The shots rang out just after midnight, leaving seven people injured and dozens held hostage in Henry’s Publick House at the Hotel Durant in Berkeley’s Southside neighborhood. One of the young men who was shot would die. For the survivors, it was just the beginning of a more than seven-hour standoff between a schizophrenic man who heard voices and would order bizarre sexual assaults of his female hostages before being shot by police 24 times as he lunged, armed with a gun, toward a group of hostages when police moved in to detain him.
Mehrdad Dashti, 29, had brought with him 445 rounds of ammunition, and three guns. He demanded trillions of dollars from the federal government in exchange for telepathy services he said he had provided. He told them he would accept three states in lieu of the cash. Dashti demanded that the San Francisco police chief appear on television and drop his pants. In addition to the sexual assaults, he carried out mock executions of hostages, and used others as human shields. Police described him at the time as “deranged.”
“That’s what was scary,” recalled one of the injured hostages, Jon Landa. “He was asking for things that weren’t really feasible outcomes. You knew that it wasn’t going to end well.”
The incident is widely considered among the most significant cases ever handled by BPD, which describes it as one of the nation’s most successful hostage rescue operations. The 25-year anniversary of the incident passed quietly on Sunday. In the end, 33 hostages were saved. One of the eight people shot by Dashti ultimately succumbed to his wounds: 22-year-old UC Berkeley student John Sheehy, who was known to friends as “Nick.”
Though decades have passed, the incident still has resonance for community members. A few officers who were on the police team that entered Henry’s to rescue the hostages met Sunday at the bar to reminisce, including one who traveled all the way from Oregon for the reunion. According to a waitress, several other people stopped into Henry’s in recent days to mention the incident or inquire about it.
Hostages reached by Berkeleyside said recovery had taken a long time, and that they continued to feel some effects from the trauma.
“The initial shock lasted a long time,” said Stacey Helley, who was shot in the arm when Dashti opened fire. She recalled the sound of bullet casings hitting the ground after he emptied the gun. “I heard the shells all clink to the floor. That plays on a loop in my brain, randomly — even today.”
Chief Butler: “Some kind of psychotic episode”
Mehrdad Dashti lived in Berkeley about a mile from Henry’s, on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. On Sept. 26, 1990, he asked a friend to take him to a bar where he would find a lot of white women with blond hair.
The friend suggested Henry’s, at Durant Avenue and Bowditch Street just south of the UC Berkeley campus. Dashti had never been there before, said retired Berkeley Police Sgt. Michael Holland, who runs the department’s historical unit. Holland was called in the night the Henry’s crisis unfolded, as a member of the Special Response Team that ultimately entered the bar and freed the hostages.
Dashti had been born in Iran. According to the Times, he had come to the United States 12 years earlier. Holland said Dashti had gotten an engineering degree from San Francisco State University, but couldn’t find a job. Instead, he worked as an itinerant carpenter to make ends meet. A prior marriage to an American woman had ended in divorce.
Dashti’s roommate, identified in media reports as Frederick Smith, had moved in with Dashti about a month earlier. According to the Los Angeles Times, Dashti had abruptly told Smith the night of the shooting that he had to move out because Dashti would be setting off on a trip to Hawaii the next day for an arranged marriage that had been organized by his parents.
Smith told the Times that Dashti loved guns, and was “always broke.” Smith had lived with Dashti for about a month, and described his roommate to the Times as “a mellow guy, a nice guy, a nerd, really.”
A couple hours before going to Henry’s, Holland recalled, Dashti had called the Berkeley Police Department and spoken to a dispatcher. He was upset, and told the dispatcher he was irate about a letter he had received from the San Francisco Police Department. The letter informed him that a warrant had been issued for his arrest, and ordered him to turn himself in.
According to media reports, those charges were tied to the theft of blank checks from a San Francisco bakery the prior year. Police told the LA Times that Dashti had deposited two checks for nearly $17,000 into a bank account, then later tried to withdraw the money. Police questioned him at that time about the checks, but ultimately let him go.
“I am not in control of the material that is being broadcasted through my mind. I felt that by obtaining money by the negotiation of these checks that the voices were paying me for the use of my mind,” he reportedly told police.
More than a year later, Dashti received the letter regarding the warrant. Authorities said that may have triggered the breakdown that followed. Then-Berkeley Police Chief Dash Butler described Dashti to reporters as “severely mentally disturbed,” adding, “He was apparently undergoing some kind of psychotic episode.”
Holland said Dashti told a Berkeley police dispatcher that he wanted to speak with someone about the letter and the San Francisco case. The dispatcher asked Dashti what the Berkeley police could do for him, and he ultimately told her he planned to go into San Francisco the next day to sort out the situation.
