Editor’s note: The Iraqi kidnappers threatened American contractor Roy Hallums with death. Then they videotaped him begging for help. It was all in their script. But could anyone save his life? This is the first part of a two-part series. The second part will be published in Tuesday’s paper.

It was an ordinary Monday afternoon. As ordinary as a day can be in Baghdad.

Roy Hallums was in his second-floor office, sitting at his desk, bent over his computer keyboard. Even in a well-to-do neighborhood, in a fortified complex with armed guards, he was used to hearing the sounds of war. But this was the first time he’d heard them coming up the stairs.

Shooting. Yelling. Pounding feet. Hallums stood, waiting for whatever it was to burst through the door. Four men slammed in, balaclavas covering their heads, guns pointed. In heavily accented English they said: Come with us or we’ll kill you.

Hallums didn’t need to be told twice. He went.

Across the courtyard, stumbling through a gunfight between his kidnappers and his private contracting company’s guards. Out to a car, where he was beaten to the floorboard.

Don’t move or we’ll kill you, said the man who pinned his head.

His heart pounded in time with his racing mind. The car bounced hard across a potholed road. Money, he thought. They want money. His thoughts switched gears. They want to cut off my head. On camera. Like they did six weeks ago to Eugene Armstrong. Or to Nicholas Berg, before that, after they’d made him beg.

His fear sped with the car. They’re going to kill me, Hallums said to himself. And they’re going to take a long time doing it.

November 1, 2004, the day of his kidnapping. A single event from which would be constructed a triangle of anguished isolation: One side was his. Another belonged to his family living in the suburbs of America, begging for help and feeling ignored. The third belonged to the mystery man working deep in Baghdad’s U.S. embassy, with a secret team of specialized agents. Each side independent of the other, each wanting the same thing: the release of Roy Hallums.

Time would prove that day was indeed ordinary, by Baghdad standards. Since President Bush declared major combat operations over in Iraq in May 2003, more than 440 foreigners have been kidnapped. At least 24 were Americans. Eighteen of those are dead or missing.

Only one was rescued.

Nightmare becomes real

Down the phone line came a torrent of sobs and screams. “Mom!” “Mom!” Then odd, disjointed phrases that made Susan Hallums think there was something wrong with her hearing.

“Dad’s been kidnapped … he’s been taken … by a rock.”

“What?”

“Dad’s been taken!”

“Where?”

“By a rock!”

“Carrie, calm down,” she told her grown daughter. Weeks ago, Carrie had been tormented by a dream in which her father had been kidnapped while working as a contractor in Saudi Arabia. Another nightmare, her mother thought.

Susan flipped to CNN, just in case. At the bottom of the screen, a headline crawled. “American contractor taken hostage in Iraq.”

Roy was supposed to be in Riyadh, working for the Saudi Arabian Navy.

But without telling his family, he had secretly taken a contracting job with a catering firm that fed Iraqi soldiers. Through the wonders of satellite phones and a laptop, he had continued to keep in touch with his family. He just left out where he was calling and writing from – a calculated omission to keep them from worrying.

And so it was that television news, and a call from the State Department, informed Susan and daughters Carrie and Amanda that Roy was not where they thought.

And now, no one knew where he was. Or how he was. Or why he had been kidnapped.

Hostage Working Group

Dan O’Shea had more to worry about than the abduction of Roy Hallums. There was Kirk von Ackermann, an American contractor who went missing near Tikrit on Oct. 9, 2003. There was Timothy Bell, a Halliburton employee who disappeared on April 9, 2004.

Hallums was another soul added to the list. At the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, O’Shea worked in secret. The Hostage Working Group, started by the State Department in 2004 to deal with the rash of Iraqi kidnappings, was made up of FBI and CIA agents, hostage negotiators, counterintelligence operators, military analysts and special forces.

They numbered about 30 in all, working telephones and back channels, talking with local imams, police, messaging back and forth with Washington and military intelligence officials of all types.

