In Bradenton, hope from Colombia

Published May 19, 2007

Relatives of kidnap victims call it "proof of life."

Almost four years have passed since Gene and Lynne Stansell received any confirmation that their son, Keith, a U.S. defense contractor who was taken hostage by left-wing guerrillas in Colombia, was still alive.

Then Wednesday out of the jungle emerged a bare-boned Jhon Frank Pinchao, a Colombian policeman who had spent almost nine years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

At a press conference Pinchao said he escaped from the same FARC camp where Stansell, 42, and two other American defense contractors, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves, are held.

All were alive and in good spirits, Pinchao said.

"This was wonderful news, " said Keith's mother, Lynne Stansell, speaking by phone from their home in a gated community in Bradenton. "We have been asking for some proof of life for a long time."

The three Americans were captured in February 2003 after their single-engine plane crashed in the Colombian jungle on a counterdrug reconnaissance mission.

A gaunt looking Pinchao said he escaped the prison camp in the country's eastern jungle lowlands on April 28. He last saw the Americans on the day he fled, he told reporters. One of the Americans, Gonsalves, was suffering from hepatitis.

Pinchao described a harrowing 17-day journey through the jungle, following an Amazon tributary until he reached safety.

The Stansells hope to learn more details about their son after U.S. Embassy staff are allowed to speak with Pinchao.

The last proof he was alive came in the summer of 2003 when the FARC invited a Colombian journalist to photograph and videotape the hostages.

"To our country, we miss you and we hope we return one day. We're alive and well, " Keith Stansell told the camera.

The State Department provided a glint of hope in February. The families of the three Americans were shown pictures of a deserted FARC camp where Colombian soldiers found a piece of paper with the names of the three captives.

"That is all that we have had, " said Lynne Stansell.

The FARC, Colombia's largest rebel group, last year called on left-leaning U.S. politicians and celebrities to help it reach a deal with Washington to release the three Americans.

"Howes, Stansell and Gonsalves are alive in our custody, treated with respect and dignity in the jungle, " the letter said.

The FARC is holding some 60 prominent hostages, including a female former presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt. It says it will release them in exchange for nearly 600 jailed rebels.

The Stansells do not doubt their son's physical and mental toughness. They keep photos of him - with jutting jaw, flattop haircut and Tom Cruise smile - on their refrigerator. An avid outdoorsman, the former Marine liked to hunt deer in the woods around Savannah.

The Stansells mostly worry about Keith's children. Lauren, now 18, is at community college studying dental hygiene. Kyle, 14, is a student at Florida Air Academy, a military-style boarding school in Melbourne.

"We are just making sure Daddy would be proud, " said Lynne Stansell.

Lauren wrote an open letter last May that was published in Colombia's main news magazine, Semana.

"During these years of my father's captivity so many things have happened in my life, " she wrote, describing the beauty pageants and academic prizes he missed, as well as seeing her with braces. She ended with a plea. "Please free my Dad soon."

Washington has offered a $5-million bounty for information leading to the capture of the guerrilla commanders responsible for holding the three. Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe, has refused to negotiate prisoner swaps with the rebels.

The Stansells are opposed to any rescue attempt by the Colombian police or military, which they fear could go wrong. They prefer a diplomatic approach and argue that more flexibility by the Bush administration would help.

"According to the Bush administration, everyone is a terrorist so there's nothing to discuss, " said Gene Stansell, 78, a retired Miami teacher. "But speaking and negotiating are two different things."

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.