“He didn’t want any help from us,” said Holland. “He didn’t ask for any help. As far as the dispatcher could tell from the situation, it was resolved.”
It wasn’t the first contact the Berkeley Police Department had with Dashti. Two-and-a-half years earlier, police found him responsible for ramming his vehicle into 43 luxury cars parked in northwest Berkeley and Albany in a single night.
“Once he was apprehended, he made references to voices telling him that he had to hit all these cars,” Holland recalled, “and that the government owed him for work he’d done for them in ESP and telepathy.”
Former hostage: “It all happened in a moment”
Dashti and his friend got to the bar around midnight, but last call had already passed. The bartender told them he could give them some orange juice, said Holland. The men accepted the juice and sat down.
Dashti told his friend he needed to go out to their truck to get something. When he came back, he was carrying a briefcase. He opened the briefcase and took out a gun.
“He levels it at the bar area and just starts shooting,” said Holland. “It was absolute chaos.”
Nearly 70 people were in the popular bar at the time. About half of them scrambled outside to safety, while others hit the ground. In the end, seven people had been hit.
Jon Landa said he had been living nearby, and had recently begun his senior year at UC Berkeley. He said Henry’s was one of the neighborhood’s nicer bars, with a higher-end feeling that appealed to fraternity and sorority members. It was a popular place to stop on game day, he recalled, when he and friends would head up the hill for sports events.
On Sept. 26, 1990, he said a friend was urging him to take a break from studying at the library — midterms were coming two days later — to head to Henry’s for a cocktail. His friend said there was a group of sorority girls there, and Landa warmed up to the plan.
When they got to Henry’s, it was crowded. Landa said he heard the sound of the shots but processed it only as “a bunch of loud noises.” Quickly, bar patrons realized it was gunfire. Many ran outside, while others got down on the ground.
Landa had been sitting near a door that led to the lobby. He pushed two girls at his table through the door, and recalls shoving other people outside as well. Then he recalled crouching under a table. He had been shot in the right arm.
Stacey Helley, then 27, had been sitting at the bar with two friends, who were involved in a heated conversation about politics, when the shooting broke out. She recalled seeing Dashti before he started shooting, and that she had thought he looked like Moe from the Three Stooges due to his haircut.
“I didn’t think anything of it, and him,” she said. “I was enjoying my margarita when I heard the first bang. An M-80 firecracker was the only thing I could reference. It had a hollow ring to it.”
Helley had recently moved to Berkeley to live with her sister, who was a UC Berkeley student. Helley said she and her friends enjoyed hanging out on Telegraph Avenue, and recalled that the city had a bustling craft beer scene.
Helley had been working in those days as a bartender, and said she and her friends had ended up at Henry’s because Spats, where they had been earlier in the night, was “short pouring” drinks. They tried to go to another bar, called Metropole, but it was closed due to a small fire. So the trio ended up sitting at the bar at Henry’s to celebrate the birthday of Helley’s friend Wendy.
They had been at the bar for perhaps half an hour when Dashti opened fire, shooting seven hostages and trying to shoot out various lights in the room.
“We were all dropping to the floor,” Helley recalled. “Noise. Guy with a gun. Get down. It all happened in a moment.”
She felt something warm on the back of her right arm, then realized she had been shot. Dashti began making demands, announcing them to the room. He wanted the San Francisco police chief to appear on television with his pants down. He also demanded $16 trillion from the U.S. government in exchange for “mental telepathy” services he said he had provided. He said he would accept several U.S. states — California, Oregon and Nevada — in exchange for the work.
Helley said Dashti was calm, but clearly not thinking rationally.
“He was making demands that were just… your heart sank because you thought: ‘Oh no, the elevator’s not going to the top,'” Helley recalled.
Holland: “Everyone under the sun responded”
A patrol officer nearby heard the shooting, and thought it might be firecrackers, said Holland. He reported to dispatch the sound of possible fireworks nearby, and moved in to take a closer look. When he got to Henry’s, he could see people running out of the hotel, and heard more rounds going off. He called it in.
“Everyone under the sun responded,” said Holland. UCPD and Berkeley officers set up a perimeter and began trying to sort out what was going on. By the end of the operation, 151 officers had responded to the scene.
In addition to the patrol officers, the department called in its Special Response Team. The team had been created in 1976 to respond to critical incidents including those involving barricaded subjects with hostages. Police immediately began trying to figure out how to establish contact with Dashti to carry out negotiations.
