Ransom: The Untold Story of International Kidnappingby Ann Hagedorn Auerbach
In Ransom, Auerbach explores two years in the high-stakes world of international kidnapping, beginning on July 4, 1995, when terrorists seized an American couple relaxing on the banks of a river in Kashmir. Seamlessly moving between this story and others, Auerbach provides the first inside look at the highly secretive world of private industry kidnap negotiators, the little-known international role of the FBI, the explosive controversies over ransoms and negotiations, and the ordeals of hostages of the 1990s. Exposing many never-before-reported facts culled from interviews worldwide, Auerbach shows how events in the post-Cold War era have compelled criminals, terrorists, former rebels, and even former soldiers to turn to kidnapping to make a living. A riveting and frequently terrifying investigation of the world's fastest growing criminal enterprise -- kidnapping for ransom and for political advantage.
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt
Ever since I was caught, I have been walking through mountains and passes and I am tired. I appeal to the Government of India and the Norwegian Government to do anything they can to release us because we don't know when we will be killed. I appeal especially to the tourist office because everybody there told me that this place was safe. An officer even gave me his card and said I could call him if there was a problem. Well I am calling [him] now.
--Hans Christian Ostro July [17,] 1995
AUGUST 13, 1995
The mountains seemed as high as the sky was deep, challenging even the sun as it climbed the peaks each dawn to deliver a new day to the villages below. And as the sun rose higher, hanging ribbons of light across the Himalayan terrain, women in the village of Prazmulla carded machetes to a grove of trees to crop limbs for firewood, as the women of the village had done every morning for generations. But today was different. This August morning in 1995 would break the peaceful spell of the ages, ushering in the curse of the violent present. The terror began as the women crossed a dirt road at the grove's edge.
Near the road beneath the chopped branches of a willow tree was the headless body of a man. The first woman saw it and gasped. Two others hid their faces in their hands. The head lay some forty yards away, its curly flaxen hair speckled with dirt. The women did not know the man. He was not from their village, nor was he from their country. He was a tourist, an innocent, a well-meaning man slain by strangers in a land he passionately loved, far away from his home.
Other villagers quickly gathered round the corpse, staring at the feet and hands bound tight with hemp. Tucked between the folds of the dead man's clothing were scraps of paper, on which he had written poems, and a strip of birch bark on which he had secretly jotted notes about his feelings and beliefs. The handwriting was sometimes hard to decipher; perhaps his hands had been bound as he wrote. Or maybe he was scribbling in the darkness of a mountain night. Some poems described his fascination and love for Indian culture; others revealed an emotional landscape of despair, a hopeful plan to escape, and a valiant effort to face an unspeakable fate.
"If I die now," he wrote, "then I will not die poor. I have within me many worlds as this one with all its richness, beauties and contrasts."
Police from the nearest town soon came to examine what the villagers had discovered that day. They returned the head to the body and carefully set it down upon the long, once-sturdy legs. Kneeling at its side, they examined carvings on the chest that later would be identified as the initials A-L-F-A-R-A-N, a militant group apparently named for a mountain in Saudi Arabia near the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam. They saw too a note pinned to the dead man's shirt. Written in Urdu, a language of Pakistan spoken in Kashmir, it read: "We have killed the hostage because the government has failed to accept our demands. In 48 hours, if our demands are not met, the other hostages will meet the same fate."
AUGUST 13, 1995
Jane Schelly looked down the long, white-clothed table, wondering if anyone else had noticed the subtle shift in mood. She and the other wives, girlfriends, and families of the five tourists now in captivity in Kashmir had been invited to the German embassy for what was meant to be a social luncheon, a time to mingle and to relax. But something was amiss. During lunch, the diplomats, at various times, had placed their fine, embroidered napkins on their velvet-cushioned seats and quietly left the room. Upon returning several minutes later, they seemed withdrawn and even solemn, wearing the strained, anxious looks of sailors who had just been informed of a menacing storm ahead. In the hallway outside, there was an unusual stir and bustle in the air. Doors opened and closed amid the foreboding sound of hushed voices. And as the guests began the last course, an irresistible serving of strawberry crepes with vanilla ice cream, Jane observed that the German ambassador, Frank Elbe, who had just returned to the seat next to hers, was unable to eat.
