HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Kin Criticize U.S. Effort to Find Captured Airmen
Pubdate: Tue,  2 Sep 2003
Source: Miami Herald (FL)
Copyright: 2003 The Miami Herald
Author: Frances Robles
Bookmark: (Colombia)


BOGOTA - On Feb. 13, Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes
were co-workers, not friends, when they boarded a single-engine Cessna
with a secret mission: take spy photos of Colombia's coca crops.

By now, the Big Pine Key father of one, the Georgia man who missed the
birth of his twins, and the northern Florida pilot may well be chums
as captives of leftist guerrillas who watched their plane's engine
fail, shot at it, and then snatched the men once they crashed.

They were more fortunate than others: Two men aboard the Cessna were
murdered, and three more later died searching for them.

As U.S. military aid pours into Colombia to beat back cocaine
traffickers and rebels, U.S. and Colombian officials say they are no
closer to finding the three Americans. While the United States' eyes
are fixed on other international crises, the families of the three say
Washington may have forgotten about the men they regard as prisoners
of war -- the drug war. Aug. 13 marked the end of their six month in

"I'm shaking my head," said Gonsalves' mother, Jo Rosano. "Doesn't
anybody care? You've got Americans dying. For what? Drugs are still
coming into this country."

The three men work for California Microwave Systems, a subsidiary of
defense contractor Northrop Grumman. They flew single-engine planes
above the Colombian jungle, taking photos of the coca crops and labs.
Their work was an $8 million portion of the $2 billion U.S. aid
package known as Plan Colombia.

"Top secret," Gonsalves used to tell his mother.

It was well-paid but risky work. They often flew at night far out over
the jungle, where leftist guerrillas from the 16,000-member
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, fired at them.

On Feb. 13, pilot Thomas Janis boarded the Cessna 208 that CMS leased
for the flights. Howes was his co-pilot. Equipment operators Stansell
and Gonsalves were in the back. Colombian army Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz
was riding along.

They took off from Bogota's airport at 7:30 a.m., heading for a
Colombian military base in the southern Caqueta region. But 30 miles
short of the landing strip, their plane crashed in a pasture as FARC
rebels riddled it with bullets.

Two hours later, a group of 40 guerrillas stopped at a home about a
mile away to ask for water. The rebels, a witness told prosecutors,
were hauling three monos -- Colombian slang for blonds. They were healthy.

Cruz and Janis were dead. Shot, their bodies were found about a mile
from the crash site, as were 20 antipersonnel mines and remote-control
bomb activators.

U.S. 'Determined'

The FARC has acknowledged holding the three "prisoners of war" and
offered to trade them for imprisoned rebels. The U.S. government has
offered $300,000 -- a fortune here -- and U.S. travel visas for anyone
who provides information leading to the trio's rescue.

"We are very determined to bring back our three Americans," said the
State Department's antiterrorism chief, J. Cofer Black. "We will
never give up."

Family members say they suspect that neither government is doing much
to find the men or secure their release.

But some believe their status as Americans will persuade the FARC to
keep them safe.

"He's like money. You don't rip money in half," said Howes' sister,
Sally Lewis, a Maine schoolteacher.

Howes, 50, grew up on Cape Cod, where he earned up to $100 a day in
high school digging clams and used the money to take flying lessons.
Howes later flew all over Central and South America for a variety of
U.S. antidrug programs, along the way falling in love with a Peruvian
woman with whom he has a 6-year-old son.

His family tells the boy his father has a very important job flying in
the jungle. But still the boy asks: Will his father be eaten by lions?

Keith Stansell's young sons haven't met him yet. Stansell is known as
a story-telling, friendly outdoorsman who doesn't stop talking about
his two teen children in Georgia. His Colombian girlfriend, a flight
attendant, was pregnant with twin sons when he was taken hostage.

The babies were born May 26. She named one Keith.

The twins' mother, Patricia Medina, declined to comment. Stansell's
family in Georgia did not return calls by The Herald. The Colombian
military and Northrop Grumman also declined to comment.

Gonsalves, who turned 31 in captivity, lives in Big Pine Key with his
wife and 10-year-old daughter. An Air Force veteran, he worked several
years analyzing satellite photos before being promoted to equipment
operator about two years ago.

"I knew very little about Colombia," his mother, Jo Rosano, said in
a phone interview from her Connecticut home. "I didn't want him there
at all. He'd say, 'It's no worse than New York."

Rosano and Howes' wife said the U.S. embassy calls twice a week. The
message is always the same: no news.

The families recently learned that the hostages are alive. A
television producer Rosano will not identify showed relatives a taped
message from the hostages. It is unclear when it was taped or how the
producer gained access to the men.

Rosano said her son looked thin; Howes looked heavy.

The FBI is investigating.

Media Report

A recent report in the Bogota newsweekly Cambio, which cited FARC
communication intercepts, said the men were split up but later
rejoined because they were growing depressed. Gonsalves was suffering
from malaria, the report said. The magazine said five rings of
security, each with up to 60 guerrillas, guard them.

A month after the kidnapping, a State Department official visiting
Colombia said 11 rebels had been killed during firefights that
resulted from search missions. On March 25, three American members of
the surveillance program searching for the missing crew were killed
when their Cessna crashed in the same southern region. James Oliver,
Ralph Ponticelli and Tommy Schmidt burned to death.

"I don't think he was up to what they were asking him to do,"
Oliver's father, Albert, said in a phone interview from Georgia. "It
was more or less a suicide situation. The odds were too much against
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