“It proved difficult,” recalled Holland, who was tasked that night with coordinating between the Special Response Team and police officials. Part of the challenge was that Dashti himself refused to get on the phone, and tasked hostages with communicating with police. It turned out later to have been the result of Dashti’s location in the bar.
Holland said Dashti had “built himself a barricade with hostages around him.” He piled up tables and chairs around his position near the wall so police would not be able to have a clear shot at him. Police later learned, after searching Dashti’s apartment, that he had likely studied military tactics related to snipers. Officers found handbooks in his apartment describing those tactics.
Police also found numerous letters at the apartment to various authorities, including the FBI and then-President George H. W. Bush. In one of those letters, which was obtained by the San Francisco Examiner, Dashti told Bush he had “spoken with ‘invisible intelligent species’ from the world of the dead.”
In another, he told Bush “It seemed to me as if there were people around that could read my mind and completely see through me. In other words, I could not think of anything in my own mind that these other people wouldn’t immediately know about.”
In other letters, according to media reports from the time, he complained “that his brain was being used ‘as some kind of communications device, radiolike, and the messages that are to be broadcasted out are sent to my mind and sent out from there.'”
Authorities also found a document from the county health department that listed Dashti as a paranoid schizophrenic. According to media reports, that document said Dashti had a limited capacity ”to think clearly, interact with others appropriately (and) control (his) impulses.” Officers also found a bottle of the medication stelazine, used for psychotics, in his bathroom.
One letter in particular, dated Sept. 26, offered insight into what was going on in Dashti’s mind. He wrote about being owed money for more than two years of work, and referenced the San Francisco PD warrant for his arrest.
“Today the basters [sic] have sent me a letter saying that they want to put me in jail which is either because they are playing God … for me in which case they can go kiss a pig ass. Or as usuall [sic] they are saying they will do what they please because they have the power to do it.”
The letter continued: “I am therefore going to do to them what they deserve. I have bought some carrots which I am going to stick in their ass so they may know all the properties of carrots from now on.”
In fact, Dashti carried out his threats to use the carrots as part of his plan. Holland said Dashti had brought carrots with him in his briefcase. In one of the more bizarre decisions he was to make while he held the bar patrons captive, he ordered his female hostages to disrobe from the waist down. He then forced male hostages to penetrate the women anally with the carrots in an apparent act of dehumanization.
The media reports about the sexual assaults initially were mixed, with some of the hostages denying the assaults had taken place. In some cases, the male hostages were apparently able to “fake” the penetration. In others, however, the sexual assaults did take place.
Recalled Helley, of the initial mixed reports, “These young girls did not know how to handle it. They thought they were supposed to cover it up.”
For some, escape
Holland said that, as the incident unfolded, some of the hostages were able to make it outside to safety. Dashti also agreed to let many of the injured hostages leave.
Helley recalled, about 10 minutes after the shooting, telling her friend Bruce that she had been shot. Bruce, in turn, asked Dashti if he could take Helley outside for medical treatment.
“It seemed to change his focus,” Helley recalled, from making his demands to realizing that more pressing factors might need his attention. Dashti agreed to let the pair leave the bar. Helley grabbed her jacket — a vintage leather-sleeved football jacket from the 1950s that had belonged to her father — and the pair began walking to the door.
“I think I said, ‘Thank you,'” she recalled Monday. “I remember stepping over people’s faces who were on the floor. I remember faces on the floor, thinking, ‘Oh, man.’ They wanted to leave, too, but they were stuck.”
As they walked out the front door, said Helley, Bruce was gripping her arm to staunch the flow of blood from her injury. They stepped out onto a small landing, and saw police still getting into place. To her surprise, she heard shots being fired. An officer began firing toward the hotel, and Dashti was firing back from inside.
She and Bruce dropped to their stomachs on the small landing.
“I felt the bullets go past me. I was going down the brick stairs on my stomach until we got to the bottom,” she said. She saw a police officer there who had been struck by gunfire. He appeared stunned, and she saw that his hair had been parted by the bullet.
As it turned out, said Holland, that officer had been struck by a deflected bullet fired by Dashti that hit a brass area near the door, grazing the top of the officer’s head.
“He survived but it was a very lucky situation,” Holland said. Police initially believed that it was Dashti — not one of the hostages — who had come to the door with Helley.
Landa: “He was lining guys up and pretending to shoot them”
Landa said he made his escape about an hour after the shooting started.
“It wasn’t going very well inside,” he said. “Everybody felt pretty trapped. In retrospect, I should have gotten out earlier but I didn’t.”