By then Jane had grown eerily familiar with the ups and downs of her new life as a hostage wife. Her husband, Donald Hutchings, a highly respected neuropsychologist from Spokane, Washington, had been in captivity in the Himalayas for forty days, since July 4. With him were two Brits, Keith Mangan and Paul Wells; a Norwegian, Hans Christian Ostro; and a German, Dirk Hasert. Another American, Connecticut businessman John Childs, had escaped on the fifth day of captivity. Although Jane believed Don and the others would be released soon--any day now--there had been moments of heart-stopping doubt that they would ever be seen alive again. Death threats and deadlines had brought endless worries to her wakeful nights and a clinging sense of terror to her days. At times it seemed she could not breathe until the deadlines had passed and she had heard the news that Don was still alive somewhere in the mountains. No man had ever been more alive for Jane than Don Hutchings, whose charismatic smile and cheery, witty demeanor had brightened her life for the better part of eleven years. But during the past forty days, in her imagination, Don had been killed and resurrected and killed again a dozen times or more.
The first big scare had occurred three weeks earlier, on July 21, the day the rebels had announced to the local press that two of the hostages had been wounded in a bloody skirmish between Kashmiri rebels and the Indian troops. At 9 P.M., the hostage families gathered at the British High Commission in New Delhi and were told the news. Jane wrote in her journal later that night: "We were absolutely silent and aghast. It just didn't seem possible. Our thoughts were: What sorts of wounds do pistols, machine guns and hand grenades cause? How would you get them to a safe place on horseback, or on a litter [stretcher]? Would they be in shock? Would there be risk of infection or amputation? Would Don be critically injured and perhaps be handicapped? If they were injured, would the [militants] allow them to be helicopter rescued? So many thoughts and concerns that I actually felt physically ill, a feeling I hadn't had to such a degree since the night and the morning that Don was actually taken."
The next morning relief had swept through the New Delhi embassies of four governments when the U.S. State Department informed Jane and the others that the Indian government adamantly denied the occurrence of any skirmish.
And now, at the German embassy, Jane hoped her fears for Don's safety would once again prove groundless. But the look on Ambassador Elbe's face was unmistakably grim. He would later tell the father of one of the hostages that the toughest job he ever had faced in his long career as a diplomat was playing the role of luncheon host that day, a role that required him to deliver the tragic news that he and officials of four other governments had learned just before the strawberry crepes were served. After adjourning the group to a sitting room for coffee, the ambassador dolefully asked for the attention of the guests he had hoped to entertain and to console that day. "The body of a white-skinned male has been found in the area where we believe the hostages have been held," he said. "The body will be taken to Srinagar [Kashmir's capital] for identification."
At that instant, as Jane looked at the other hostage families, it felt as though a cold wind had gusted through the elegant, high-ceilinged room. One of the women began to sob; another said she wanted to go "home" immediately, back to her embassy. Jane comforted both by saying that it did not appear to be certain that the body was indeed one of "theirs." What was going through her mind was that, considering the presence of other tourists in the area, there was likely only a 50 percent chance it was one of the five men, and a one-fifth chance that of those it would be Don. Jane tried to calm herself with the notion that there was only a 10 percent chance that Don was dead.
"There was this feeling that you did not want it to be your loved one and yet you looked around that room and thought with horror that you could not wish this on anyone," Jane recalled. "I asked if it was certain that the killed one was one of our five and Mr. Elbe looked at me as if he did not understand my English and said absolutely nothing."
A British official then announced that the car was ready to take the guests back to their embassies. As Jane walked out, the tall, formal ambassador put his arm gently around her and very softly said, "It's not your husband."
Leaning into Elbe, she began to sob.
AUGUST 13, 1995
As the sun mounted its midday post above northern India, glaring like a spotlight on the tragedy below, it had barely burned off the first layer of fog over the Thames. In East London, Roy Ramm's day was about to begin in a way he had not anticipated: with a call from the British Foreign Office.
The stocky, blue-eyed commander--Scotland Yard's number-three man--had planned a rather unprecedented Sunday in his life, a day without a schedule. Indeed, it was a day with only one goal, to spend time with his family. He might visit his eighty-five-year-old mother or take his wife Janet for a country drive in his favorite car, the 1970 MG, or join Janet and his son James for an afternoon movie. Sundays were meant for such things, the commander firmly believed, though he rarely had time to indulge in leisure. Janet, of all people, knew such a day was as unlikely as a Sunday afternoon visit from the queen. Once asked what it was like to live with Commander Ramm, his wife smiled and said, "Who?"
