Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Kidnap for Ransom for the Fourth Quarter of 2011, Part I: The Release of American Victim Gerfa Yeatts Lunsmann

As I noted in my "Kidnap for Ransom for the Third Quarter of 2011, Part" entry, Gerfa Yeatts Lunsmann has led a rather interesting life. Born as Jerpa Usman to an impovershed family of Sama (Samal) Tribesmen in Barangay Pangapuyan on Zamboanga City's Sacol Island, she caught the eye of an American couple when she was just 9 years old. Adopted by the couple she was whisked away to the United States and a life most Filipinos can only dream about. Still, she had memories of her home and her biological family and so she made a vow to herself to one day return and re-connect with those she left behind.

Coming of age Jerpa, now re-named Gerfa Yeatts, took a position with the healthcare corporation Central Health in its Lynchburg, Virginia office. There she met a fellow employee, Hiko Lunsmann. Hiko, himself the child of a Norwegian father and a Japanese mother knew very well how difficult life can sometimes be when one looks or acts different than the mainstream. Marrying, the couple had a child in 1997, a son they named Kevin Eric Lunsmann. It was becoming a mother that compelled Gerfa to finally make good on her long ago promise to find her biological family.

Not long after Kevin first began school in 2003 Gerfa, Hiko and young Eric took their first trip to the Philippines. Shocked by the almost unimaginable poverty awaiting them in Mindanao it became a bittersweet reunion with Gerfa's birth family. Between them the Lunsmanns agreed to do what they could to help Gerfa's biological family better themselves. Though Hiko usually remained home on Gerfa's subsequent trips out of safety concerns, he was in full agreement when his wife suggested buying a large beachfront plot in Zamboanga City's Tigtabon Island. Not far offshore of the city's Barangay Arena Blanco Gerfa purchased a beachfront tract. There Gerfa had three palatial homes constructed inside of a walled compound but in her ignorance of local mores and the everyday reality of Mindanao she neglected to wall in the beach so that the compound was open to anyone approaching by water.

Believing herself and her son safe amongst her biological family Gerfa concentrated on the ongoing construction on all three homes within the compound. Much to her consternation and moreover her disappointment, she found herself unpleasantly fending off incessant requests from her family for ever increasing sums of money. To Filipinos of all ethnicities Americans, and to a lesser degree all Westerners, are perceived to be walking ATMs. In relative terms, compared to most Filipinos they might as well be. The poorest person in America need never go hungry nor deny themself medical care. By comparison most people in the Philippines know hunger on a daily basis and die from diseases most Americans consider innocuous due to their advanced level of healthcare. Still, relative poverty DOES exist in the United States and though the Lunsmann Family enjoyed the protoypical surburban American existence with the two cars and a tract home, they were far from wealthy. On Gerfa's most recent trip, arriving in Zamboanga City on June 29th, 2011, she had found herself getting into loud arguments over her refusal to keep doling out cash, with one particularly heated fight taking place with her birth sister Alma Usman Jakaria.

On the evening of July 11th she and Kevin went to sleep early so as to be ready for their flight to Manila the next morning as they began their long trip back home to the United States. Content knowing that her cousins were patrolling the exterior of the compound with 45 caliber pistols Gerfa drifted off to sleep. At 330AM she was awakened by loud shouts and before fully awakening found herself cowering in front of several men in military fatigues. Grabbed in her bed she was forced outside and found her son Kevin, and her 19 year old nephew, Romnick Jakaria, Alma's son, huddling together as other men trained rifles on them. Together the three were marched out into the surf and forced aboard one of two idling pump boats, as motorised skiffs or locally known. As the armed men clamored back aboard the two craft the party, from the BIAF, or Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces as the MILF's military wing is known, proceeded to cast off and set course on an easterly vector.

The guerillas, under sub-Kumander Waning Abdusalam of the BIAF's 113 Base Command were taking their two captives to Basilan Island where they had already been sold to the BIAF's 114 Base Command. Gerfa's nephew Romnick was himself a guerilla with the 114 and had arranged the entire kidnapping with his uncle, Lijal Usman, a sub-Kumander in the 114 and a major player in the KFR, or Kidnap for Ransom industry. Reaching Basilan before daybreak Gerfa and Eric were transferred to waiting guerillas from the 114 Base Command who whisked the two into oblivion within the municipality of Tuburan.

That morning, July 13th, Gerfa's sister Alma, mother of "kidnap victim" Romnick Jakaria, reported having received a phonecall from Romnick's cellphone. All she heard though was breathing before an irate voice in the background ordered someone to "go to sleep," in the Sama Language, before the call unceremoniously ended. The next contact was made on July 17th when Hiko Lunsmann, still at the family home in Campbell County, Virginia, received a much appreciated POL, or Proof of Life. Allowed to briefly speak to both his wife Gerfa and their son Kevin, Hiko was greatly relieved to hear them say that they were, for the moment at least, being held together and doing as well as could possibly be expected. Grabbing the phone the BIAF's negotiator informed Hiko that he was to withold all co-operation from American as well as Philippine authorities and that the kidnappers' opening gambit vis a vis the ransom was the astronomical sum of $10 Million (P500 Million).

