by Karen Brune Mathis
Almost seven years ago, on the morning of Aug. 4, 2004, a visitor asked to see Rogers Towers lawyer Christopher Hazelip in his Riverplace Tower office.
Armed with weaponry, John Knight held Hazelip hostage for about two hours in what still was widely known as the Gulf Life Tower.
Among his demands was that County Judge Sharon Tanner, who had presided over a case involving him, resign.
Hazelip, the 1999-2000 president of The Jacksonville Bar Association, and Tanner were not associated before that day but lived through the events to talk about it.
Knight, now in prison, had also delivered a DVD to media that day claiming that he “had a woman judge discriminate against me for no better reason than I’m a man.”
Hazelip said Knight chose him because he had heard of Hazelip’s name and knew that the Rogers Towers firm represented Gate Petroleum Co. and that the mayor’s father owned Gate. Knight thought Mayor John Peyton could force Tanner to resign.
Tanner and Hazelip recounted the experience in an interview and also shared their story with the Christian Legal Society.
The interview and presentation focused on the day of their hostage crisis and the role their faith played in the confluence of events.
Here is a summary of their story.
Hazelip: I came into the office when I was not supposed to. I was on vacation, technically, but came back a day early, and we just made better time coming out from Missouri where my kids were at camp. I decided I would take advantage of the time when I was supposed to be out of office — no one knew I was here — to catch up on correspondence and things like that.
I think it was around 9:30 or so, but I got the message that someone was here to see me, and they were from the Justice Department. So that was very unusual, that they would even ask for me, because no one knew I was in the office supposedly, but then secondly, when you hear, as a lawyer, that someone from the Justice Department is here to see you, it’s one of those calls you need to take.
Back in that day, there was a looser policy for bringing clients or visitors into our offices than there is now, and so my secretary retrieved Mr. Knight and brought him into my office. I introduced myself to him. I said, ‘to what do I owe an unexpected visit from the Justice Department?’ when I shook his hand, and my secretary by that time had closed the door and he said, ‘I lied, and I’m here, I’ve got a bomb, I’ve got a gun, and you have 90 minutes to do what I say and not a second more, or else you’re gonna die and a lot of people are gonna die.’
That began a dialog that he and I had over the course of about two hours. Once I realized this was serious, and it was a grave situation, I wanted to ask, ‘what can I do to help, what’s your problem? Maybe I can help you.’
I saw that there was an issue regarding a case that he had had, and he had been in front of Judge Tanner before, and he felt the whole system had failed him, and he had a series of demands.
People don’t talk about the fact that not only did he demand her resignation, but he demanded money, he wanted $1 million from the City. He had a litany of things that he was expecting.
After we had some back and forth about how in the world I could effect the resignation of a judge, he had thought all that through, and said, ‘Well, you all are Rogers, Towers, you do work for Gate, and Gate is the mayor’s father’s business, you have access to the mayor,’ and I said ‘The mayor doesn’t appoint judges or have them resign,’ but nonetheless he had thought it through pretty well, he had a number I could call.
I tried City Hall, to call the mayor, and he wasn’t in, so my time was ticking away. Then he gave me another number at Gate, and they were able to find him. He had done some homework and some planning of this thing out.
Of course we didn’t know about the video that he had sent to the media outlets, I began to see that he was a very hurting person, very desperate, and so we talked.
We talked very earnestly about life and faith and death and all of those things, and that kind of conversation took place while we began a dialogue with the mayor.
The mayor called me back after we had called Gate, and they got a message to him, and found him in Ponte Vedra where he was having a staff retreat.
The mayor called me and Mr. Knight, and that began a one-way conversation. At a point, another hostage negotiator became involved in the process. Unbeknownst to me, Judge Tanner had been contacted, and wheels began to move on that side of the story.
Tanner: First of all, I really did not know Chris. I don’t know if we had ever even met. I didn’t know anything about him. I knew I recognized his name, but was about all. I didn’t know anything about him personally.
I had an appointment at 2 o’clock that day. I was at my desk and it was about 12:30 and my judicial assistant, Lucy, said someone had called me from the mayor’s office, and wanted to talk to me.