Although he kept a low profile in the British press, Ramm played a leading role at Scotland Yard. "RR," as his colleagues called him, was a veritable combination of Eliot Ness, Indiana Jones, and Tom Clancy's hero, Jack Ryan. He even looked the part with his Hollywood good looks--a British Nick Nolte with a cockney accent. His boss was the assistant commissioner, and his boss's boss was the commissioner. And with his post came a prodigious list of responsibilities. He was head of the Organized Crime group, which meant he supervised the undercover unit, known by its code name SO10 and considered one of Scotland Yard's most effective weapons. It also meant he directed the extradition unit, the witness protection program, the international extortion unit, and the nearly 600 men and women in the Flying Squad, a group that handled bank robberies. He headed up the Fraud Squad, at 200 strong, and the Firearms Unit, the 200 or so bobbies who carried guns. And he was lauded by his colleagues as one of Britain's greatest detectives ever.
For the past five years, too, the commander had been the director of hostage negotiation, which meant exactly what it suggested--and more. As director, not only did Ramm supervise Scotland Yard's negotiator-training school--an internationally renowned program--but he also was in charge of handling hostage crises in Britain. Moreover, during the past two years, he and his team of twelve crisis negotiators had begun to work with the British Foreign Office on cases abroad. The squad was dispatched to investigate murders and drug trafficking, and they advised governments on ways to gain the release of hostages taken by terrorists, rebel tribesmen, or common criminals. Abductions of Brits in foreign lands, especially developing nations, were on the rise.
The image of Scotland Yard's finest getting calls from the Foreign Office at every odd hour--with cars routinely picking them up before dawn and secretly depositing them on planes to exotic lands, from Sierra Leone to Indonesia--was, like the commander himself, the stuff of movies. Visions of globe-trotting cops indulging in lavish travel during the bleak months of a London winter provoked jealousy among colleagues, who dubbed the team "the suntan squad," and criticism in the local press, which questioned the practicality of such endeavors. To be sure, the budget was filled with highly unusual--and at first glance, very indulgent--items for London cops, including business-class airline tickets to sunny climes overseas. The missions, however, were anything but lavish junkets on the warm, white beaches of the world.
To the contrary, they were often rigorous, demanding expeditions involving long, sometimes treacherous plane trips; the need for inoculations against every disease and virus for which an antidote existed; bumpy rides through battle-torn landscapes often stitched with land mines and marked by haunting scenes (like the display of human heads impaled on wooden poles that Ramm had witnessed in Cambodia); hikes through hot, hostile jungles and periodic bouts with illnesses contracted by ingesting contaminated food and water; many weeks away from home; and many, many interrupted Sundays. Accommodations were typically austere.
On one case in South Asia, Ramm and fellow negotiators decided they must relax for a few hours at the end of a grueling day and watch a movie. A government official had given them some pirated videos and an old TV with a VCR. There was only one problem: insufficient electrical power. After gathering enough car batteries to rev up their rugged entertainment center, they settled back to watch Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, which for a while provided a much-needed escape. But halfway through the movie, a new problem yanked them back to reality: rats perched atop the TV.
Then there was the work itself. In a foreign culture, every challenge of negotiating a kidnapping was doubly difficult.
That Sunday morning in August marked the middle of what had already been a frantic first year for the Yard's international cops. In early July, when the Kashmir incident began, Ramm had just returned from Bosnia, where he had advised the United Nations on gaining the release of the 120 British peacekeepers held hostage by the Bosnian Serbs. The Bosnia assignment had begun shortly after the resolution of a five-month case in Africa, where Ramm had secured the release of six Britons held by guerrillas, and this had followed several grueling cases in Cambodia. But for the commander and his team of negotiators, what was about to transpire in the year ahead was the scheduling equivalent of a Gatling gun. By spring the so-called suntan squad had little hope of ever seeing the light of day again. The group--much like kidnap experts worldwide that year--would be hurriedly trying to keep up with a rapid-fire caseload. With calls coming in from negotiators in time zones all over the world and urgent flights to its remotest regions, the notion of a free Sunday for Ramm would seem like a chapter from another person's life.