Hiko Lunsmann, after conferring with the FBI, or Federal Bureau of Investigation as the top law enforcement agency in the United States is known, was advised against following the kidnappers' demands, at least so far as the American authorities were concerned but did inform him that the ultimate decision was his and his alone. Maintaining contact with the FBI on the assumption that the kidnappers had no way in which to ascertain compliance in America, he contacted Zamboanga City's Mayor Celso Lobregat, the obstensible Chairperson of the Crisis Management Committee handling the kidnapping on the Philippine end. Though Lobregat protested a tad bit he understood the reasoning behind it and indeed, in the Philippines non-co-operation is the rule of the day.

By late September, with ransom demands lowered to $3 Million (P150 Million), negotiations were still moving at a snail's pace but with foreign captives this is par for the course. The BIAF was in it for the long haul. Gerfa though began showing signs of extreme stress. Refusing to eat, mumbling to herself, she neglected to wash when offered the chance and so the BIAF related to Hiko that he might wish to seriously consider paying a substantial downpayment that would at least offer Gerfa an early release from the ordeal. Feeling immense guilt over leaving Kevin in captivity while freeing his mother, he took comfort in the thought that were he to instead opt to have their son freed Gerfa might end up irreprably harmed from the ordeal.

Now resolving to free Gerfa, a ransom of $500,000 (P10 Million) was delivered to Zamboanga City by the FBI who then turned it over to Mayor Lobregat in Zamboanga City on Saturday, October 1st. Lobregat in turn used a local Tsinoy (Filipino of Chinese descent) businessman slash smuggler, Wee Dee Ping, who has contacts in both the BIAF AND the ASG, or Abu Sayyaf Group, as an emissary. Ping, who usually goes by the moniker Lepeng Wee, hand delivered the cash in a black gymbag to Isabela City on Basilan and handed it to a high ranking member of the 114 Base Command on the afternoon of October 2nd. That evening, just after sunset Gerfa was blindfolded and led to an idling pumpboat that shoved off from Tuburan and landed in the municipality of Maluso, just down the beach from the municipal wharf at 920PM. Before removing Gerfa's blindfold the four BIAF guerillas aboard the boat covered their faces with bonnets, as baclavas or skimasks are locally known. Instructing Ms.Lunsmann to walk towards the wharf and then head inland into the town's Barangay Poblacion where authorities would be contacted to retrieve her.

As if shellshocked Gerfa walked down the beach looking dazed and then did as she had been instructed, turned inland for the walk into Barangay Poblacion. The BIAF meanwhile had contacted the Maluso MPO, or Municipal Police Office, and informed them that Ms.Lunsmann could be found walking towards Barangay Poblacion. Municipal Police Director, Inspector Dinar Hassan immediately set out with a well armed detachment at 10PM. Not finding Gerfa anywhere in Barangay Poblacion they worked their way back towards the municipal wharf. Upon entering Sitio Suba Kampong in the town's Barangay Townsite they spotted the still dazed woman walking as if she were drunk. Gently taking her into custody the police returned to the MPO where Inspector Hassan contacted the PPO, or Provincial Police Office who then immediately contacted the JSOTF-P, as the American Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, which deployed a Quick Reaction Team with local Marines to secure Ms.Lunsmann and transport her to an LZ, or Landing Zone, for the helicopter ride into Camp Navarro in Zamboanga City.

Arriving at Camp Navarro at 245AM Ms.Lunsmann was immediately transported to the camp hospital where Mayor Lobregat arrived to "take custody," which in this case seeing how she was surrounded by US Special Forces soldiers and awaiting the arrival of the two FBI agents who had been deployed to Zamboanga City just after the July 13th kidnapping, Mayor Lobregat merely hoped to enjoy some decent photo opportunities and get his name in print. After FBI Agents Michael Paysan and Jagdeep Khangura arrived just before daybreak a convoy transported Ms.Lunsmann to City Hall where she spent 10 minutes in Mayor Lobregat's office as he begged and pleaded for at least a short press conference, reminding the distraught woman how many hours the local government had devoted to her case and how much interest Filipinos had taken in her wellbeing. Despite the best efforts of both FBI Agents who were also present Ms.Lunsmann reluctantly agreed to the press conference while Agent Paysan interjected that it could not exceed five minutes in length.

So, in the end, Mayor Lobregat got his five minutes of face time as Gerfa sat looking as if she had just been in combat, squinting and appearing as if she was unaware that anyone else was present, her long black hair haphazardly piled under a white baseball cap. Most questions fielded to her were uncomfortably ignored and as the five minutes elapsed the FBI then took full custody of Gerfa officially and transported her back to Camp Navarro for the hour flight north to Manila on an American Government-leased private jet. So ends Gerfa Yeatts Lunsmann's nearly three months in hellish captivity and yet her ordeal is far from over. 14 year old Kevin Eric Lunsmann who should be attending his first year of at Brookville High School in Campbell County, Virgina is instead being held tied to a palm tree, surrounded by people speaking a language he doesn't understand, and being detained for reasons he cannot fathom.

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