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Ordeal was her defining moment

Ex-Good Guys hostage now works with the law

By Blair Anthony Robertson - Bee Staff Writer
Published 12:00 am PDT Monday, April 2, 2007

Lisa Joseph walked out of the Good Guys store on April 4, 1991, a changed woman. She just didn't know it.

Then 22 and five months pregnant, she was one of 41 hostages at the Stockton Boulevard store in the notorious standoff between four gunmen and a phalanx of law enforcement officers.

The 8 1/2-hour ordeal, which made national news and riveted Sacramento, ended when sheriff's deputies stormed the building after the gunmen started shooting hostages. Before that, the traumatized Joseph suffered a miscarriage.

Two store employees and a customer -- Joseph's uncle, 28-year-old Fernando Gutierrez -- were killed by the assailants. Officers fatally shot three of the four gunmen.

For nearly a year afterward, Joseph struggled to move on with her life, staying mostly at home. When she went out, she would panic at the sight of anything that reminded her of the standoff. She dealt with guilt, too, because her uncle died and she survived.

Fast-forward to today, and Joseph is a confident and engaging 38-year-old. She's married to a West Sacramento police officer, has two children and lives in an immaculate home in Natomas.

And she has found career success as an expert on hostage situations, of all things. After she came out of her yearlong depression, she took the worst moment in her life and made it her life.

She went to work on a book. She studied hostage situations, reading everything she could get her hands on. All the while, she worked on her fears.

She tried to get over the panicky feeling she got when she saw anyone of Asian descent -- the gunmen were Vietnamese. Same thing with quarters. The gunmen played a deadly game -- they flipped a quarter to determine whom they would shoot next.

"I was repeatedly running out of stores if I saw anything suspicious," she said.

She took a stress leave of absence from her job as a day care worker. The media, she said, would never let her forget.

"I felt invaded, so I kind of just holed up," she added.

Her book came out in 2002, "Heads or Tails: A True Hostage Story of Terror, Torture and Ultimate Survival." It didn't take long for law enforcement agencies to take notice.

Here was a woman who could give them a clear, insightful account of what it was like to be on the inside looking out. The invitations began pouring in for her to speak at police seminars and conventions where officers received training on hostage situations.

"I noticed at these seminars that they didn't have any intelligence on how hostages actually felt," she said. "That's when I decided to put together this course of all the lessons I learned and custom-tailor it according to the agency. I walk people through the experience of what I am feeling and why I am feeling this way."

Her next major event is in May, when she will travel to Rochester, N.Y., for a seminar run by the New York Association of Hostage Negotiators.

"It's incredible the things she does, and she travels all over the country doing it," said Lt. Gordon Smith of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department.

In 1991, Smith was a deputy sheriff on the team that stormed the building. He shot and killed one of the gunmen, and Joseph has always credited him with saving her life.

Like Joseph, Smith struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder after the Good Guys tragedy, not from shooting the gunman "but from seeing all the trauma" when he entered the store.

Given what she knows now, Joseph is convinced she could have played a role in ending the Good Guys situation, perhaps with far fewer casualties. The hostage-takers apparently were upset with their educational opportunities in America and demanded a helicopter and bulletproof vests, among other things.

"If I had that opportunity again, I know I could have convinced (the gunmen) to let us all walk out, and I could have convinced them that I could help them," she said.

Smith isn't so sure anything could have been done differently. He is certain the hostage-takers were bent on killing people that day.

He says he and Joseph have shared a bond since the ordeal, and he continues to admire what she has done with her life. Joseph said the event turned her toward religion, and she credits her faith in God with her the turnaround.

"It often takes something traumatic to make you realize where you are in life and the different path you need to take," Smith said.

It wasn't long after the Good Guys standoff that Joseph met her future husband, Marc Kirkland, who was then a correctional officer and is now a West Sacramento police officer. They have two children, Marc Jr., 14, and Michael, 8.

Kirkland watched his wife face her anxieties through the years.

"She dealt with it pretty hard. A lot of things made her antsy and caused a lot of stress, but we got through it," Kirkland said.

Joseph has branched out her consulting work beyond hostage situations. She and a partner have formed a company that advocates on behalf of parents with children struggling to get help with an academic or psychological need.

She says she is also in the process of pursuing a movie deal.

"I'm beyond busy," she said.

Good guys siege: April 4, 1991

What happened: Four heavily armed gunmen -- three of them brothers -- stormed the electronics store, taking 41 hostages. In the bloody siege and shootout, two store employees and a customer died; three gunmen died; a fourth gunman was shot and taken into custody, and 10 hostages were injured. The ordeal lasted 8 1/2 hours, much of it shown on television.
In context: It remains one of the largest hostage rescue operations in U.S. history.
What happened to the perpetrators: Four Vietnamese immigrants -- brothers Loi Khac Nguyen, 21, Pham Khac Nguyen, 19, and Long Khac Nguyen, 17, and their friend Cuong Tran, 16, waved pistols and presented demands, including millions of dollars, bullet- proof vests and a helicopter to fly them to Vietnam. They expressed anger over an inability to speak English and get jobs. All but Loi Nguyen were killed. He was convicted of three counts of murder -- for Kris Edward Sohne, John Fritz and Fernando Gutierrez -- and 38 counts of kidnapping. He is serving 41 consecutive life terms at Corcoran State Prison.
The store: The old Good Guys electronics store on Stockton Boulevard behind Florin Mall no longer exists. The chain that took over Good Guys, Comp USA, shuttered the store in 2005. Source: Bee archives

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