Sometimes their work was simply sharing snippets of hearsay; this person who knew that person who had heard such and such. Sometimes it was bona fide intelligence. Always, it was maddening, emotional and exhausting.

Work days never ended before midnight. Sleep was captured in catnaps.

O’Shea, a former Navy SEAL who rejoined the military after 9-11, said he came to Iraq on a three-month tour, and was assigned to the hostage team. Then he became obsessed. He volunteered to extend his tour and ended up staying 22 months.

He paid a heavy cost. His marriage fell apart. He couldn’t sleep. His world view often reverted to black and white, evil and good. There was no room for gray.

Those who do such work rarely talk about it, because to do so would only call attention to themselves. O’Shea doesn’t plan on ever doing this kind of thing again, so he is telling his version of events, he says, to help others.

“It ended up taking over my life,” he says. “Kidnapping is the worst possible thing you can do to someone. Someone is torturing you while you scream out to your family and they’re holding up a cell phone and demanding $100,000.”

For Roy Hallums, they demanded $12 million.

Life in captivity

At first, they drove him around. Every Friday, a new house. Day in, day out, always the same: blindfolded, his feet bound with plastic ties, his hands tied behind his back. Gagged.

He was fed bits of meat, rice and rotten fruit. People came and went, asking questions. Where did he work? What was the phone number of his family? He refused to give them those numbers, even when a 9-mm handgun was shoved in his mouth, banging against his teeth.

He kept track of time by a nearby loudspeaker that blared the Muslim call to prayer.

In the middle of December, they threw him into the hole – where he would spend the next 10 months. But first they gave him a script and told him to memorize it. They were making a video. They beat him some more, so he would look upset. They mussed his hair, to make him look disheveled.

They told him their ransom demand.

“You ain’t going to get $12 million for me,” he told his captors. “If I had $12 million, I wouldn’t be here.”

The American Embassy will send it, they said. If not, we will call your family.

There was a director, a man with a camera, a man with a script, and a man with a gun. It took four takes to get it right.

The end result showed a dazed prisoner with an unkempt beard wringing his hands while a handgun was trained at his head. He asked for help because of bad health, he made disparaging remarks about Bush. He appealed to Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi to come to his aid. It was all in the script.

“Gadhafi doesn’t care about me,” Hallums said, straining to establish some sense of reality. “He’s not going to give you $12 million.”

But his captors seemed stupidly naive. They weren’t insurgents kidnapping foreigners to fund terrorism and to make militant statements like al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed this summer by a U.S. airstrike.

They were criminals, a family whose disparate members had gotten together and decided to go into the kidnapping business.

The hole was made of concrete, about 4 feet deep, under a storage shed in the family’s backyard some 15 miles from Baghdad in a violent zone dubbed the Triangle of Death.

There was no light and little air. A plastic container for a toilet. Upstairs, Hallums could hear the shuffling of feet, bangs and thumps, a television blaring Tom & Jerry cartoons, laughter.

Hogtied, in the dark, he felt, rather than saw, other prisoners being dumped into the 7-by-9-foot cell. A door in the ceiling would creak open and a brief shaft of light shone through. Hands would pull out a prisoner, drag him through the hole, and put a gun to his head to make a video. Or a phone call to his family.

There was weeping. And screams. And more weeping. The gags made it hard to talk to each other. The kidnappers threatened to kill them if they did.

Lying on his side – hungry, thirsty, bathed in sweat and stink – Hallums, a career Navy man, made his mind focus. In his imagination, he planned vacations. Not on airplanes – those were too quick. Long road trips across the United States with his daughters and Susan. Where would they stop for lunch? Who they would visit? What would they have for breakfast? Where they would sight-see?

Over and over, changing destinations. Creating conversations. Buying souvenirs.

Every time a footstep fell, every time the ceiling opened, Hallums wondered, what now? Are they making another video or are they going to kill me?

