Skip to main content

Unbound

Jeff Daniels’ hostage research has the potential of saving lives and has attracted the attention of the FBI.

If someone binds your arms with duct tape, blindfolds you, and shoves you into a closet, it’s good to know what’s coming next.

Jeff Daniels has a sense for that. As WVU’s resident expert on hostage-taking, Daniels has crept into the minds of those who kidnap and torture. He knows their motives and “what makes them tick.”

His talents, which are in high demand by the FBI and law enforcement across the country, are a far cry—or high-pitched wail—from what could have been for the suburban Colorado native.

In 2010, 6,050 people were kidnapped by terrorists.

Nurtured on furious doses of Judas Priest and Led Zeppelin in high school, Daniels played bass guitar in a hard rock outfit called High Risk.

“I just wanted to play bass,” he said. “I was not an outstanding student. I did not see myself in college.”

Instead, Daniels saw himself under the bright lights ripping through bass riffs for legions of rock fans. It almost happened. Sort of.

High Risk caught the interest of a promoter who promised them a record deal and an opening slot for Van Halen at the height of the commercial juggernaut 1984.



The promoter skipped town and was never heard from again. Making the cover of Hit Parader and touring with Diamond Dave would not happen, leaving Daniels unchained.

That’s OK. Daniels had grown tired of the bar scene.

He signed up for open enrollment at a small college in Denver and decided to study psychology. In 1997, the guy who never saw himself as a college student ended up with a PhD in counseling psychology.

FROM HIGH RISK TO HOSTAGES

Today he’s interim department chair and associate professor of counseling psychology at WVU. His research has proven invaluable as a collaborator with FBI, police, and federal agents on handling and preventing hostage situations. His work has taken him to prisons where he’s observed interviews with masterminds behind kidnappings and the thugs who torture their captives. His work is a collaborative effort with Dr. Greg Vecchi (past unit chief, FBIBehavioral Science Unit), Dr. Vincent Van Hasselt (Nova Southeastern University), Dr. Amy Angleman, FBIBehavioral Science Unit, and others.

It’s all in the name of research, and saving lives.

Daniels states that hostage-taking will outlive his career—and that it’s vitally important for people to know the ins and outs of a kidnapping scenario. Predictability enhances survival, he asserts.

“If you learn the patterns, it prepares you for the predictable,” he said. “If you’re trained, you can feel like you’re in control, and you can expect what’s next.”

The motives for hostage-taking vary. The southwest border is a hotbed for activity as Mexican gangs take people captive for money. Others kidnap for domestic reasons—a parental dispute or love spat. Some vent their frustrations at school or work by holding employees or students hostage.

Then there are prisoners of war.

“If you learn the patterns, it prepares you for the predictable. If you’re trained, you can feel like you’re in control, and you can expect what’s next.”

An acronym—SERE—is used by Daniels and military personnel to highlight four key points to overcoming a hostage crisis. SERE stands for ‘Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape.’ This program was established by the US Air Force at the end of the Korean War.

Recently Daniels presented preliminary results of the hostage-taking research at a conference on global captive-taking, and had a life-changing moment. After his presentation, an ex-Army commander came up to him, shook his hand and said, “I want to thank you for your service … your research will save lives.”

Daniels’ other research specialty carries a similar, dark tone: school violence.

Daniels didn’t always study such disturbing, hot-button topics. Before taking a job as an associate professor atWVU in 2009, he worked as an academic at a smaller school out West.

His research was not interesting to him, and he was looking to change professional direction.

Through his wife’s cousin, Daniels found purpose.

“She was a brilliant med student at UCLA with a PhD in clinical psychology,” Daniels said. “She was killed by a drunk driver. I learned that she worked with inner-city children in LA and had such a profound impact on their lives. Driving home from the funeral, I felt that I needed to do research that made a difference like hers. At the time, school shootings were highly-publicized in the media, so I thought, ‘Why are kids going to school shooting each other?’”

STUDYING SCHOOL VIOLENCE

Columbine happened in 1999 in Daniels’ home state and the massacre, resulting in the slayings of 13, remains the deadliest mass murder committed at an American high school.

Research on lethal school violence has focused on the incidents where people were killed, but Daniels takes a unique approach by studying schools that successfully prevented a shooting. His first project on the subject took him to four different schools that successfully averted mass shootings. He then studied schools that experienced armed hostage-taking situations.

As part of his research, Daniels interviews direct participants in these incidents, from the teachers to the students to the officers. He asks them to describe the incident, what policies and procedures had been in place at the school, and their personal opinions on how the person got to that point.

Daniels believes schools were able to avert tragedy for a few reasons, one being a strong relationship between the school and its community.

“In some cases, school violence was prevented though anti-bullying programs and a school’s engagement with the community,” he said.

Despite the gravity of these situations, Daniels cautions the public to avoid mass hysteria.

“School violence is not new,” he said. “It’s more visible, but not as prevalent. You can trace school violence back to ancient Mesopotamia. The first school shooting took place in France in the 1600s.”

And the problem isn’t restricted to the United States.

“In Egypt, you’ll have beheadings with swords,” Daniels said. “China has strict gun laws, but they’ve had incidents with knives and meat cleavers. It happens all over the world. School violence is experienced differently, but it’s the same thing.”

While Daniels isn’t living out his dream on a tour bus or selling out stadiums, he’s helped organize several hostage-taking initiatives with the FBI and in 2012, was named the Researcher of the Year in the WVU College of Education and Human Services. Most importantly, his research could save lives. That’s more than what any platinum record can do.