Forty years ago, on the morning of March 20, 1980, Morty Gilbert was sitting in his Midtown office at Elektra Asylum Records when a stranger arrived in his doorway. The man was wearing a down jacket and jeans. He carried a briefcase.
“He looked very average,” Gilbert, the record company’s then-sales manager, recalled. “He seemed to be OK.”
The man asked Gilbert if he could hear “Desperado” by The Eagles, one of the company’s artists, on the radio. Gilbert told him it wasn’t up to him. He’d have to call a radio station.
“I didn’t really give it much thought,” Gilbert, now 88, said. “People did [show up at the office] occasionally in those days.”
The man left Gilbert’s office, but his desire for a little California country didn’t go away. One of New York City’s strangest hostage situations was about to begin.
Joseph Paul Rivera was born in New York City and spent much of his life in Queens, eventually becoming a truck driver.
At some point in January 1980, he was mugged, ending up in a Queens hospital with facial fractures. And that’s when the trouble really started.
Elektra Records, founded in 1950, has represented artists including The Doors, The Cars and Warren Zevon. By 1980, the company had gone through mergers and was known as Elektra Asylum. It leased some 9,000 square feet on the ninth floor of 665 Fifth Ave., at 53rd Street.
There was almost no security to speak of, and on that day in March 1980, just after 11 a.m., Rivera walked right in.
Rivera, then 28, began pestering other employees, asking to hear “Desperado.” He also demanded to meet The Eagles and another company artist, Jackson Browne.
When he was denied, Rivera became agitated. That’s when Ruth Manne, the company’s office manager, appeared.
Manne was a veteran of the recording industry, around 50 years old, with graying hair and thick glasses.
She offered to take Rivera into her office to calm him down. Once inside, he slammed the door, locked it and began shoving filing cabinets against the door to act as a makeshift barricade. Rivera then pulled out a .32-caliber pistol and fired one shot into the ceiling.
“The office was in turmoil,” Gilbert said. “People were crawling out.”
The gunman allowed Manne to make one call, and she phoned the authorities. The company’s lobby was soon swarming with police.
“Someone was already talking to the person when I got there,” said Frank Bolz, former commander of the NYPD Hostage Negotiation Team. “He was inside the office. We’re in a hallway and you talk through doors, you sometimes talk through a mail chute.”
Inside the office, Rivera was distraught. He told Manne that while he was in the Queens hospital recuperating, a friend had stolen his truck.
Rivera hoped to borrow $2,500 from The Eagles in order to hire a lawyer and prosecute his former friend. He also wanted to meet Browne, in hopes that the singer-songwriter would give him a job.
Manne, who was desperately afraid of guns, tried to keep her cool.
“I said to myself, ‘Although you’re terrified, you just can’t show it on your face. Otherwise he’ll know,’ ” Manne told The Post in 1980.
She and Rivera would spend more than two hours locked in the office together.
“He told me his problems, which were very complicated,” Manne said. “I became very philosophical with him.
“I knew if I kept him talking, he might not get violent.”
Bolz can’t recall if the police actually contacted The Eagles and Browne — neither the band nor Browne, through their management, responded to a request to comment — but Bolz said they might have.
“You try to contact them,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you will let [the captor] talk to them right away. It’s like ammunition. You don’t want to use it, but you like to have it.”
Inside the barricaded office, things went from bad to worse.
Rivera began talking about killing himself. He told Manne, “I have five bullets in my gun. One of them is for me.”
“I just kept talking to him, telling him that killing himself was a futile effort,” Manne said.
They came up with an alternative.
A couple hours into the hostage standoff, the phone rang at WPLJ, a New York rock radio station.
Deejay Jimmy Fink was working the 10 a.m.-to-2 p.m. shift that day when Larry Berger, the station’s program manager, appeared in the booth.
“He told me this guy wanted to hear a certain song on the radio,” Fink, now working for WXPK in White Plains, says. “I didn’t know what his motives were. Larry told me I’m supposed to play ‘Desperado’ and just do a dedication before and after the song.”
The police had arranged the request.
“We looked at the situation and said yes,” Bolz recalled.
The authorities, however, did not allow Rivera to make the call himself as a result of problems they’d had in previous hostage situations.
In 1975, a gunman took over a Bankers Trust branch on Sixth Avenue and held captives. The criminal spent most of his time holed up inside talking to reporters who had simply called one of the bank’s phone lines. Bolz eventually had to cut the lines.
“That’s how we know you have to be careful with that,” Bolz says. “We didn’t want the radio station to take over the negotiations.”
Just before 2 p.m., “Desperado” hit WPLJ’s airwaves, with Fink introducing it by saying, “This is ‘Desperado’ for the desperate trucker.” When Rivera, still barricaded in Manne’s office, heard the first few lines — “Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses? You been out riding fences for so long now” — he burst into tears.
Rivera called police to the door and said, “I’m going to give you the gun.” He handed Manne his pistol and said, “You can go now.”
She was wheeled out of the building on a stretcher and taken to a hospital for observation.
Rivera was led out in handcuffs and taken to the local precinct station house.
Fink says that he found out only the next day while reading the newspaper who the “desperate trucker” was.
“I felt great, and I was happy to have alleviated the situation,” he said.
“Simply playing a song on the radio could diffuse a hostage situation? That doesn’t happen very often.”
Berger, who died in 2018, had been reticent to talk about the incident, fearing copycats.
At the time, police declared that Rivera “had no history of mental illness.” He apparently just snapped.
In 1981, he pleaded guilty to kidnapping and was sentenced to five years’ probation. It’s unclear what has happened to him since.
Is he out there somewhere, still riding fences?