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Captors Free Kidnapped Mormon Missionaries

Russia: Pair are said to be in relatively good health. No ransom was paid.

March 23, 1998|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Two Mormon missionaries from the United States were released Sunday after four days in captivity when their abductors apparently tired of holding them hostage, authorities said.

Although the kidnappers had demanded $300,000 in ransom for the two 20-year-old men, officials said the abductors never collected any money and ended up dumping their victims on the outskirts of Saratov, the Volga River city where they were kidnapped Wednesday.

The two men, Travis Robert Tuttle of Gilbert, Ariz., and Andrew Lee Propst of Lebanon, Ore., were reported to be in relatively good health. However, one of them suffered a broken finger and both were sore from being bound, gagged, blindfolded and roughed up, church and U.S. officials said.

"They're out, they're safe, they're well," said church spokesman Don Rascon in Salt Lake City.

Tuttle and Propst, two of about 600 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionaries in Russia, were assigned to work in Saratov, about 420 miles southeast of Moscow. Wednesday evening, they went to a private apartment where they had been invited to give a religious lesson but instead were abducted by two men.

The kidnappers delivered a note to another church member demanding the $300,000 ransom. But for some reason, officials said, the abductors did not call as promised to arrange to trade their captives for the money.

The missionaries were held at least part of the time at a country house outside Saratov. Sunday afternoon, their captors drove them to the edge of the city and released them. From there, they hitched a ride to a telephone and called church leaders and police.

"The missionaries are tired, happy and grateful to be free," said church Elder Wayne M. Hancock in Saratov.

Saratov regional Gov. Dmitri Ayatskov had said before the pair's release that the $300,000 had been collected to pay the ransom. He did not say how it was raised, and there was no indication Sunday that it had been delivered to the kidnappers.

"To the best of our knowledge, no ransom was paid," said U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Hoagland in Moscow.

The Mormons, along with other foreign church groups in Russia, have come under attack for trying to import their religious beliefs. But it did not appear that the two missionaries were targeted for abduction because of their missionary work.

Authorities said it appeared that the two were chosen simply because the kidnappers calculated that the church or the victims' families would be willing to pay for their return.

When the kidnappers did not telephone, U.S. and church officials worried that the kidnappers had become frightened by publicity about the case and would kill the hostages.

But it turned out that the abductors were not so hardhearted. In fact, one of the kidnappers ended up telling his life story to the missionaries--providing details that might make it easier for the police to track him down, one official said.

Shortly after their release, the missionaries talked by telephone with U.S. Ambassador James Collins in Moscow. "The ambassador has spoken with them and confirmed they are in relatively good health," Hoagland said.

Then the two Americans spent hours Sunday being interviewed by officials from the Russian Federal Security Service--the main successor to the Soviet KGB--and the Russian Interior Ministry, which were jointly handling the case. Two officials from the U.S. Embassy and representatives of the church were present during the questioning.

"The American Embassy is of course extremely pleased at the safe conclusion of this incident," Hoagland said. "We appreciate the excellent work and cooperation of Russian authorities in bringing this situation to a successful close."

The release of the two men was welcome news for Mormon church officials and for the Russian authorities alike--although perhaps for somewhat different reasons.

"We are all rejoicing that the missionaries are safe," the church's three-member governing body said.

In Saratov, a police officer who picked up the missionaries after they telephoned put it this way: "I am personally very glad they are safe and sound. If something had happened to them, it would have complicated our lives a great deal. We all feel relieved here."

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