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Trial of accused attorney hostage takers begins

Hostilo: I believed I was gonna die

           His captors demanded justice, and attorney Michael Hostilo did what he could to help them achieve their demands because he feared for his life.
    That’s the story Hostilo told Tuesday afternoon when he took the stand during the trial of Robbie Eugene Brower, 44, and Connie Czako Brower, 45, who are accused of taking him hostage just over a year ago in his own Courtland Street office in Statesboro.
    The Browers are each charged with four counts of kidnapping,  a charge of aggravated assault, two counts of possession of a hoax device, two counts of terroristic threats and acts, and possession of a weapon during commission of felonies.
    Robbie Brower was also charged with two counts of possession of a hoax device by a convicted felon.
    The trial got underway around 10 a.m. after Robbie Brower’s attorney, public defender Robert Persse sought to submit documents that he said would prove Brower’s actions justifiable, since he was not adequately represented in a previous case by Hostilo.
    Brower was convicted in a 1995 hammer attack case in which Hostilo was court-appointed to represent him, and alleges Hostilo served him badly. Brower has said his actions Jan. 16 were to seek justice for problems he alleged Hostilo caused by not getting him acquitted in the case.
    Bulloch County Superior Court Judge F. Gates Peed ruled the documents not be admitted to evidence or be referred to during the trial.
    
Opening statements
    A jury of two white males, three black females and seven white women listened to opening arguments from the state as well as the defense before witnesses were called.
    Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Keith McIntyre told jurors they would hear and see evidence including video of Robbie Brower grabbing Hostilo by the neck, throwing him to the ground and threatening to kill him during a thwarted surrender attempt around 6 a.m. Jan. 17.
    He told them they would see propane tanks with wires attached, pipe bombs with wires, and would hear testimony from Hostilo and three secretaries who were briefly detained during the ordeal.
    “The City of Statesboro was preparing for Martin Luther King Day, but ... instead of a celebration, downtown Statesboro was plunged into a crisis of unprecedented” fear, drama and expense.
    Brandy Duggar, Norma Johnson and Maybelle Blackburn , as well as their employer, “were held against their will under threat of violence,” McIntyre said. “This trial is about justice, but also about justice for the victims. These four witnesses are going to tell you what happened, and that’s going to be all you need to reach a verdict.”
    He told how Robbie Brower had a device believed at the time to be a “dead man’s switch” activator that would detonate bombs - a device he referred to as “my little buddy,” McIntyre said. The device was discovered later to have been crafted from “ a cigarette box, a pill bottle, and duct tape.”
    He also spoke of Brower’s threats to cut off Hostilo’s body parts one at a time until demands were met.
    Persse told jurors the case “is not quite what you think it is ... what it’s made out to be.”
    He said Brower “is not the monster he’s been portrayed and accused Hostilo of “courting the media.”
    Steven Yekel, a public defender appointed to represent Connie Brower, asked jurors to “ keep an open mind” and said the Browers never considered interrupting the city’s celebration, waited until clients left before accosting Hostilo in his office, and allowed the secretaries to get their belongings before letting them leave.
    He told the jury they would learn during the course of the trial that Hostilo was not in fear, not concerned for his life, not a hostage and “takes over actual negotiations.
    
