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Hearings Hit Nerve With Hostages' Kin

July 20, 1987|GARRY ABRAMS and JEANNINE STEIN | Times Staff Writers

Tim Kilburn can't entirely avoid the Iran- contra hearings, but he's made an effort.

For the 37-year-old Aptos, Calif., tax accountant, the televised testimony is a painful reminder of the 18 months his uncle, a 61-year-old librarian at Beirut's American University, spent as a hostage in Lebanon.

Peter Kilburn's body, with a gunshot wound to the head, was dumped in the mountains outside Beirut in April, 1986, along with the bodies of two British teachers. The slayers, a group calling itself the Arab Fedayeen Cells, said the three men were killed in retaliation for the U.S. bombing of Libya that same month .

"I haven't watched the hearings at all," Kilburn said in a telephone interview, explaining that what he knows about the congressional investigation came from radio reports and "a little bit" from newspapers. "That whole thing was a little close to me. . . . There's just not much there for me (in watching the hearings)." He noted that recently he also has been unable to finish reading a book about the hostage experience or complete a collection of his uncle's letters.

Intense Awareness

Kilburn's reaction is one example of the impact the hearings are having on the families of current and former hostages. Although their reactions vary widely, the families are intensely aware of--and in some cases strongly affected by--the hearings.

Some of those who could be reached for comment feel that the hostages themselves have been shoved into the background of public attention, even though their plight was one of the sparks to the complex Iran-contra affair. Sentiment also is divided over last week's testimony by Rear Adm. John Poindexter, the former presidential national security adviser, that President Reagan had approved sending arms to Iran in direct exchange for hostages, an arrangement the President had repeatedly denied.

But in Fort Collins, Colo., Kit Sutherland, the 27-year-old daughter of Thomas Sutherland, the dean of agriculture at American University in Beirut who has been held since 1985, maintains both a vigil for her father and a silence on her thoughts about the hearings.

"I definitely have my opinions but I prefer to keep them to myself," the 27-year-old genetics lab manager said. "Our emphasis is on dad and what we can do to possibly help bring about his release. We don't have any control (over what is going on in Washington), so we're trying to handle the things we do have control over."

As an example, she said, appearances by former hostage Rev. Benjamin Weir, who met her father while a hostage and who spent the weekend in Fort Collins attending church services and a luncheon, were one way "we spread our efforts across the United States. Talking to him does help. Through him I can sort of talk to dad, know what he's doing, talk about him with people who have seen him."

Left an 'Imprint'

"I feel in a sense that this (the hostage crisis) will always be with us," said Mae Mihelich , sister of Father Lawrence Martin Jenco, who was freed last July after being held by Shia Muslim captors for almost 19 months. Commenting on the hearings and the hostage experience, the Joliet, Ill., homemaker added: "Every time something like this happens, your heart is going to do a flip-flop for the rest of your life. You thought you put these things way back in your mind and they wouldn't come up again. It's always going to leave an imprint. (It's) Like having a child die--you're always going to have this memory."

Although her brother has publicly opposed trading arms for hostages, Mihelich, who has been watching the hearings daily, said she was reserving judgment until testimony is complete.

"You have to wait until it's all finished. Then you decipher what went on in the first place. Right now I can't commit myself." she said.

"We were always told that they were doing the best they could (to get the hostages released)," she added. "But now you listen to one person, and the next day someone changes the whole thing around. President Reagan always told my brother that he wasn't released for arms. So we're taking what we knew then and know now and are waiting (to make a final judgment)."

Mihelich's other brother, John, who watches the hearings when he has the chance, has already made up his mind, however.

In Hostages' 'Best Interest'

"I'm in full support of (Lt. Col. Oliver) North and Poindexter," said John Jenco, referring to the two principal actors in the Iran-contra affair. "I feel that what they did was in the best interest of the hostages and the United States."

Jenco feels North, whom he met briefly with Poindexter, is a hero. "He is a man of great conviction," he said. "He said that he would do everything he possibly could, as long as it wouldn't break the law."

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