PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA – Pittsburgh police said they had serious concerns when an armed man took a business owner hostage in a downtown high-rise office building — and not just because he had a knife.
The suspect, 22-year-old Klein Michael Thaxton, made Facebook posts during the five-hour ordeal Friday, authorities said, and they feared that responses from friends, family and others might goad him into violence.
In the end, police say, Thaxton surrendered peacefully and released businessman Charles Breitsman.
Now police believe that Thaxton might have chosen Breitsman because he spotted a smartphone and computer in his office and saw a high-profile opportunity to express himself on the social networking site, Chief Nathan Harper said.
Thaxton was arraigned early Saturday on felony charges of kidnapping, aggravated assault and making terroristic threats. He remains jailed on $1 million bail.
Harper said authorities might never know the reason Thaxton decided to take a hostage.
“We will leave that to the mental professionals to figure that out and get the man some help,” Harper said. Thaxton will automatically receive a mental health review because of the charges.
Thaxton told police he left a halfway house about 3 a.m. Friday carrying a kitchen knife, hammer, cellphone and charger. After meandering through various neighborhoods, Thaxton arrived downtown at about 7 a.m. and briefly considered attacking two separate traffic officers with the hammer so he could steal their guns, police said.
“It makes me feel powerful when I have a gun,” Harper said Thaxton told police.
Deciding he might get shot in the process, Thaxton instead sat and munched on a candy bar and noticed women streaming into a 24-story high-rise, police said. Without any particular goal, Thaxton took an elevator to two upper floors, found he couldn’t get around without an electric key card and went down to the 16th floor.
That’s where Thaxton saw the financial firm CW Breitsman Associates and the owner’s name on the door. He also saw a smartphone, TV and computer and “felt this was the office where he needed to be,” Harper said.
Except for the electronics, Thaxton’s choosing the office was “totally random,” Harper said, noting Thaxton didn’t know Breitsman or his firm, which handles union pensions and insurance funds.
Police initially believed Thaxton had a gun because he told police negotiators he was going to shoot the victim. Instead, he threatened Breitsman with the knife, sat across a table from him breathing threats and, otherwise, used Breitsman’s phone and computer to post mostly forlorn Facebook messages, police said.
“i cant take it no more im done bro,” said one post.
“this life im livin rite now i dnt want anymore,” another post said. “ive lost everything and I aint gettin it back.”
Thaxton has been in legal trouble in recent months, pleading guilty in January to robbery for a carjacking last year. That crime was apparently on his mind, Harper said, because his carjacking victim was a woman and Thaxton told police the only other reason he picked Breitsman was that “he didn’t want to victimize another female.”
Thaxton was sentenced to six to 12 months in jail by the county’s newly established court to help veterans with mental health and substance abuse issues. It wasn’t immediately clear how Thaxton’s service record contributed — if at all — to his mental health problems because he never saw active duty.
Instead, records show Thaxton served as a private in the U.S. Army from December 2008 to June 2010. The Army said he trained at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri before being assigned to Fort Riley in Kansas.
Whatever the motivation, Thaxton felt a need to call attention to his feelings through Facebook and told police he watched coverage of the hostage situation on his victim’s TV.
Initially, police wanted the Facebook page kept open, hoping to gain useful information, but they later asked Facebook to take it down so that Thaxton could focus on conversations with police negotiators.
Most of the 700 or so responses to Thaxton’s posts were from friends or family expressing their love. But a few were “ridiculous” and others were “outright distasteful,” Harper said. Police were still sifting through them Friday, but Harper said any posters who authorities determine urged Thaxton to harm Breitsman or himself could eventually face charges, too.
Thaxton eventually told police negotiators he wanted to speak with an ex-girlfriend whom he hadn’t seen since 2008. After shutting down the Facebook page and getting the woman on the phone to speak with Thaxton, he surrendered peacefully.
Breitsman was interviewed by detectives at police headquarters but left through a back door to avoid the media. He didn’t return calls to his home Friday. Harper said the man was doing fine though “quite shaken.”
Facebook didn’t comment on the hostage-taking but referred reporters to a Web page that says it sometimes shares information with law enforcement if necessary to “prevent imminent bodily harm” to someone.
Some of the social network’s nearly 1 billion users boast about their criminal exploits on Facebook, making it easier for law enforcement to catch them. Just last month, a woman charged with posing as a nurse and kidnapping a newborn at a Pittsburgh hospital was tracked down using messages she posted about her faked pregnancy on Facebook.
In Thaxton’s case, Facebook didn’t completely explain his actions nor would he as he was led past reporters at police headquarters.
Instead he grinned and ignored their questions saying, “I can’t hear you, bro.”