Kidnapped at knifepoint by a disgruntled former client, local lawyer Mike Hostilo unexpectedly found that compassion and humility could save his life.
Hostilo lived much of his life with an air of invincibility, and for good reason. He was a young, successful attorney replete with wealth, travel and a great golf game. He saw as many as 40 clients in a day, going through them in 15-minute intervals. His fast-paced life afforded him the finer things but left little time for reflection. So little, that when a disgruntled former client, Robbie Brower, burst into his Statesboro office, Hostilo had no idea who the bomb-wielding man was.
“I’m just sitting down in my office, waiting to see the next client and then Brower walks in,” says Hostilo. He discusses the incidents of January 16 and 17, 2006, with comfort and precision; it’s clear he’s answered these questions before. He explains that at first he was simply confused.
I had no idea. He had my receptionist and she was screaming. I cried, “What’s going on?” He yelled something to the effect of, “Today you’re going to meet your maker.” I asked, “Who are you? What do you want?” That’s when he said, “I’m Robbie Brower and 11 years ago you ruined my life.”
Then he ties me up and duct tapes me. I said, “What do you want? Do you want money?” He just kept saying, “I want justice. I want justice.”
“So at that point I’m thinking, “I’m going to die this way.” “That’s the one thing I thought. “I’m 40 years old and I’m going to die like this, I can’t believe it – with someone putting a bullet in the back of my head. I had no idea what was going to happen.”
Of course, Michael Hostilo didn’t die. Instead, he spent the next 24 tense, sleepless hours as a hostage held at knifepoint by Robert Eugene Brower and his wife, Connie. Brower had been sentenced to prison nearly a decade before for severely beating a man with a hammer. Hostilo had served as Brower’s court-appointed attorney. With four felony charges already under the defendant’s belt at the time of the trial, Hostilo recommended a guilty plea. Brower, displeased with the subsequent conviction, threatened to kill his public defender upon his eventual release from prison. It was a threat that Hostilo naively took for empty.
Robbie Brower angry, nervous, bickering with his wife kept Hostilo bound and gagged for much of the day and night of January 16. He repeatedly threatened to kill his captive. He carried pyrotechnic explosives and watched news coverage of the standoff from a small black and white TV within the office. His entire motive, it seemed, was a demand for “justice.”
“I just listened to him berate me and yell at me for hours,” recalls Hostilo. “He kept repeating, “You ruined my life.”?At one point, he had brought all these keys out that he had saved from all the residences he lived in since he had gotten out of jail. “He was going to make me swallow them as a symbol of what I’d done to his life.” Brower’s actions were not those of a sane and reasonable man, and his mental unraveling became increasingly apparent throughout the night.
“I just think he was mentally unstable. When we first started negotiations with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, that’s the first time I realized he was crazy. When he expressed his demands, I don’t recall his specific list but he wanted to kill like 10 people. And I was No. 1 on the list and, like, No. 9 was Michael Jackson, and No. 10 was George Bush. When I looked him in the eye, I could tell he had that lost, glazed look. I could tell there was something wrong with him.”
Hostilo is the son of a career Marine and Vietnam veteran. His mother is Japanese and a survivor of the bombing on Hiroshima. He comes from tough stock, which means that it only makes sense that with his survival instincts in overdrive, the lawyer searched for the first opportunity to gain the upper hand.
“At one point he took the tape off my mouth,” Hostilo remembers. “And then he just wanted to talk. I’m still scared to death but I start trying to use reverse psychology on him and I’m asking “What do you want Robbie? Exactly what are you trying to accomplish here?” In his eyes, I had developed this sort of kinship with him. He thinks I’m going to help him; I’m going to talk to the judge. He knew he needed me if he was going to get out of there. So somehow, someway I ended up with my cell phone.
“Lovett Bennett, who is my next door neighbor and a lawyer in Statesboro, an absolutely fantastic person, I get in touch with him. He knows what’s going on; he’s actually sitting in the square outside with the GBI. I get in touch with him and I actually conned, for lack of a better word, Brower into thinking that he’s going to see a judge right now to get justice and to have his hearing. Lovett’s going to be his attorney. If anything was going to get me out of there it was Lovett on the outside and me on the inside.”
“At this point he’s not against me anymore, Hostilo recounts. “He feels like we’re all in this together. But now he’s feeling like he’s going to die. Finally I said, “Robbie, the FBI is about to take over this case and they’re just going to teargas this place. And we’re going to die. They’re just going to shoot us all. They’ll shoot you; they’ll shoot me. They don’t care. ” I start using the logic that they don’t care about me; they just want to make sure that he doesn’t get out of this building and hurt anyone else.”
In the end, Hostilo and the Browers walked out together, arm-in-arm, the way they’d planned the first go-round. They met Lovett Bennett and GBI officials in the square in front of Hostilo’s office, where Robbie Brower gently surrendered to authorities.
“I didn’t see him again until we went to court,” says Hostilo. “[After Brower’s surrender] they took me to the GBI station there in town and my father was there and my friends about 20 friends,” he continues. “That’s the first time I broke down, when I saw my dad. I just broke down.”
Following the kidnapping, Hostilo naturally became the focus of media attention. He appeared on WTOC’s Dal Cannady. He was interviewed by Donny Deutsch. He was even on Larry King Live. But, as the media frenzy died down and Hostilo returned to life as before, he was interested to find that the entire incident had changed him and his practice for the better.
“I’m the kind of guy that believes everything happens for a reason. For this man to be that enraged with me to want to kill me and do what he did, I must have done something wrong there. My first stint as a lawyer I was arrogant, I was brash, and I had had a lot of success at a very young age. I was probably in the practice of law for the wrong reasons: financial gain, success. I had lost my way. This changed everything.”
“This time around, when I came back into it, my parents said, “You have to practice law for the right reasons. You have to do it because you care about people and you want to help people.” So now I have limited my practice to just doing personal injury. Before, I had 2000 clients; now, I might have, 200 clients. It’s a lot smaller. My whole perspective on life has changed.”
“I’m a better me. I’m a better person. I thank Robbie Brower for that. Maybe that was God’s way of saying, “You better check your ego.” There’s some point in time that I’m going to go see him in prison and we’re going to sit down and have a conversation.”