He said, ‘Judge Tanner, there’s a man holding Chris Hazelip hostage at Gulf Life Tower, and he wants to blow up the building, and he wants you to resign.’
I said, ‘This is a joke, right?’ And he said, ‘No, it’s not a joke, I wish it was a joke.’
It sounded so preposterous. It was so ridiculous. And I didn’t believe it. It was one of those things that you hear, and think, this can’t be true. Somebody made this up.
Sure enough, I had him on the line, and I got another call, and it was from the sheriff himself. It was Sheriff (John) Rutherford.
He said, ‘Are you able to come over to the Gulf Life Tower?’ and I said, ‘Is this true?’ He said, ‘Yes, it is. We’re over here now, and we have a hostage negotiator who’s talking to this man, and he’s threatened to kill Chris Hazelip if you don’t go on TV live and resign as a judge.’
He gave me the information on the man’s name, and that’s when Lucy started looking Mr. Knight up, because his case was from 1999, or ‘98, it had been several years, and I would have had no recollection of him anyway.
As it turned out, it was actually nothing unusual about his appearance in front of me. Sometimes I have defendants who make an impression on me, good or bad, and I remember them later.
But he was one of the persons who would have made no impression. I would have had no idea that this person would do something like this, would just go totally irrational. We started researching it, and then the sheriff told me he was sending a police officer to pick me up.
I had a few minutes and while I was waiting for one of the police officers who were going to come and get me, and I was just shaking.
I thought, ‘I can’t believe this.’ I was told he had a bomb. 9/11 had happened, people did blow up buildings, and people died. I cannot believe this is happening. And it’s over something that didn’t even register on my radar, many years ago, it seemed so unbelievable.
I had a little pocket Bible up on my shelf by my computer. I couldn’t really think of anything to pray, anything to read, so I pulled out the Bible and I pulled to the tabs, and one was a psalm about the Lord will watch over you, over your coming and going, and I thought, well that’s comforting, because He is watching over me, he’s watching over this Chris Hazelip person, so he’s OK.
Each scripture I read encouraged me. God knew what was going on, and that somehow, for some reason, this was what I was called to do that day.
The last verse I read was Jesus talking with his disciples, and ‘greater love has no man than that he lays down his life for his friend’ and I thought, ‘OK, am I going to be called to lay down my life today? What does this mean? I don’t understand this.’
I took the Bible with me. The young police officer that picked me up, he was going 100 mph across the Main Street Bridge. It was the only time in my life I could go from the courthouse to here in 30 seconds because the traffic was completely blocked from the Main Street Bridge.
The whole time I’m praying, please God, don’t let anybody die because of something that I had a hand in, something in my courtroom, and that I was responsible in some way.
We got over here. There must have been 100 police officers. They had set up the SWAT team, and they were actually rappelling up the side of this building.
Hazelip:There were helicopters outside the window. It was the 13th floor. I had a corner on 13 looking out that way.
’Preparing to die is what he was doing’
Tanner: They had this RV that the police were operating out of, and they took me in there, and the mayor was in there. Sheriff Rutherford met me and he took me in there, and they had — this is something that I wish Chris had known, because Chris was afraid he might be mistaken for the bad guy — but they have your digital pictures on your driver’s license they can pull up right away, everybody who’s had a Florida license or an ID card.
They had these big pictures up on the computers and they’re of Chris, and he’s the hostage, and they had a picture of Mr. Knight, that he’s the one with the gun, and they also had a picture of Mr. Knight’s girlfriend that had been involved in the incident with him. As it turned out, it was a domestic violence incident that he had had in front of me.
When I got in the trailer, the hostage negotiator was on the phone with Mr. Knight, and he said ‘this guy wants you to go on live TV’ — and of course there were about a hundred TV cameras outside — ‘he wants you go to on live TV, and he wants you to resign.’
I said, ‘does he realize that that’s not the way judges resign?’ He said, ‘well, this is what he wants you to do.’
I said, ‘his beef is with me, it’s not with Chris Hazelip. Do you think it would help if I talked to him about what his beef was, and maybe if he thought he at least had a chance to tell me off, and tell me why he was so unhappy with me, that it would defuse the situation?’
