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COLUMN ONE : Searching for Heart of Darkness : A woman's tortured effort to find a brother who disappeared spans three continents. It leads to a mysterious--and possibly murderous--Amazon guide.

July 29, 1990|DOUGLAS FRANTZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BARCELOS, Brazil — Sandy Reed climbed out of the small airplane and squinted into the cloudless tropical sky. Paint was peeling off the deserted terminal. The Rio Negro, the largest tributary of the mighty Amazon, lay hidden behind a screen of trees. Only a rutted road sliced through the jungle.

Somewhere down that road lay the end of a quest--the end, if not the solution, to a mystery that had awakened Reed on countless nights, propelled her across three continents and drained her meager savings: the unknown, perhaps unknowable, fate of her brother, John Reed, who in 1980 disappeared somewhere beyond this silent clearing.

There had been rumors about him, purported sightings of a tall white man among the Indians, unconfirmable tales of a partial skeleton lying in a hammock beside the river, even allegations of murder. In the worst of her dreams, his frightened voice had told her, "It's not like I thought it would be here."

In the Amazon Basin, myths are as thick as vines, and its 2.5 million square miles remain today as impervious to the order and logic of civilization as in the year 1500, when Spanish explorer Vincente Yanez Pinzon recorded first seeing the river.

Armies and adventurers have sought their fortunes and their futures here. But the often impenetrable Amazon does not surrender treasures or truths readily. For five centuries, many who sought them have left empty-handed--or not at all.

John Reed, who hungered for some undefined higher knowledge and once wrote a book about UFO sightings, had come to believe in one of the countless stories of lost cities inhabited by ancient tribes, their location known only to a solitary guide. In this case, the guide was a shadowy figure called Tatunca Nara, the progenitor of this particular tale.

Reed was not the only one who thought there was a lost civilization to be found. Herbert Wanner, a 24-year-old Swiss who came to the jungle in 1984, was a believer, too. So was Christine Heuser, a middle-aged Swedish yoga instructor whose fascination with Indians led her to Tatunca Nara in 1987.

These three shared something else: One by one, they disappeared--murdered, some authorities believe--while in the company of Tatunca Nara.

Now, after retreating once in fear of her own life, Sandy Reed had come back to the Amazon--with a German filmmaker and a Times reporter along--to demand the truth.

The village of Barcelos, with its 3,000 residents, 10 cars and one telephone, lay before her, dirty and unwelcoming, on the edge of the Rio Negro. Television sets blared incongruously through open windows as she walked--in jeans, Reebok sneakers and a bush jacket--past dilapidated shacks and silent stares.

She stopped to ask directions from an elderly woman hanging wash on a wooden fence. She had only to speak the name of the man she sought. Everyone in Barcelos knew the legendary Tatunca Nara.

Tatunca Nara claimed to be the chief of a tribe that for 3,000 years supposedly had ruled Akakor, the capital of a lost civilization where descendants of gods were supposed to have lived in stone pyramids and subterranean shelters. He was born, he said, in the jungle near the border with Peru, the son of a German nurse who had been captured by Indians and taken by their chief to be his wife.

His tale became the basis for a book, "The Chronicle of Akakor," written in 1976 by Karl Brugger, a German journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. The book described Akakor, its people and its history in alluring detail.

Over the years, Tatunca parlayed his legend into a business, leading tourists into the Amazon. He took them by boat along endless miles of postcard-perfect rivers and streams. He even served as guide for an elaborate expedition mounted by Jacques Cousteau, the famous French explorer-scientist.

Few who went into the wilds with Tatunca believed the story of Akakor; it merely added another layer of exotica to the adventure of a lifetime.

For some, however, Tatunca's tale touched deeper chords. John Reed had gone so far as to have what Brugger's book described as the symbol of Akakor, a sun rising out of water, tattooed over his heart.

When he vanished into the malarial jungle in 1980, John Reed, tall and blond, had left behind four hope-filled letters, his dog tags and his ticket back to the States. The last person known to have seen the 28-year-old man was his guide, Tatunca.

West German police say they suspect that Tatunca murdered Reed, Wanner and Heuser, although no charges have been filed and no bodies have been found.

The jungle has relinquished little evidence in this strange case. A jaw discovered by Swiss tourists in 1986 was identified through dental records as that of Wanner. About Reed, there have been only rumors; about Heuser, not even that.

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