Charles “Jack” Baldwin was a lonely man. By age 68, four wives had left him.
No. 5, he decided, would be different. Someone loyal and affectionate, someone to keep house and appreciate his new trailer.
So, in October, the Rathdrum trucker drove his 1974 Cadillac to Seattle. There, he boarded a jet for Bogota, Colombia.
He was meeting a summer pen pal, a 35-year-old Colombian woman named Doris Martinez Villamizar. Among the gifts Baldwin carried was a sparkling new wedding ring.
Baldwin would never see the U.S. again. His death in a Bogota hospital a month later triggered a bizarre chain of events ending only when his distraught daughter scraped together $5,800 to “ransom” Baldwin’s body from hospital officials.
“They said they were holding it for bounty, for payment,” said Baldwin’s 70-year-old sister, Elva Howard of Athol, Idaho.
When Baldwin’s jet landed in Bogota, Villamizar was waiting. They met for the first time, after weeks of exchanging letters - his in English, hers in Spanish. Her brother served as translator.
Sometimes Baldwin sent money, carefully folding it inside carbon paper to avoid detection.
“Dad just didn’t want to be alone anymore,” said his son Troy Baldwin, 29, of Rathdrum. “He said he was going to give it another shot, and if it didn’t work, it was his last go-round.”
Jack Baldwin got his wish. According to the U.S. State Department, the couple married in Venezuela on Oct. 16, six days after Baldwin’s arrival.
What his family didn’t know until later, however, was that Baldwin’s new bride was pressing him for cash since the moment he arrived.
“She cleaned him out,” said his brother, 66-year-old Delbert Baldwin. “She’d lay a bill on the table and want him to pay.”
Attempts to reach Villamizar were unsuccessful Sunday.
Jack Baldwin had taken plane tickets and $10,000 with him, expecting to spend it on visas and moving Villamizar and her two children to the United States, said his sister.
A short time later, she said, he called her for $6,500 more.
Three weeks after the wedding, Baldwin’s back began to hurt. He checked into a clinic in Bogota. Doctors discovered a weak spot on his aorta, the main artery carrying blood from the heart.
“He was diagnosed by a gynecologist,” said Troy Baldwin, shaking his head in disbelief.
Jack Baldwin was rushed to a hospital while U.S. Embassy officials called relatives in Idaho.
The family gave Troy Baldwin $2,000 and dispatched him to his father’s bedside, to care for him and pay medical bills.
“I told him to keep his money in his pockets, his hands in his pockets, and to sleep in his pants,” said Howard.
It was a nightmare.
When Baldwin got there, Villamizar presented him with a computer printout of the hospital bill. She flung the bill over his father’s sleeping body and demanded that it be paid.
“I’m trying to focus on my dad, and all they wanted was money, money, money,” Troy Baldwin recalled, still furious.
He had no place to stay and could speak no Spanish.
Meanwhile, family members in the U.S. were frantically phoning officials to get help. They called the Red Cross, the State Department - and because Jack Baldwin is a veteran, the Pentagon.
Unfortunately, it was Nov. 14, and the federal government was shut down over budget bickering.
“I called the White House. Nobody answered the phone,” said Baldwin’s daughter, Lolita Nagrone, 38, of Post Falls. “What if there was a war or something?”
“I tried to call the (Idaho) governor and nobody would let me talk to him,” said Howard.
The family isn’t Mormon, but in the end, the only help came from Mormon officials.
A family friend - who was Mormon - said the church had missionaries in Bogota. While Jack Baldwin’s name was added to the prayer list at the temple in Salt Lake City, the missionaries located Troy Baldwin, found him an apartment and served as translators.
It was too late. A day later - Nov. 18 - Jack Baldwin died of complications from two emergency heart surgeries. A boy knocked on Troy Baldwin’s apartment door at 5:30 a.m. to tell him the news.
Distraught, Baldwin went to see his father’s body.
Villamizar and her family were waiting.
“They started hounding me in the hospital while I was trying to say my goodbyes to my dad,” said Baldwin, eyes glistening. “They followed me into the street, all over me like maggots. They had his bags, his clothes, his boots, his plane tickets - even his (false) teeth.”
Baldwin recovered his father’s passport, watch and wallet.
The wallet was empty. Baldwin, bitter, flew home.
“There was nothing more I could do,” he said.
Then, to the disbelief of Baldwin’s family, the hospital wouldn’t release the body until the bill was paid.
“Nobody gave a damn,” said Delbert Baldwin.
Family members say there was no money left, and Medicare wouldn’t pay for medical care outside the U.S.
“Most people just pay the money,” said Nagrone, who works as assistant manager at a Post Falls outlet store that sells only socks. “I don’t have a money tree outside.”
At a family meeting, Jack Baldwin’s six children couldn’t decide what to do.
“Some wanted to let him lie,” said Howard. “They said his spirit’s gone, he’s just a shell, and Dad wouldn’t want us to go into debt.”
But Nagrone raised the required $5,800, taking out a loan on her trailer home in Post Falls. She wired the money to the State Department, which was acting as go-between, 20 minutes before the hospital’s deadline.
The alternative, hospital officials told the family, was an unmarked grave.
“If not for Lita, Dad would be face-down in a hole in Bogota,” said Troy Baldwin.
By late Sunday, Jack Baldwin’s ashes still hadn’t arrived. The family expects them soon.
This spring, they hope to take the ashes to Murray, Idaho, in the Silver Valley. Baldwin grew up near there, and enjoyed the area’s fishing and hunting. Sometimes he would dig for gold at his small placer claim.
“All we want is to get him home on American soil,” said Delbert Baldwin.
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