Without a trace
First of two parts
On March 2, Richard Peters called his wife, Katie, in Coeur d’Alene from the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
Peters, a 62-year-old former Navy SEAL, had been in
Libya for two months trying to secure work as a contractor.
Escalating protests against Moammar Gadhafi were spreading through the country, and the brutal dictator was fighting back. Tripoli was awash in anti-American passions.
Peters told Katie he was getting out, possibly to find work with oil companies or to help train rebels in Benghazi. He hung up. It was the last time she would hear from him for months.
Peters packed and drove east, passing through several checkpoints fortified by soldiers and tanks. But finally, he was turned back. Officers followed and detained him, hauling him blindfolded back to Tripoli.
“Next thing I know, I’m in a jail cell,” Peters said.
Thus began nearly six months of mostly solitary captivity. And thus began a different kind of captivity for Katie Peters and their five children back home in Coeur d’Alene.
When the blindfold came off, Peters found himself in a tiny cell, 7-by-8 feet. Concrete and steel. A filthy mattress with a filthy blanket. Spiders and roaches.
He’d been in plenty of dicey situations before. As a SEAL, he fought in Vietnam, Grenada and Panama. Later, with his two Coeur d’Alene-based companies, Associated Construction Management and Global Security and Retrieval, he’d worked in Iraq and Afghanistan during wartime.
But he’d never been imprisoned.
He was immediately confronted by two fears: “The first fear was I’d never see my wife and children again,” he said. The second was that he would “stand before the Lord with nothing to give.”
Peters and his wife are devout Christians, members of North Country Chapel in Post Falls. He worried that he had been a poor witness for Christ – that he hadn’t spread the gospel as much as he could have. Still, Peters maintained an almost eerie positivity, bolstered by his training and his faith.
“It was OK,” he said. “I did OK. It wasn’t too hard.”
He said he was treated well by most guards, and the food was decent. He prayed and plotted escape. At 265 pounds, he started working to get back into shape. And he worried, more about his family than himself.
“They did not have a clue whether I was dead or alive,” he said.
Back home, Katie and their kids – ages 17 to 23 – grew more concerned by the day. Over the years, she had always been in regular contact with Richard, though he was often overseas. Now, day after day passed with no contact.
“I knew something was terribly wrong,” she said.
About two weeks after Richard disappeared, Katie was sitting in church when, she said, she was moved to talk to her pastor about her fears. He put her in touch with a fellow member of the congregation with contacts in state government, and Katie began a relentless campaign to find out what happened to Richard, contacting everyone from her congressional representatives to the State Department to former SEAL teammates.
Katie won’t say much about this. But she said she was impressed by all the help she received through the course of several inquiries, trips to Washington, D.C., and a near-constant stream of emails and communications.
“I lived in front of my computer,” she said. “I lived in front of my phone.”
After two weeks, Peters was abruptly taken from his cell, blindfolded and handcuffed. Guards loaded him into a paddy wagon with six others. He was plotting ways to escape, pondering whether he could take out a guard, get his weapon, fight his way out – constantly working the angles.
They arrived at a large prison. When they emerged, Peters could see – through the bottom of his blindfold – a row of people blindfolded and kneeling, facing a wall.
“I thought, ‘Well, geez, they’re going to stinking assassinate us,’ ” he said. “I just started praying. I said, ‘Lord, you’ve got to help me here.’ ”
But no one was killed, and Peters was taken to a cell. This one was larger, with a pair of bunk beds, but the windows had been plated over. Only by climbing to the highest window and peering through a crack could he see anything of the outside courtyard.
Over the next months the guards would interrogate him six times, once for 10 hours. They knew about his special-forces background, and they suspected him of being a rebel spy. They never really hurt him, he said, though they kicked him a couple times. He was less than intimidated.
“They tried to crack me, and it was kind of funny,” he said. “They told me I was a spy, spy, spy.”
He didn’t know what was happening outside. Across Libya, citizen rebels were taking up arms against Gadhafi, and after weeks of escalating protests and violence, the ruler’s forces were mounting a massive counteroffensive. NATO forces had begun airstrikes. Inside, Peters was praying, exercising, keeping an eye out for an escape route, worrying about his family. He ate meals of warmed rice or noodles twice a day. He asked his guards to let him have his Bible back, but his hopes weren’t high.
One night, about 40 days into his captivity, he was pacing his cell after dinner.
“I go, ‘Lord, it sure would be nice to have a Bible’ ” he said. “As I said the word ‘Bible,’ the big steel door opened and this guy walked in with my Bible.”
By April, Katie Peters had learned there was “a strong possibility” Richard was alive but imprisoned. She kept up on the news, but avoided TV, especially during the airstrikes. She’d learned that over the years, as Richard worked in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan.
“You don’t watch,” she said. “Read, but don’t watch.”
She told few people what was happening. Richard’s military and business backgrounds had often required confidentiality, and Katie has a wariness of publicity and a private nature.
On July 2, her phone rang at 4 in the morning. It went to voicemail before she answered.
“It was a Libyan phone number,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my Gosh, oh no.’ ”
The message was from Richard, saying he’d lost 60 or 70 pounds, was praying, reading the Bible, staying strong, “and that he missed me, and that was it,” Katie said.
She called the number back three times – nothing. Her phone rang again – she answered, nothing. It rang again – again nothing. Ten minutes passed, it rang again.
“It was Richard, and it was him live,” she said, her voice breaking.
A guard had let him use the phone briefly, hoping they might use it against him in some way. He told her the same things he’d said in his message.
“All I could say back to him was, ‘Honey, I love you and I miss you,’ ” she said. “And they took the phone.”
Saturday: Dates and milk.
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.
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