Tearful and terrified
    Norma Johnson, who has worked for Zettler, Hostilo and Register for eight years, told the jury how she parked near a couple and spoke to them, wishing them “Good morning” before entering her work place. Later, the couple would enter and hold her and others hostage.
    Johnson became tearful as she hesitated during testimony. “This lady walked in my office and told me to go to the back,” she said. “I said who are you to tell me to go to the back? I work here!”
    But Connie Brower, the lady who had entered the offices wearing camouflage, grabbed Johnson’s arm and forced her to wards the back, she said. Connie Brower “had something in her hand, wrapped up. I assumed it was a gun.”
    She talked about how she and the other three were made to go to Hostilo’s back office, and how Hostilo was muzzled with duct tape. The secretaries were all crying and she was doing “deep breathing” exercises to stay calm, she said.
    Johnson told how she and the other two  women were allowed to leave, but ordered to tell law enforcement “ he (Brower) was serious and he had a bomb.”
    When McIntyre asked Johnson to identify the Browers, she cried. “Do I have to look at them? Do I have to?” But she eventually pointed out the defendants, saying they were the ones who kept her captive in the office.
    When Persse questioned her, Johnson said she did not recall being told she would be unharmed, although the information was in her statement written just after the attack. She also said her arm was hurt where Connie Brower grabbed her.
    She told Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Daphne Jarriel she believed the Browers would hurt her because they “wore fatigues and had what she thought was a gun” and said she was “terrified of facing them again.”
    Maybelle Blackburn remembered Brower’s anger and how he told Hostilo repeatedly to “shut up” before having Connie Brower duct tape his mouth. She said she never felt free to leave until told she could go, and said Brower told her to tell people they were “armed and dangerous .. and meant business.” She said she believed the devices they had with them were bombs, and was afraid even after Robbie Brower told her he would let them go because “Mike is what he wanted.”
    Brandy Duggar cried from the moment she entered the courtroom. She had only been working with Hostilo a month when the Browers swept in and “grabbed my j acket and asked where Mike was,” she said, sobbing.
    She told how the four were forced into a back room and made to sit while Hostilo was secured with duct tape. She said Robbie Brower talked about waiting 11 years for retaliation and that he said that day “seemed like a good day.”
    She said Hostilo asked whether he wanted money and Brower said “no, he wanted revenge on him.”
    They all had to step over a big green duffel bag in the hallway, Duggar said. She also described a bomb on Hostilo’s desk.
    “What made you think it was a bomb?” Jarriel asked.
    “It was silver and had a switch on it,” Duggar replied. “He was holding, like, a button in his hand and at some point he held up some type of cylinder wrapped in a towel with a red wire coming from it.”
    She appeared frightened and continued crying while pointing out the Browers in the courtroom.
    Both prosecutors and defense attorneys questioned Statesboro Police Lt. Scott Brunson, crisis negotiator for the department who was first to converse with the Browers.
    Brunson described being one of the first to arrive on the scene after one of the secretaries called 911 when she was released. He told jurors how the initial command post was set up at a nearby attorney’s office adjacent to Hostilo’s, but was moved later to the Averitt Art Center because of its locale and being a city-owned building.
    He told how the city was cordoned off around the downtown area, and how he called Hostilo’s office to have Connie Brower answer. She explained their reasons for taking the attorney hostage “to seek justice for a ... conviction in Chatham County,” he said.
    
