Forty years ago Wednesday, a bank robbery in Brooklyn -- just one of several hundred bank robberies in New York City that year -- turned into a 15-hour standoff with the FBI and NYPD.
Played out before the media and a crowd of hundreds of onlookers, the bank robbery and hostage situation later became immortalized in the film "Dog Day Afternoon."
In his first television interview, former FBI agent James Murphy described to NBC 4 New York his role in the prolonged standoff, which ended with his fatal shot at one of the bank robbers while surrounded by hostages inside an airport limousine.
“I had obviously my wife and my child and the reality that I might die that night.," Murphy said. "This situation was one that someone, someone could die and that could be me.”
It was just before closing time on Aug. 22, 1972 when John Wojtowicz and Sal Naturile entered the Chase Manhattan Bank on Avenue P in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn armed with a shotgun, a rifle and a handgun. The bank manager was able to surreptitiously alert his superiors in Manhattan that a robbery was in progress. Dozens of NYPD and FBI agents responded, trapping the robbers and their hostages -- all bank employees -- in the bank.
Negotiations with Wojtowicz quickly turned into a circus-like atmosphere. At one point Wojtowicz called into radio stations explaining that he needed money to pay for a sex-change operation for his gay lover.
“There was a point where he [Wojtowicz] came out and threw money to the people,” former FBI agent Murphy said. “It was his way of taking control and making fun of everything…he probably came out six or seven times.”
Following hours of negotiations, Wojtowicz demanded that he, Naturile and the hostages be driven to John F. Kennedy Airport for a flight out of the country.
FBI agent Murphy was selected by Wojtowicz from a group of agents to be the driver of an airport limousine which had been provided. Wojtowicz searched Murphy for weapons.
“As he’s touching me looking for a weapon and the crowd is cheering him on,” Murphy said, “ was the only time that I was really aware of the fact that there was a crowd there and I wasn’t terribly comfortable of what was happening.”
Murphy had hidden his gun under the front floor mat of the car.
As Murphy drove the limousine with the bank robbers and the hostages to the airport, Naturile had a shotgun pointed at Murphy’s head.
After the caravan of police cars escorting the limousine arrived at a secluded area at the airport, the robbers’ request for food and the open limousine windows gave Murphy his opening. Murphy got out of the limousine and pretended to talk to other agents about food. In reality, they agreed on a signal which would cause the agents to initiate their plan to end the stand-off.
“You couldn’t allow these hostages to get on to a plane with these individuals and go somewhere else,” Murphy told NBC 4 New York.
Murphy got back in the limousine, was able to reach his gun without being seen and told the robbers that he may be able to get them some food. As Murphy spoke to the robbers, Naturile had the shotgun pointed at Murphy. Another FBI agent positioned himself alongside the limousine toward the rear.
Seeing his opening, Murphy gave the signal.
“In less than a second, I swerve, push the shotgun into the ceiling, which as I do that Sal goes up to hang on to it and as he’s hanging on to it, I take one shot and catch him in the chest,” Murphy said. Simultaneously, the other agent reached through a window and grabbed Wojtowicz.
After fifteen hours, it was over.
Later, a couple of the hostages expressed regret that Naturile had been killed. Murphy said, “The hostages and the hostage takers seemed to develop a Stockholm syndrome.”
Murphy remembers later going to see the 1975 movie with his wife.
“When Sal got shot, the audience booing. They were upset by the fact that he had been killed,” he said.
Wojtowicz served fourteen years in prison and died of cancer in 2006. The partner he was trying to help by robbing the bank got a sex-change operation and died in 1987.