Family takes action

The first and only video debuted on Jan. 23, 2005. It had been weeks since Susan had any word about her ex-husband, who remained her good friend despite their divorce after 30 years of marriage.

The FBI had assigned agents to her family. Family members were told not to discuss the kidnapping with anyone. To stay off the computer. To not believe anything they saw or read.

Susan assumed her phone was tapped, and her computer monitored. She did as she was told. Until she and her daughters saw Roy’s distraught face on the grainy tape.

“We decided we couldn’t just sit there anymore,” Susan said. “We had to get up off the couch.” She felt Roy was trying to tell her something. That there was some kind of code in what he was saying.

She started calling American mosques, talking to imams, trying to understand Muslim culture. She gave interviews, held press conferences, established a Web site, printed bumper stickers saying “Half My Heart Is In Iraq,” ordered refrigerator magnets with Roy’s picture on them, headlined “SAVE ROY IN IRAQ!”

“I called everyone who had a phone,” she said. She called Jesse Jackson, CNN, newspapers, Congress members. “I even called the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

One day, driving with the FBI agent assigned to her, Susan announced, “You know, I think I’m going to go to Libya and talk to Moammar Gadhafi.” The agent, she said, nearly drove off the freeway.

“I got in big trouble for that,” said Susan.

She didn’t go, but Susan did write to Gadhafi, thinking Roy had been sending her some kind of message by mentioning the egocentric president. Gadhafi wrote back. She asked him to make a public appeal for Roy’s release. Gadhafi did.

She offered a reward, $40,000, a figure she thought she could raise by selling her mother’s house. She put the offer, in English and in Arabic, on the Internet.

The FBI was not pleased. Susan no longer cared. “They weren’t telling us anything,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep. I went to the doctor, crying, I was so exhausted. I had to do something. I had to try to get him out.”

‘I know where he is’

The Hostage Working Group had no leads on Roy Hallums. There had been some communication, very early on, between the kidnappers and his employer. A cell phone number was given. But no one answered it.

Weeks went by, then nearly two months. The hostage team assumed he was dead.

The video was the first clue they’d received to the contrary. Day and night, O’Shea and his colleagues called every source they could think of and got nowhere. At every meeting, the team went through their list of names.

Any word on Roy Hallums? What about Raddam Sadiq, a Lebanese-American taken the day after Roy? Any intel on Aban Elias, an Iraqi-American civil engineer from Denver, missing since May 3, 2004?

The answer to all was no. Though the Hostage Working group tracked only foreigners kidnapped in Iraqi, they had plenty of names.

No one had any idea how many Iraqis had been kidnapped by fellow Iraqis.

Abduction was a fast-growing business, fueled by politics, tribal battles and Saddam Hussein’s release of thousands of prisoners shortly before the U.S.-led invasion.

O’Shea thought of it this way – imagine if Rikers Island, the New York jail, released its hard-core inmates into Manhattan. Lawlessness became a way of life in Iraq. The wolves preyed on the sheep and there were plenty of sheep.

One night, O’Shea spent hours with an Iraqi woman whose brother had been kidnapped, trying to help, though it wasn’t part of his job description. The abductors called as she sat in his office.

They were beating him, his screams piercing the cell phone. The only reason we haven’t killed him is because he’s Sunni, they told her. We killed the Shia dog yesterday.

O’Shea told the woman to think of it as a negotiation. They wanted $50,000 but they would take less. He told her to stress Muslim faith, and a teaching of the Quran: If an innocent Muslim is killed, all Muslims die. She pleaded, trying to raise her brother’s value as a human being.

They hung up. Two months passed. Eventually the kidnappers settled for $7,500. Her brother came home. There is no guarantee he won’t be snatched again, including by the same people.

Nine months would go by before O’Shea would learn something new about Roy.

An Iraqi man had been arrested by coalition forces. Trying to bargain, he offered his interrogators a get-out-of-jail-free card:

“I know where Roy Hallums is,” the man said.

To be continued Tuesday


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