“Now you will pay attention”
    Brunson described a letter Connie Brower placed outside Hostilo’s office - a list of demands headed by the sentence “Now you will pay attention.”
    Brower wrote in the demand letter that “I have been wronged by the legal system and I demand justice,” which included a new trial by jury for the 1995 hammer attack of which he was convicted in Savannah. The letter, filled with explicatives, warned law enforcement they had bombs he could control by remote, and threatened to let go of the button if they cut off the phones, electricity or water;  tried to enter the building and didn’t meet demands.
    “I don’t want to harm anyone ... but I will if provoked,” Brunson read from the demand letter. “I am willing to die ... because death has got to be easier.”
    Brower has said his life was ruined by the 1995 conviction and it is the reason he lost custody of his daughter, now 14.
    The three-page demand letter included forensic reports regarding the hammer attack case, juvenile court records concerning his daughter, and bringing several people to his location, including his daughter Britney. He also demanded copies of all accusations and complaints against Hostilo to the Georgia Bar Association.
    Brunson read the letter Brower wrote stating Hostilo would “lose a toe, finger or limb until you comply or he runs out of body parts, starting with his ??!!”
    Brunson also spoke of a Georgia Bureau of Investigations robot used to send food, retrieve communication and perform other duties throughout the ordeal.
    As to Connie Brower’s involvement in the incident, Brunson said “There is no doubt in my mind she was a willing participant.”
    Georgia State Patrol Lt. Andrew Carrier also testified about negotiating with the Browers for Hostilo’s release, explaining how a “throw phone” was used that connected only the negotiators and the Browers. The phone, however, was also a monitoring device that allowed law enforcement to hear conversation between the Browers and Hostilo when the receiver was hung up.
    Carrier told jurors about the thwarted surrender attempt at 5:55 a.m. Jan. 17, when “ a lot of confusion” occurred and a Chatham County S. W. A. T. sniper fired a round at Brower - and missed. Another officer fired a bean bag round, he said.
    Carrier said he took the blame for t he failed surrender when he got the Browers back on the phone, doing so as a conciliatory move to try to regain a peaceful and successful surrender.
    The Browers surrendered over three hours later in a less stressful situation.
    He told jurors Connie Brower made it clear she had not been in favor of releasing the secretaries, and that Hostilo played a significant part in negotiating. “Yes sire, he did tell us how it was going to be done.”
    He answered a question from Persse, admitting a deal where the Browers would be charged locally instead of the case becoming a federal case “was a calculated bluff” to secure a surrender.
    
Hostilo recalls incident
    Hostilo took the stand to describe how he decided to work half a day on Martin Luther King’s birthday after having been on vacation.
    Calling the morning’s invasion “ a disruption,” he told how the Browers came in and held him and his secretaries against their will, bringing a “device that looked like a toaster oven” into his office.
    Brower told him “Today is the day you’re going to meet your Maker,” he said. “He said “I’m Robbie Brower and I’ve been waiting 11 years for this.”
    Hostilo said he didn’t recognize Brower until he heard the name.
    His last contact with Brower was “ sometime earlier this century I received an e-mail from someone named Robbie - not to me but to a Chatham Count district attorney.”
    He told how Brower forced him to his knees against a wall and duct taped his legs, arms and mouth before placing him in a rolling chair and wheeling him to the front of the office. “I could hear a guy on a megaphone,” he said.
    “Were you scared?” McIntyre asked.
    “I thought I was gonna die,” Hostilo replied.
    Brower rolled him into an office where they watched coverage of the situation on TV, he said. Brower’s mood went from “pleasant to violent on and off,” with Brower yelling and cursing at him.
    When asked to describe the devices believed to have been bombs, Hostilo said Brower had “bottles like that have kerosene with wires that come outside” and said Brower threatened to “blow us all up.”
    When people called Hostilo’s office and cell phone, the Browers would answer, say “he’s not available” and hang up, he said.
    Brower also threatened to make him swallow keys - keys from different residences he has been “dispossessed of” and said the incidents were all because of Hostilo, he said. “We discussed me swallowing each and every one of those keys.”
    Hostilo told about being allowed to eat and how the duct tape loosened enough that he could escape. But when he ran for the back door, the Browers followed, and when he locked himself in an office, they broke down the door and tussled with him before tying him up again, using extension cords as well as duct tape.
    He gave up fighting when he saw Brower had a knife, he said. “It wasn’t a machete but it wasn’t a pocket knife.”
    McIntyre asked Hostilo why he became involved in assisting the Browers with their demands.
    “I’m thinking I’m not getting out of here,” Hostilo said. “At that point, I was willing to do whatever I had to do to survive.”
    He had Brower speak to his friend and fellow attorney Lovett Bennett Jr. to persuade Brower to surrender.
    “If not for Lovett today, I don’t know that I’d be here,” he said.”He was as instrumental as anybody.”
    Hostilo also told jurors he had a hard time being in the Statesboro office where the attack occurred.
    Persse asked him about the thwarted surrender attempt when he reportedly yelled “This isn’t part of the deal. I want to talk to the media.”
    “I was just expressing Brower’s wish,” he said.
    Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at 489-9414.
    

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