his birth as part of an experiment. He was described by hostages as being agitated when speaking to the negotiators, but calm and lighthearted towards the students, offering them cigarettes, demanding food for them, and setting up a corner of the classroom as a latrine. However, he nervously eyed one student, 19-year-old Jason McEnaney of Hicksville, New York, to the point where he repeatedly threatened to kill him. At around 11:30 a.m., he separated him from two other students and ordered him to stand behind one of the barricades. McEnaney, fearing for his life, grabbed Tortorici's rifle and wrestled it from his hands, but not before a stray bullet hit him in the upper leg, genital area, and abdomen. As Tortorici reached for his hunting knife, several other students subdued him and held him to a wall as officers flooded the classroom to make the arrest. McEnaney survived his gunshot wound. As he was taken away by police, Tortorici shouted at onlooking students, "Stop government experimentation!"
Institutionalization, Trial and Suicide
"I am descended from the Roman Empire. I have Roman Empire genes in me for many, many thousands of years. ...You see that the Jews hate the Roman Empire because under the Roman Empire they faced a lot of persecution."
As preparations for the trial were made, there was a preliminary issue over Tortorici's competency to stand trial due to his obvious problems with mental health, since it was required under New York state law for a defendant to have the ability to assist in his defense and to understand the charges being held against him. Tortorici was soon judged incompetent by a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation, which diagnosed him as having a "delusional disorder". Another evaluation that followed judged that he suffered from a mental illness and that his paranoia was consistent with the behavior of a typical paranoid schizophrenic. As a result, he was committed to the Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Center. During his stay, he repeatedly refused medication offered to him, and he was described by staff as being delusional and aggressive. Suddenly, on March 3, 1995, Tortorici's behavior changed, and he cooperated fully with the hospital rules. Furthermore, he no longer held delusional beliefs, although a nurse stated that she observed him "responding to hallucinations". Later that month, a Mid-Hudson psychiatrist judged that Tortorici had fulfilled the state requirements of competency, writing, "[T]he patient showed steady improvement in all areas in a rather short time. For the most part, the patient has come to realize that his belief that the government ... had implanted a microchip in his brain ... is a delusion. However, at times he shows some residual doubt." However, it was to be noted that the threshold for determining competency was extremely low, to the point where the judgment that a defendant was deemed mentally unfit to stand trial was rare.
Nevertheless, the trial began for Tortorici, with the prosecution aiming to develop a rebuttal to the psychiatric defense, and the defense seeking to gather a series of psychiatrists to support claims that Tortorici was insane at the time of the siege. Two days into jury selection, Tortorici was examined by Dr. Lawrence Siegel, who was hired by prosecutor Cheryl Coleman to determine whether he was responsible for his actions during the siege. Siegel judged that Tortorici was acutely psychotic, even during the evaluation, and wrote a nine-page letter to Coleman concerning the results. In it, he stated, "...Tortorici is currently exhibiting signs and symptoms of acute psychosis. ...An opinion concerning his mental state at the time of the alleged offense is deferred until such time as he can be examined while in a competent state." He also recommended postponing the trial, but the request was turned down by the judge. The trial officially began on January 3, 1996, with Tortorici being absent after the judge allowed him to waive his right to be present in the courtroom. On January 16, after eight days of testimony, his case was handed over to the jury, who found Tortorici guilty on four counts of kidnapping, four of aggravated assault, one of first-degree assault, and one of first-degree criminal use of a firearm. A month later, Tortorici returned to the courtroom to be sentenced; there, he gave a rambling statement about him being "descended from the Roman Empire", forcing the judge to remove him. He was ultimately sentenced to 20-47 years in prison, the maximum punishment under New York law for the charges filed against him. His original parole date was October 2, 2011.
An appeal was filed, citing that the judge had failed to act on Dr. Siegel's assessment, but it was turned down on April 1998. The next January, the case was appealed again to the State Court of Appeals, which also turned it down. On May, Tortorici's appellate attorney filed to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, and a decision to take it up would have been made on October. On July 1996, months after his sentencing, Tortorici attempted to commit suicide by hanging himself with a bed-sheet. However, he survived and spent the following three years being shuttled between prison and temporary stays at a psychiatric facility. After spending a year at the Central New York Psychiatric Center, Tortorici, 31 years old at the time, appeared to improve psychologically. On July 14, 1999, he was taken to Sullivan Correctional Facility, which was one of the prison system's nine general-confinement facilities for men offered "level one" care by the state's Office of Mental Health. There, he was seen daily by mental-health staff and received weekly treatment services. On August 10, nineteen months after his release from the Central New York Psychiatric Center, he was found hanging in his cell with a bed-sheet at 4:48 a.m. by a Correction Officer. Tortorici was pronounced dead in the prison infirmary at 6:47 a.m. by the county coroner.
During the hostage crisis, Tortorici held his captives at gunpoint with a .270-caliber Remington rifle, which he later used while attempting to kill Jason McEnaney. He was also armed with a hunting knife that he attempted to use on the students.
- December 14, 1994: The State University of New York at Albany siege:
- A total of 36 people held hostage. Named ones are:
- Jason McEnaney, 19 (attempted, but survived; shot once in the upper leg, genitals, and abdomen)
- Hans Pohlsander (professor)
- Lisa Cramer, 18
- Scott Gushlaw, 25
- Robert Urban
- Two unnamed hostage negotiators (attempted; shot at once, but missed)
- A total of 36 people held hostage. Named ones are:
On Criminal Minds
Tortorici was mentioned in the Season One episode Derailed when the BAU compared him to Ted Bryar, the episode's prominent unsub, who appears to have been loosely based on him. Like Tortorici, Ted was a paranoid schizophrenic who took hostages under the delusion that the U.S. government was watching him via a microchip implant under his skin.
- Frontline study on Tortorici
- Department of Corrections and Community Supervision article on Tortorici's suicide
- New York Times article on Tortorici and the hostage crisis
- ↑ State University of New York