But on this particular Sunday, India was uppermost on the commander's mind. Kidnapping was a common weapon in the struggle for independence in India's northernmost region, Kashmir, but rarely had foreigners been abducted. Now there were five tourists who had been held in mountain hideaways for nearly six weeks. Ramm and others on his staff had been especially concerned because Scotland Yard had not been invited to the front lines of the incident. That was up in Srinagar, where daily contact with the kidnappers was occurring. Both Scotland Yard and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation had representatives in New Delhi who were permitted to submit written suggestions only to the governments of the four affected countries--the United States, Britain, Germany, and Norway--referred to as the "G4." But none of the professional negotiators was allowed to set up what was called a "cell"--an entity through which they systematically organize and analyze information and messages, script communications to kidnappers, consult with local police, and advise the head communicator. They were not where they wanted to be, but Ramm knew that pushing his way to "the front" would not be diplomatic and might compromise his position if the negotiators were eventually invited. The commander was a gentleman, and when it came to diplomacy, he was a master. He understood that there had been so much optimism among the diplomats in New Delhi regarding the imminent release of the hostages that any intrusion by Scotland Yard or the FBI would likely have been frowned upon. In fact, such interference could have been insulting to the diplomats who had successfully dodged a minefield of death threats, demands, and deadlines, and who had pridefully managed the case without the daily direction of professional negotiators.
Ramm would not remember much about that Sunday, after he got the call. He was accustomed to receiving calls at odd hours regarding abductions and other crises, but he had never gotten one about the decapitation of a hostage. His heart sank as he listened to the somber official from the Foreign Office who told him about the body that was found in the willow grove. The authorities believed it was a Norwegian tourist, the official said, by the name of Hans Christian Ostro.
Although he wore more hats than any commander in Scotland Yard's history, including a new one as a United Nations adviser on hostage negotiation, the commander's capacity for empathy was far greater than any sense he had of self-importance. Good negotiators, whether they admit to it or not, live with a case in their minds and hearts every waking hour until it is resolved and the hostages are safely released. And the commander was clearly one of the best.
As he listened to the government official, Ramm knew that the death of Ostro, a twenty-seven-year-old actor, director, and writer from Oslo, would transform the case in India, both strategically and emotionally. It would be the catalyst to force open the gates to outside negotiators from Scotland Yard and elsewhere, who had been in New Delhi since July. India's intransigent pride--one of many issues affecting the search for a resolution--would diminish as the former colony and the "G4" sought an end to the crisis.
The stakes were much greater now. The rebels had killed one hostage; it would be easier for them to kill again.
AUGUST 15, 1995
EN ROUTE TO INDIA
August 15 was the forty-eighth anniversary of India's independence from Great Britain. As marches and speeches replaced the usual clamor of India's swarming cities, five time zones away Roy Ramm was fastening his seat belt and settling in for a long plane ride east. He would arrive in New Delhi at about dawn and, despite the hour, be whisked away to meetings that would consume his day. Typically, on such long flights, the commander divided his time between briefing himself on the myriad details of the case at hand and reading a novel, often by John Le Carre, his favorite living writer. Coming back from Sierra Leone the previous spring, he had read The Dark of the Sun by Wilbur Smith, a British novelist and another Ramm favorite. But today he would sleep, if possible, and as he forced himself to relax he would mull over the imposing task ahead, perhaps even jot down a few thoughts.
His job was to move delicately, diplomatically, and as smoothly as possible to position his negotiators--and those from the FBI--onto the center stage at Srinagar. Among other things (such as keeping the hostages alive and delaying any further violence by the rebels), he and his team must try to prevent, or at least stall, a military invasion, the typically knee-jerk governmental response to the killing of a hostage. Although a rescue might be necessary eventually, now was not the time, and because of the rugged, vast terrain, there might never be a moment when military action would not endanger the lives of the hostages. It was worrisome that dozens of Delta Force agents from the United States, as well as Special Air Services (SAS) operatives from Britain and members of India's Black Cats commando division--created after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi--were already planning their maneuvers through the craggy passes of the Kashmir Valley, though they had not dared to venture yet to northern India. It wasn't that they weren't competent; it was simply that the timing was wrong. They did not yet have enough information to conduct a successful raid.
As he tilted back his seat and closed his eyes, he thought of the hostages in Kashmir. Ostro was killed on the fortieth day of their captivity, and Ramm, like everyone else in the case, hoped the remaining hostages did not know of his death. The commander well understood the comments of Charlie Mangan, the father of one of the British hostages, who told a local reporter that, although he was confident his son was strong enough to "ride things out and to adapt to situations quite quickly," he was deeply worried that "if Keith knows what happened to Hans Ostro ... well, I shudder to think what he's thinking about."
