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True crime Berkeley: The hostage crisis at Henry's bar

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JULY 12, 2019

Hundreds walk by it every day, but many aren’t aware of the tragic history behind Henry’s, the bar just inside the lobby of the Graduate Berkeley (formerly known as the Hotel Durant). It may surprise you that nearly 30 years ago, Henry’s was the scene of a violent hostage crisis that left several injured and two dead. 

On Friday, Sept. 28, 1990, Henry’s was bustling with UC Berkeley students as usual. At the time, the bar was popular among undergraduate students, particularly those in Greek life, and there were nearly 70 people in the bar just before the incident. In the crowd lurked Mehrdad Dashti, a campus alumnus around the age of 30 (sources vary on his age) with a criminal record. With him was a briefcase containing three guns and more than 400 rounds of ammunition.

A few minutes after midnight, Dashti fired several shots into the crowd of unsuspecting bar patrons, hitting seven. Amid the chaos, some people were able to escape through the bar’s front doors, but the 33 left would be held hostage by Dashti for another  seven traumatic hours. 

A later search of Dashti’s apartment uncovered several letters he’d written, many to the federal government demanding compensation for telepathy services he claimed to have provided. Among the letters was an official health record classifying Dashti as a paranoid schizophrenic. Dashti’s mental instability clearly influenced his violent behaviors; in previous run-ins with the law, he’d attributed his crimes to the instruction of the voices in his head. 

Dashti’s plan was to hold these bar patrons hostage until he received payment from the federal government for all the services he believed to have provided. While hostages lay in wait on the ground and under tables, Dashti created a barricade around himself, protecting him from the firing range of the police forces, which quickly gathered outside. Throughout those seven hours, some of Dashti’s behavior was surprisingly merciful. He granted requests from a few injured hostages to be released so that they could seek medical attention. He never fired directly at the hostages again after the initial shooting. Other times, his behavior was horrendous. He spoke in a degrading manner to the women in captivity, and some accounts say he ordered some hostages to sexually assault others.

After nearly seven hours of failed negotiation with Dashti, police forces outside decided it was time to storm the scene. About 7:30 a.m., police set off a flash grenade, creating a diversion so that they could enter the bar safely. It quickly became clear that Dashti was not going to surrender, so two police officers fired, shooting and killing Dashti on the spot and freeing the remaining hostages. It was, and may still be, the largest case the Berkeley Police Department had ever worked on. 

The tragic incident left several people injured, including a police officer, and one hostage dead. More were left mentally and emotionally traumatized. Yet many recognize the hostage crisis at Henry’s Pub as an important part of Berkeley’s history. It raised questions about violence, mental health and gun control, which we’re still struggling to answer today. The crisis reminds us that Berkeley is more than just home to our campus — it’s a city with a deep history containing both victory and tragedy.

Contact Margo Salah at [email protected].

JULY 12, 2019