He had watched Dashti agree to let most of the injured hostages leave. Dashti told the hostages he had a lot of weapons with him, including grenades.
“He was lining guys up and pretending to shoot them,” Landa remembered, though he noted that he was able to escape before the sexual assaults took place. Landa said his position in the room was about 8 feet from the lobby. There were windows in the wall between the bar and the lobby, and Landa figured he had a good chance to “bust through one of the windows” to freedom.
He managed to get into the lobby, saying it was likely the adrenaline coursing through his body that helped him jump through the window. He was able to get outside and into an ambulance.
Also in that ambulance was Nick Sheehy, who Landa knew peripherally because Sheehy lived in a house with a number of water polo players who were Landa’s friends. It appeared to Landa that Sheehy had been shot in the upper right chest or shoulder. He says his memories of the ride are hazy.
“I remember I was kind of making jokes,” said Landa, and being told that was likely due to shock. He said he was “out of it,” but has a vague recollection of someone speaking to Sheehy, possibly asking him to blink to answer “yes” or “no” questions. He said it didn’t look to him like Sheehy was in particularly bad shape. Unfortunately, Sheehy would not survive his injuries.
“He died in my ambulance, which was … that was hard,” said Landa. “I do think about it, every once in a while. I still don’t like to go see super violent movies or realistically violent moves because of it.”
He continued: “There are certainly some parts that I think about, but not that often. I still have a scar on my arm, so that’s always a reminder.”
Mood swings, degradation
Inside the bar, Dashti continued to make demands and refused to speak directly to police. He would periodically fire several shots, then be silent for 15-20 minutes at a time. He had mood swings.
Dashti shot out lights in the bar, then apologized to the hostages about the broken glass. At other times, he would order the hostages to scream and yell whenever he fired a shot. At one point, he ordered one of the hostages to go to the door and tell police that Dashti was going to kill him.
Dashti then fired. Police said later that they could see the reactions of some of the hostages and were able to determine Dashti’s position as a result, and could tell that he was not actually killing anyone inside based on the responses of the bar patrons they could see. They were not aware until much later, said Holland, about the sexual assaults.
One woman who was allowed to leave the bar told police that Dashti said repeatedly that he didn’t want to kill anyone, though he continued to fire his weapons. In the end, police would find evidence of more than 100 gunshots in the bar, which was littered with pieces of the ceiling that had been damaged by bullets. At times, said Holland, Dashti would complain about his bad marksmanship.
At other times, according to media reports, Dashti would scream, “When is it going to end? How long? How long?”
Police said Dashti verbally attacked American women as “sluts and whores.”
Douglas Moore, the bar manager and a student, told the Los Angeles Times: “He had something against Americans.… He accused women of showing too much leg. He accused them of wearing tight skirts, short skirts. He said it was that kind of trash that was leading guys like him on and that they deserved to be punished.… He did a pretty good job of degrading the women.”
Dashti also ordered all of the hostages to drink beer and, according to some reports, “began a guessing game” with the hostages, asking them to figure out what number he was thinking of, between one and 15.
Holland: “The entire operation lasted 8 seconds”
Holland said police eventually began to put together an entry plan when it became clear that they weren’t going to be able to get Dashti to surrender himself. They were able to speak with hostages who had been released to get valuable information about Dashti’s location, and reviewed a detailed floor plan of the bar and restaurant. Several hostages had escaped through the kitchen after Dashti sent them inside to turn off the lights. They, too, provided valuable intel, said Holland.
At about 6:30 a.m., police decided they were going to enter the bar.
“We were hoping he would give up, or we would take whatever action necessary to rescue the hostages,” said Holland. Just before 7:30 a.m., one police team set off a flash bang device as a diversion so officers could enter the room while Dashti was distracted.
It worked. Dashti began to shoot toward the diversion as a small team of officers entered the room and ordered everyone to get down.
Dashti refused, lunging toward a group of hostages, still armed with a gun.
“Two officers fired. They shot him,” said Holland. “He went down with the shots, and the scene was secured. The entire operation lasted 8 seconds.”
“One of the most successful hostage operations that has ever happened”
Holland said the department learned many tactical lessons from the hostage situation. There are elements of the operation he said he’s not at liberty to discuss even today, because they could impact officer safety.
The department had never faced such a high-profile incident, and that’s still true today.
“You can plan all you want but you know something just like this, it hadn’t been looked at or addressed on that level by anyone,” he said. “It’s only now when you look at school-type shootings you could maybe evaluate things on a scale of that level.”
Over the years, Holland and other members of the Special Response Team have presented nearly 50 times to law enforcement audiences about the Henry’s hostage crisis, and the various lessons learned as a result of the operation.
