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."
One of the kidnappers, a 19-year-old Russian man, had monitored them throughout the ordeal and the three had much to talk about, including sports, politics, the differences between Russian and American customs, and even the gospel of Jesus Christ, which the missionaries were in the country to teach.
"We tried to build those relationships with him so if there ever was a chance for him to decide, 'Do I kill these guys or do I let these guys go,' hopefully the friendship we had tried to establish would save our lives," Propst said.
Their conversations, like many dealing with the gospel, had been deliberate.
Throughout the long days together, the two never neglected to pray — alone and together — submitting themselves to God. They believed that their faith would get them through.
On the fifth day, their prayers were answered when an older captor came home very drunk and said he was going to let the missionaries go. It was a prospect that was hard for Propst and Tuttle to believe, but they hurriedly put on their coats and shoes and rode quietly, huddled in the back seat of a small car for about 45 minutes.
"He says he could hear my heart pounding and I could hear his," Propst said of his companion. "There wasn't a word spoken that entire time. We thought we were being taken to our final resting place."
Then they were pushed out of the car into the snow and the vehicle drove away.
The two jumped up jubilantly, hugged and then immediately fell to their knees in thankful prayer that they were still alive. Their faith, Propst said, "was paramount."
"Once we submitted our will to the Lord's, it really brightened our day," he said.
The missionaries quickly contacted police and church officials and shortly thereafter, they were whisked away to Germany for presumptively better medical care.
The mission president in charge of the two missionaries and about 145 others at the time, was released from his duties early and died in April that year, from complications of cancer.
Sheridan Gashler, of Centerville, said he and his wife, Pamela, arrived in Samara to lead the missionaries in May of that year. After learning of the kidnapping and meeting with many nervous missionaries, he said he "made a lot of changes."
"First, we made sure everybody was in on time, they had to be in by 9 p.m. at the latest," he said. Such a kidnapping, happening in midday, Gashler said, is unforeseeable and cannot be prevented. But the new president did his best to keep the missionaries focused and on task.
"We all just wanted to make sure everything went well," he said. "We just preached the gospel as we should."
He increased the number of required discussions taught per week in each companionship of two missionaries from less than five to 30 and the mission went from being one of the lowest baptizing missions in the area, to the highest in Russia and then in all of Europe.
"They did it, and we were blessed," Gashler said.
In 1998, there were six missions and about 5,000 LDS Church members in Russia. The 2012 LDS Church Almanac lists eight missions and more than 21,000 members.
For their own safety and for the sake of the work they were doing, Propst and Tuttle were later transferred to separate missions in England, where they each received therapy and completed their two years of service.
Aside from a few unauthorized phone calls during that time, to help them cope with the situation, the two lost touch after returning home and resuming their lives.
It was Utah filmmaker Garrett Batty who reunited the former companionship last year to talk about their ordeal and the potential for a feature film on the matter. He said he had always wanted to make a movie about the incident, but wanted to give the men sufficient time to heal. The film will reveal various conversations and details about the experience that the public might not already know.
"It is a very human story, a life and death struggle," Batty said. "These are experiences that ought to be shared."
"The Saratov Approach," the film's working title, which depicts the town where the kidnapping occurred, is scripted and ready for filming and it is expected to be released sometime next spring.
Propst, who now lives near Mesa, Ariz., and Tuttle, who spent his early years in Bountiful and has since moved to Boise, Idaho, have both married and started their own families. At 34, they are preparing their children to serve LDS missions and each looks back on their mission experiences fondly, saying it helped to make them who they are today.
Each has addressed LDS crowds individually since their missions but will speak together for the first time on Saturday at the Bountiful Regional Center, 835 N. 400 East in North Salt Lake, at 7 p.m. The free event is open to the public.
"In hindsight, no matter what happened, I knew that everything would work out," Tuttle said. "It has changed my life. It was not just another day. It has made me a better person."
One of the Russian captors was arrested the day after the missionaries' release and the other was tracked down by police two weeks later. The older man served two years in prison, and the 19-year-old was put on probation and wasn't allowed to leave Russia for two years.
"Things are very different (in Russia)," Tuttle said. He suffered from mild depression after so abruptly leaving a land he had grown to love, but Tuttle understood why he had to leave. He was glad he got to finish his mission.
"Every missionary gets a chance to change lives, we just got to do it on a bigger scale," he said. "I took a beating for a greater cause."
Because of what he went through, Tuttle said he lives each day to its fullest. He wants others to know that "no matter what happens, you're in charge of your own destiny. You never know when it is going to be over."
The two former companions have rekindled a relationship that was forged through the 1998 tribulation — they had a lot of down time while they were sequestered in Russia, and it was then that they learned about each other and about how much they have in common.
"I wouldn't change anything," Propst said. "It sounds kind of crazy, but I think being kidnapped was one of the best experiences of my life … to learn those life lessons that most 19-year-olds don't get a chance to.
"It helped me realize what real problems are and opened my eyes to a lot of things I took for granted before that."
If you go:
When: Saturday, Aug. 18
Where: Bountiful Regional Center, 835 N. 400 East in North Salt Lake
What: Andrew Propst and Travis Tuttle will speak about being kidnapped as LDS missionaries in Russia. The event is free and open to the public.
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