He said, ‘no, I think he’s about over the edge right now, and I think if you got on there, it might make things worse.
So I said, ‘obviously I will do whatever you tell me to do to save someone’s life.’
They had already written out for me what I should say on the TV script, what they thought it was best for me to say, so I said I’d be happy to do that.
Hazelip: The connection began to allow for communication between him and me on a pretty deep level. I asked him the question, ‘John, do you believe in God?’ and he said, ‘Yes I do. I believe in Jesus.’
I said, ‘Well, then we have something in common. Tell me about your faith. Tell me how you became a believer.’
He was a little taken aback by the question. So I shared with him a little testimony in terms of how I came to be a person of faith. He began to open up and share some about his childhood, and one thing that struck me is he took out of his wallet a little metal cross.
He apparently had some challenges as a child or something, and he said, ‘you know, things would get tough, but I’d pray and I’d hold up this thing.’
I began to talk to him on that level, and say, ‘Did you find comfort in that?’ ‘Yes, I did.’ And I said, ‘You know the story of David and Goliath?’
He said, yes.
I said, ‘You have created a huge giant here. There’s no question about it. This is a serious situation, it’s a big situation. You also feel like your life is spiraling down.’
He said, ‘I didn’t have any hope. My life is gone, and I lost my job, I lost my house,’ and that sort of thing. All of which he irrationally tied back to this incident.
I said, ‘You have created a very big problem, and you feel like you have some very big problems, but understand that you felt God delivered you before. And I’m here to tell you, He can deliver you, even from this.”
It became clear to me that even though we had some earnest moments of connection, he also had this other track, and there was no turning back now. Frankly, with the benefit of hindsight, we learn that a lot, because of the kind of the ‘screw-you’ video that he sent to the world, through the media outlets, the fact that he had left his car unlocked with all his possessions, he’d visited his parents already before this scenario, he was preparing to die is what he was doing.
There came a time when he said to me, ‘I’m not going to kill you.’
Of course I was relieved to hear that. Maybe my lawyer training started to kick in, because I wanted to tie down that part of the deal.
I asked him a couple of times, ‘You know, you’ve reminded, you said you aren’t going to kill me, so why don’t you just let me go,’ and he said, ‘I can’t do that.’
I said, ‘well, listen, I have a family. I’d really like to get back to them, and since you’re not going to kill me, what good am I here? You might as well let me go.’
He said, ‘No, no, I can’t.’
Then at a point in our conversation, he said, ‘I’m a man of my word,’ or something or other, and I seized on that, and said, ‘you said you weren’t going to kill me, you said you were a man of your word’, and finally he said, ‘enough already. Quit saying that.’
I think I was pushing a little hard in that respect. But he had softened. Something had happened. To me, the spiritual explanation of what was going on is the only logical explanation.
What I mean specifically, I wasn’t supposed to be there that day; I’m here. Somebody asked for me by name on a day I’m not supposed to be here, and it was someone I’d never known, or seen, or heard of before in my life. They are brought into my office at a time when I needed to meet in about an hour with one of my partners because when I came in, I said, ‘let me catch up with you on that case,’ and normally, that kind of meeting would take place in my office because I had more room.
But because he had the file in his office, it was going to be in his. That’s big, because he would have come to my office during the middle of the confrontation, and it would have escalated with another person there, but that didn’t happen.
I kept realizing, as I allowed myself to enter the situation, to emotionally and mentally say, ‘I’m here, I wouldn’t choose this, I didn’t want to be, I didn’t expect it, but I’m here. Let me see what’s going on. This person is hurting; let me try to find out why.’
I really felt compassion for him. I would not have expected that kind of reaction out of me, so that was an example of the spirit moving.
I really became aware in that moment that this was a divine appointment so that I could tell him this message he needed to hear.
’A sense of peace that defies understanding’
Hazelip: He had a satchel a little bigger than your purse. He had wired his belt so that, it turned out to be just like a cell phone charger or something, but it was just a wire, with leads on it, and he pulled back his coat …
Tanner: It was his electric shaver. He was shaving that morning, and he decided to make a bomb, or something that looked like a bomb.
Hazelip: He pulled back his coat, and said ‘I’ve got this, and I have a 9mm in this envelope,’ which he did.
