Mormon missionaries kidnapped in Russia 15 years ago reunite to tell faith-filled story
SALT LAKE CITY — It has been almost 15 years since Andrew Propst and Travis Tuttle were kidnapped and held for ransom in the outskirts of a town in southwestern Russia, where they were serving their LDS missions.
It was March 18, 1998, and just as they had done hundreds of times during their service for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the elders knocked on the door of a man they'd met for the first time a few days before. The man had inquired about the church.
Seconds later, their lives were forever changed.
"I had no hope of ever walking out of there alive," Propst said. He was hit in the head with a metal baton multiple times, handcuffed and tied up. His eyes and mouth were taped so he couldn't see much of what was going on or communicate with his companion.
"It was a big swing of emotion going from, 'hey, we have this big appointment' to 'oh my gosh, who is hitting me on the back of the head right now?'" he said, recalling that at the time he could feel his heart pounding and his head was sweating profusely.
"I still had a lot to do in my life."
The kidnapping was covered by media outlets worldwide. But the two have never spoken together about the details when their lives were threatened and the faith they had to draw upon, until now. And a new film about their experience is in the works.
The captors demanded $300,000 for the safe return of Propst and Tuttle, and officials within the church and the United States government quickly became involved, but remained tight-lipped throughout the incident. Mormon lawmakers demanded help and agents with the U.S. Embassy and FBI were immediately sent to Russia to assist with the situation.
A statement at the time from the church said it doesn't pay ransoms to prevent similar acts from occurring all over the world. The parents of the missionaries — Roy and Donna Tuttle in Gilbert, Ariz., and Lee and Mary Propst in Lebanon, Ore. — were kept apprised of news, but were told very little.
The two missionaries didn't have a clue about anything going on outside of the small room where they were held captive.
"I remember thinking, 'I need to get out of here or I will not live to see tomorrow,'" Tuttle said.
The two remained captive for five days, and while there was a window in the room where they were being held, Tuttle said the time "seemed more like a couple of months." The kidnappers, one of whom was an inactive member of the church, played mind games with the missionaries and gave them an unloaded gun to hold, "so we'd know it was real," Tuttle said.
The missionaries were fed once or twice a day, but it wasn't much. Tuttle recalled not being picky about a plain hot dog and some dirty, brown water. His handcuffs were so tight on one hand that he endured major nerve damage, a constant reminder of what he went through.
Classic rock music occasionally played over the small radio in the room, including a Beatles song that Tuttle said helped them relax a little, as they were both big fans of the British band. The elders also heard a repeated news briefing regarding their captivity, which scared them since the kidnappers had forbidden any media involvement, threatening "extermination" of the missionaries in their ransom note that was left at the doorstep of another member's home.
Despite the fear each had for their lives, the two 20-year-old men tried concocting a plan to escape.
"It was not a good situation to be in," Tuttle said.
They had considered violent measures, including using a gun if they could get a hold of one. But in the end, he said the missionaries decided "we were ready to die for the greater good. We had no idea what was going on outside of that room."
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