Thoughts of home kept kidnap victims strong in jungles of Ecuador

Sunday, March 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) _ After heavily armed bandits burst into an oilfield camp in the jungles of Ecuador in October and took Jason Weber captive with other foreign workers, Weber found himself thinking back to something his wife used to tell him.

``She said, `You always look like you're mad at somebody and about to rip their head off,''' Weber told a news conference Saturday after his return home. ``I didn't want to look like that. I tried to smile a lot.''

Weber, 29, Arnie Alford, 41, and Steve Derry, 41, all of Gold Hill, and Dennis Corrin of Nelson, New Zealand, were among seven kidnapped oilfield workers freed this week after payment of a reported $13 million ransom to a group believed to be Colombian professional kidnappers.

The four former hostages returned to Oregon early Saturday on a private jet.

The men are employees of Erickson Air-Crane, a heavy-lift helicopter company headquartered in Central Point, near Medford. With their families sitting nearby, the men described their ordeal at a news conference at a country club.

A fifth American, David Bradley, 41, was staying in Denver with family before returning home to Casper, Wyo. He worked for Tulsa, Okla.-based Helmerich & Payne Inc.

A Chilean and an Argentine also were freed.

Constantly under the muzzle of a gun and subsisting on rice, sardines and an occasional rat, the men said they kept up their spirits with thoughts of their families.

``We knew we had good families back home,'' said Weber, the scraggly beard he wore when he walked out of the jungle to freedom Thursday trimmed to a neat goatee. ``That's what kept us all strong.''

Alford said he was overwhelmed to drive through the little town of Gold Hill and see all the yellow ribbons tied there.

The men said that on Oct. 12 about 4 a.m. bandits, heavily armed with a motley array of guns, pounded on the doors of their rooms and told them to pack a few clothes, then herded them onto a truck and later a helicopter.

After 45 minutes in the air, they touched down and walked for three days through the jungle before stopping at their first camp. Whenever their 22 captors, aged 16 to 40, got nervous the army might be nearby, they moved again, sometimes staying in shacks, but usually sleeping in hammocks slung between two trees.

They kept track of the days with a homemade calendar Weber made from a piece of paper and a pen he had in his pack. The bandits gave them a small magnetic chess set. For exercise, they worked out on a homemade gym devised by Alford from ropes strung in trees. Otherwise, they lay in their hammocks and talked while the bandits kept close guard.

``I'm not sure what their agenda was, whether they were fighting for a cause or just looking for some money,'' Weber said. ``To them, Americans were bad.''

Though they were never beaten, someone was always pointing a gun at them.

``They said they'd shoot us if we tried to escape,'' Weber said. ``They said if the army found us, they'd shoot us first.

Weber said they weren't able to celebrate Christmas, but the bandits managed to find some booze to celebrate New Year's Eve.

``There wasn't nothing good about it,'' Weber said of their captivity. ``There wasn't one second.''

They declined to talk about the slaying of fellow captive Ron Sander, 54, of Sunrise Beach, Mo., whose body was left in a jungle covered with a sheet saying he had been killed for nonpayment of ransom.

The Chilean hostage, German Scholz, a consultant for European energy giant Repsol-YPF, told Channel 10 television that the kidnappers told them Sander had been liberated as part of a ransom deal.

``On Jan. 24, the day that we were separated from him, we shook hands and said goodbye,'' Scholz recalled. ``The promise was that they were freeing Ron because that was the deal they had agreed to with the oil companies.''

When the ransom was paid, the freed hostages were told to walk down a jungle trail toward a town called Santa Rosa. They did not feel any relief, said Derry.

``Just because you're released from that group, it didn't mean you would not be captured by another group,'' Derry said.

Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Heinz Moeller said Friday he feared the ransom allegedly paid for their release would be used by the kidnappers ``to step up violence, perhaps other kidnappings or other crimes'' along Ecuador's northern border region.

Moeller said the hostage crisis underscores fears that Plan Colombia, the anti-drug program partly funded by the United States, may drive other leftist insurgents across the border into Ecuador. Ecuador is appealing to the United States for $400 million to $500 million over five years to prevent the effects of ``Plan Colombia'' from spilling into the nation.

In a speech in Washington, Moeller said Ecuador's security forces stayed on the sidelines during the hostage ordeal at the request of the U.S., Chilean and Argentine governments.