Some of the lessons related to the equipment used during the incident. For example, the police radios. At that time, there were about enough radios for officers on any given shift, plus a few extras. During the Henry’s incident, with more than 100 Berkeley officers at the scene, radios were in short supply, particularly as batteries ran out. Holland said much of the communication was done over landlines, with mobile phones still in the early days of development.
As a result of Henry’s, he said, the department now issues every officer a radio, just as every officer is issued a gun.
One of the largest lessons, however, was in relation to media coverage, said Holland. Police learned that Dashti was inside watching news coverage of the incident as it unfolded. At times, the coverage would upset him and cause his behavior to become even more erratic. He learned over the news that Sheehy had died, which was a cause for alarm.
Police were also concerned about live broadcasts showing Special Response Team members, which could compromise officer safety and tip off Dashti about police plans. Holland said BPD was able to convince KPIX Channel 5, which Dashti had been watching, to stop broadcasting live footage of the scene to address some of those concerns.
In the days that followed the Henry’s incident, hostages sent an open letter to the media asking them to take those issues into consideration during future coverage, saying some of the broadcasts had put their lives at risk, said Holland.
Holland said stations actually changed their policies as a result of that incident, and believed those lessons had been carried forward to the present day.
Holland also recalled a debriefing session attended by both hostages and police about a month after the shooting where they were able to share their experiences and feelings, and ask questions about what had taken place. It was a learning experience for both sides, he said, adding that he continues to feel proud of the way Berkeley officers handled the case, and that it’s a part of the department’s heritage.
“It’s still, to our understanding, one of the most successful hostage operations that has ever happened,” Holland said.
Sergeant: “A professionally run operation … we can look at with pride”
Sgt. Spencer Fomby, one of two leaders on the Special Response Team now, said he and others on the team have studied the incident, as have many others in the ensuing years.
“If they’ve studied the history of SWAT operations in the state, they’ve studied that incident,” he said. “It’s a pretty well-known incident within policing circles.”
Fomby said the department is currently in the midst of bringing back several people to the department who were involved in the Henry’s incident to offer debriefs to Berkeley officers.
“One of the things in law enforcement we try to do is make sure people don’t forget incidents that happened and lessons learned: understanding the history,” Fomby said. “It’s an example of a successful operation, of a professionally run operation, that we can look at with pride.”
He said the incident was particularly notable because of the number of hostages involved, and the number of hostages saved. In any hostage situation, he noted, the goal is to get the gunman to surrender. But that’s not always possible.
“Sometimes the suspect shows up with the intent to die,” said Fomby. “No matter what they do, they will not be able to talk [the suspect] out.”
He noted that “true hostage situations are rare,” but that it remains critically important for Special Response Team members to be trained to deal with those incidents should they occur. The department gets an average of five or 10 calls a year related to barricaded subjects, but there’s no telling when a larger-scale incident might occur.
“It does happen,” he said. “We know that it does happen. It’s important for our department to have a team that understands the dynamics of the situation, has the training, and has specialized equipment to deal with it.”
Helley: “We cannot get a grip on our gun laws”
Friday, as the nation reeled after the news that a gunman had killed nine people at an Oregon community college, the anniversary of the Henry’s incident had particular resonance.
Stacey Helley said earlier this week that, every time there’s a mass shooting, she has an emotional response. She said, in another life, she may have become an activist focused on gun control, but that, for now, she spends time with discussions among friends who don’t believe in stricter gun control laws.
“I don’t bring it up often, because it’s an exercise in futility,” said Helley. “But every time I hear about a shooting, I get really mad. For many, many years when I would hear of them I would just cry. In the last five years, now I’m just pissed.”
Helley said she still thinks about the Henry’s incident often, particularly as mass shootings have become more common. The recovery took years, as she fought to overcome traumatic memories, nightmares and PTSD. Landa, too, said he had nightmares following the shooting.
Helley said she is signed up for several email updates related to mass shootings, so she can stay informed about what’s happening around the nation. She said she still can’t wrap her mind around how a man with Dashti’s diagnosed mental health issues and criminal background was allowed to buy weapons. (Two of the guns he had with them were registered, police said.)
She said she’s made peace, to a certain extent, with those who believe it’s important to own guns, but that she still wishes the weapons were not as widely available.
“I’d rather we removed the guns from the equation all together,” she said. “We cannot get a grip on our gun laws. And our gunmen.”
Op-ed: It’s possible to give police tools they need while preserving Berkeley’s values (08.31.15)
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Berkeley Police team wins local Urban Shield contest (11.08.13)
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