A former Orange Coast College administrator and his wife, feared lost at sea after being held captive for three weeks by Nicaraguan authorities, have arrived safely in Panama, the U.S. State Department reported Friday.
Leo and Dolores LaJeunesse were towed into port at Colon, Panama, Thursday night and were reported in good condition, said William Schreiber, aide to Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach). The engine of their boat was disabled and will need extensive repair, he added.
The couple, released last Saturday by the Nicaraguan government, had been expected to arrive in Costa Rica, but it was later learned they set sail directly for Panama. When the couple did not arrive earlier Thursday, officials feared they had become lost at sea.
Norma Harms, Nicaraguan desk officer at the State Department, confirmed that the LaJeunesses had arrived safely in Panama but added that she was not authorized to release any other information, except to selected government officials.
The LaJeunesses had declined to sign a Privacy Act release, allowing information about their case to be circulated, Schreiber said.
"We can't give out information to anyone else, under the Privacy Act," Harms said. "We're just glad they're safe . . . . I guess they feel they want their privacy at this point. They've been through so much."
Leo LaJeunesse, 53, formerly an Orange Coast College associate dean, and his wife were sailing their 65-foot boat in the Caribbean off Nicaragua on Aug. 7 when the Nicaraguan Coast Guard took them into custody.
Nicaraguan officials told U.S. authorities the LaJeunesses had not been "detained" but had been assisted because of engine trouble. However, U.S. State department officials said the LaJeunesses had talked by telephone with U.S. Embassy officials in Managua and told them they were under "house arrest" at a hotel in Bluefields, Nicaragua.
The LaJeunesses were interrogated by the Nicaraguan officials, forced to pay $100 a day for their hotel "house arrest" and denied permission to see consular officials, State Department officials said. Nicaragua denied U.S. Embassy officials in Managua permission to go to Bluefields to see the couple, according to the State Department.
The LaJeunesses had been told by Nicaraguan officials that they were suspected of "gunrunning," but no charges ever were filed, Harms said earlier this week. The United States has formally protested the detention of the couple.
Leo LaJeunesse had served on the Orange Coast faculty from 1966 until resigning in 1982 to take an extensive sailboat cruise with his wife. According to college officials, the couple were sailing back to California via the Panama Canal so that Leo LaJeunesse could work again in community college education.
Schreiber, from Badham's office, said State Department officials told him "the embassy (in Panama City) will do everything they can to facilitate their return."
He added that the State Department reported Dolores LaJeunesse "had an intestinal disorder, but not a serious one . . . .
"But we are now satisfied that they are secure.