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Body of U.S. Hostage Found in Ecuador

February 02, 2001|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUENOS AIRES — A U.S. oil worker kidnapped in the Ecuadorean jungle in October has been found shot to death, in what appears to be the work of a gang of Ecuador-based kidnappers who are holding four other Americans, U.S. officials said Thursday.

The body of Ronald Clay Sander, 54, an oil technician from Missouri, was found by a roadside Wednesday morning in Sucumbios province, near Ecuador's northeastern border with Colombia. The region is a hotbed of Colombian guerrillas, paramilitary squads, cocaine traffickers and other criminals.

Sander, a 24-year employee of Oklahoma-based Helmerich & Payne Inc., had been shot at least four times with three weapons, according to sources close to the case. His body was covered with a white sheet on which was scrawled a message in Spanish: "I am a gringo. For nonpayment of ransom. H and P company."

The slaying, which stunned U.S. and Ecuadorean authorities, broke the pattern of previous kidnappings, in which oil workers were released unharmed in exchange for ransom.

Colombian guerrillas--who have made kidnapping a vicious and lucrative industry--roam freely on the Ecuadorean side of the border. But investigators believe that Sander's kidnappers are a nonpolitical, Ecuador-based gang whose leader has military training and has operated in the area for eight years.

The State Department issued a statement saying it "abhors the senseless death" of Sander. The statement demanded the unconditional release of seven other hostages, including an Argentine, a Chilean and a New Zealander. The FBI and other U.S. authorities are working with Ecuadorean police and military on the case.

The mass kidnapping took place Oct. 12 and demonstrated the impunity and sophistication of the gangs that prey on foreign oil workers in petroleum-rich Ecuador.

It wasn't clear whether a dispute over a ransom demand led to Sander's death. The military patrols the border area, and a cocaine lab was raided there last week, an event that theoretically could have angered or startled the kidnappers.

But the same gang, believed to be a mix of Ecuadoreans and Colombians, released an American and seven Canadians unharmed in 1999. A U.S. company paid a $3.5-million ransom for them, according to unofficial reports.

U.S. officials initially thought Sander might have died of natural causes; he had medical problems, and investigators theorized that kidnappers might have taken advantage of a sudden death to feign an execution as a scare tactic. But an autopsy Thursday left no doubt that he had been shot to death.

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