Tanner: He had 200 rounds. He was prepared to kill a lot of people.
Hazelip: Coincidentally, I had a bombing case and so I had become pretty versed in the process of that case, and knowing about motion-sensitive bombs.
So when he said he had a bomb and he had a wire, I’m thinking, I know how this works, and it can be destructive, and it can be deadly, which the reason that was a concern initially, because my colleagues were outside, and I couldn’t get a message to anybody out there.
I thought, ‘should I try to take him, or should I try to make a break for it, or wrestle it away,’ and he said, ‘don’t try anything, because it’s going to blow this whole place up.’
He never took the 9mm out of the envelope, but he had this envelope, he set this satchel down, and then he had his papers that he wanted to show me and everything like that, but he would slip his hand into the envelope.
You could imagine a manila envelope and him holding it and at a point, he went in there and did the “ch-ch,” so there was a gun in there.
When he would talk to me, he would point it at me and he would gesture sometimes.
After a couple of hours he said, ‘I’m not going to kill you,’ I asked him to quit waving the gun around because I don’t want you to make a mistake and pull the trigger.
How frightened were you?
If you’re ever in an odd situation where you feel that kind of queasy feeling, and it’s a real heightened sense of awareness, I had it when he said, ‘I lied, I’m not from the Justice Department, but I’ve got a bomb and I’ve got a gun, and you’ve got 90 minutes, not a second more.’
After that initial moment, I said, ‘how can I help you? Tell me what your concern is’ and we began a dialogue.
I had a sense of peace that defies understanding, and to me it was the most tangible reminder of the truth of the promise in that scripture that the peace that passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, and I experienced that.
Tanner: Chris is being modest, but he had told me before that he thought he was going to die, that he thought of his family.
Hazelip: But I was at peace with that. I thought, I’m not feeling afraid of death. I don’t want to die. I’m not looking to die, but I’m at peace with it, so if this is my last day, and I thought that it was, then I’m not afraid of that.
Tanner: I did go on television, and resigned, and I was told right after I finished filming that he had let Chris go. That was an enormous relief. Of course we still thought he had a bomb.
There was a day care center in the building. They were taking the children out of the building because there was a bomb threat, and just the general unbelievable terror of what was happening.
This man truly meant to kill Chris, he meant to kill a lot of people, and himself. Because Chris was given this supernatural ability to love this person, who was completely off the wall, but that’s what we’re called to do, we’re called to love the unlovable, and to have compassion for this man, who was wanting to kill him.
That is literally laying down your life for someone else, and that’s what Chris did.
Chris’s father was at Mayo, he had heart problems …
Hazelip: He was coming over for treatment and the day that he came was the day this all happened, and he’s literally watching this on TV.
I didn’t see the resignation until well after the fact, and I don’t think that Knight did either. He may have been told about it, but we certainly didn’t have a TV feed in there.
But as I go to Mayo the next day to see my dad, who do I see but Judge Tanner? She was visiting a friend.
Tanner: We met for the first time the next day, when I went to see a friend at the hospital.
Hazelip:The Christian Legal Society has a prayer ministry that Rose Marie Preddy heads up, and she circulates this prayer list. Those were binging on my computer the whole time during the incident. In fact, Rose Marie called a couple of times. She even spoke to Mr. Knight.
My wife, when she got the news from the mayor, my younger son answers the phone, my younger son has Down syndrome, and the mayor says, ‘this is the mayor,’ and he goes, ‘Right,’ and says, ‘it’s the mayor, he wants to talk to you,’ and my wife thought he was pulling her leg, and she gets on the phone.
At that point, after realizing the seriousness of it, she gathered my kids — I have four kids — they all just knelt down and prayed.
When did your coworkers learn what was happening?
I was concerned about the bomb and I couldn’t get out and tell anybody. At a point, my secretary came in and she dropped some papers and then went out, and at another point she came in and said, ‘We’ve got to get out of the building.’ And I said, ‘why?’ And she said, ‘there’s some crazy guy holding (a hostage) with a gun’ and then of course Mr. Knight is sitting right there, and I said, we can’t leave right now, but thank you.
She said ‘OK’ and she left.