As a parent as well as a hostage negotiator, the commander could almost feel the father's concerns. It seemed abundantly clear now that, unlike previous incidents in India, this one might not be so quickly resolved. The psychological and physical ability of the hostages to endure a long captivity depended, in large part, on hope. And the enduring source of hope for captives was the belief that they were more valuable to their captors alive than dead. The hostages' knowledge of Ostro's savage demise could smother that hope as quickly as a mountain avalanche could kill them.
As the plane roared toward the Mediterranean, the commander, as if playing solitaire with his memories, drifted in his thoughts, flipping back through his past cases. There was Bosnia and the satisfaction of seeing so many hostages set free, and the incident in Sierra Leone, which ended with the safe release of two young engineers. But then, like shadows suddenly closing in, the images of Cambodia invaded his thoughts, reminding him of the pain of the previous year.
In November 1994, the Khmer Rouge had admitted to killing three Western tourists whose freedom Ramm's team had been trying to obtain since their abduction the previous summer. The captors' intent was to scare away foreign investors whose money would strengthen Cambodia's new government. In April that same year, the Khmer Rouge had abducted three other foreigners who were traveling the 135 miles from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh. After four or five days in captivity, they beat the captives to death with clubs and rifle butts. But no one knew of the murders for months. Among the tragic details of the case was the fact that the guerrillas continued to ask for money, a $150,000 ransom and a $5,000 fee for proof-of-life information, long after the two young women and the man, all in their midtwenties, were dead. "Madness without a full moon," Chris Newman, a Scotland Yard negotiator, called it.
Ramm, who faced death threats throughout the ordeal, could still hear the words of one victim's father, who kept believing--until the day the bones were found--that his twenty-four-year-old daughter was alive. The father even wanted to sell everything he owned to pay the costly ransom and to buy the proof-of-life details. "I feel she's alive; I feel she's alive," he kept repeating. It was stunningly cruel when the rebels asked the grieving families for money for the remains of the bodies. Shortly afterward, the father, whom the commander believed to be "one of the finest people" he had ever met, died of a heart attack. Although the commander had been teaching hostage negotiation for some time, his ability to deal with the intense emotional needs of a family was acquired only through experience. And the horrors of Cambodia had been one of his most intense classrooms.
When he found himself trying to erase the images, he kept thinking of the hostage families and then of his own son who had been amply warned about potential dangers abroad. He thought for a moment about the Khmer Rouge and their heinous acts through the years. They were perhaps the bloodiest of all rebel groups, certainly among the century's most vicious. Yet in the years after the fall of communism and the installation of a new regime--and despite the 8.5 million land mines still buried in its war-wracked earth--the "new Cambodia" was touted in travel brochures and articles. "Cambodia: Journey of a Lifetime" was the title of one glossy brochure. And a Cambodian tourism official had recently told the press, "We want to promote nature-based tourism. We want people to discover our virgin provinces, such as Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri."
But the old problem, the Khmer Rouge, was still there, roaming the hills and jungles outside Phnom Penh. In 1994--a record year for Cambodian tourism, up 50 percent from the year before--guerrillas were taking Western hostages. "Serial kidnappings," the locals were calling them; foreigners taken for the ransom income or for manual labor, or both. First an American woman from North Carolina, who was released after forty-two days, and then the others, in two separate cases: three Brits, two Australians, and a Frenchman. All of them had been killed.
Ramm was not a religious man, but as he slipped into a light, fitful sleep, his thoughts were forming what seemed almost a prayer, hoping that what had happened in Cambodia would not happen in Kashmir, that it was not too late for the negotiators to step in, that the hostages and their families had the strength to endure the time it would take to resolve the case, and that the four nations drawn to this maelstrom of emotions and issues would somehow work together toward the goal of gaining the hostages' release.
Despite his experience and the skills of the people he would meet in India, the commander knew how many factors could spin out of the control of the negotiators, even after they were allowed to operate at the front lines. Governments and kidnap experts, no matter how dedicated, could do only so much. Kidnap negotiation, as Ramm had told students and friends through the years, was the most sensitive and delicate operation in counterterrorism. And this case would be exceptionally delicate, one that would linger in his mind long after its bedeviling conclusion.
Five innocent pawns in someone else's war. And now one was dead. Ramm slept barely an hour during the eight-hour flight.
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This book takes a unique look at kidnappings worldwide by showing the victims side in-depth. Personally, I am fascinated by all different kinds of literature and this played into my love of mysteries, etc. The book was filled with info that I never would have even thought about. It does get a little long though, and the ending could have had more punch.
I like that the author looks the problem from the perspective of kidnapers, hostage negotiators, family members etc...