He even actually laughed about that.
If she had panicked, it could have really been a terrible situation.
She had been told that it was someone one the 11th floor, so actually thought that it was a different floor. It was one of those moments in hindsight you look back on in humor.
Once the mayor called, he talked first to Mr. Knight after I answered the phone, then I asked Mr. Knight, ‘can I have the phone back, because I’d like to say something to the mayor to get a message to my wife and kids?’ and he said yes.
That’s when I asked the mayor, ‘Listen, I’ve got a wife and this is her name, and I have four kids. And I would really appreciate it if you would get them the message that I love them very much.’
The mayor did make that call. He was a rock through this whole thing.
Once that call happened, I knew it was going to be disseminated, and the building would be evacuated, and it became quiet after that.
’It’s me, the hostage’
Hazelip: He said, ‘I’ve decided to let you go.’ I said, ‘are you saying I can leave?’ and he said, ‘yes, you can leave.’
I said, ‘you’re going to let me stand up and walk out?’ I was going to have to turn my back on him to go, and I really didn’t know if he was going to shoot me when I left.
But I stood up and I said, ‘Can I walk out?’
‘Yes, you can.’
So I turned around and walked out.
What I was concerned about was I didn’t know if there were SWAT guys waiting out on the other side. I wanted them not to mistake me for the guy, and I opened the door very slowly, and I started to walk down the hall. I turned back, and I really thought that when I left the office, he was going to kill himself.
I turned to him, and I said, ‘John, I know it seems bad. I know to you it seems hopeless, but it is not hopeless. Don’t kill yourself. God loves you.’
Then I turned around and I went. I went down the abandoned hallway.
I decided I was going to go and take the stairway, and I open the stairwell door, and I walk out, saying, ‘it’s me, the hostage,’ and I hear that unmistakable sound of automatic weapons being loaded.
They reverberated through that stairwell in this building, and I said, ‘No no no, it’s me, the hostage,’ and so I walked down, and there were many guys waiting for me with their guns pointed, and they searched me, and they were going to cuff me, and I thought, ‘great. All the people out there waiting, they’re going to see me brought out in handcuffs from my building.’
I recognized one of the SWAT team members — I’d coached his son in baseball — and I said, ‘Pete! Pete, this is me! You don’t have to cuff me,’ and he said, ‘I know this man, you don’t have to cuff him.’
They took me downstairs, and that’s how it ended.
When I was downstairs, they apparently got a radio call that they had him and they were bringing him down.
They took me outside, and my wife was waiting in that trailer.
He just gave up?
Hazelip:He gave up. He gave up.
What happened to him? Where is he?
He is in a facility down in Central Florida. He’s in prison. He got a 20-year sentence.
’Thank you for saving my life’
How often do you think about the incident?
Tanner:At first I thought about it a lot. I couldn’t sleep, and I was just really struggling with why all this happened.
I went back and looked at what had happened, and his case, I had done everything he asked me to do after the case.
He’d written me all these letters, I’d reopened his case for him, I had asked the prosecution to amend his charge, I had tried to help him.
I was just puzzled by his behavior and why he would attempt something like this.
His complaint was that because he had that conviction on the domestic battery, it had inhibited his ability later to get a decent job, and to move ahead in life. That was really his whole beef, that that case had ruined his life.
He was not a person that was on my radar at all. I’ve had people that sort of were scary in court, and I thought, ‘Hm, if somebody ever finds me with my body riddled with bullet holes, it could be one of these,’ and he would have been someone never on the radar. That was frightening.
Hazelip:You know, he wrote me. He’s actually written me twice.
He apologized for wronging me. He said he had been told to own up to his mistakes, that was how he was taught.
But out of the blue, a year later, I get this envelope and card, and I see the numbering on, and I said to my assistant, I think this is a card from John Knight, and she said, she said, ‘you know what it is, don’t you? It’s the second anniversary of that.’
He said at the end, ‘thank you for saving my life.’
I think this is going to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. Suddenly the reality of what was important, suddenly the renewed commitment and understanding and love for my family, my wife, all of that was driven home.
There’s nothing quite like thinking that you’re going to lose all that to make you appreciate so much having it.