Members of Congress on Friday asked the State Department and President Clinton for swift action to secure the safe return of two missionaries kidnapped in Russia.
And members of the LDS Church with close ties to the Russia Samara Mission expressed dismay at news of the kidnapping.Andrew Lee Propst, 20, of Lebanon, Ore., and his companion, Travis Robert Tuttle, 20, of Gilbert, Ariz., were abducted Wednesday from their apartment in Saratov, a city 500 miles southeast of Moscow on the Volga River.
A ransom note demanding $300,000 was left on the doorstep of an LDS Church member's house in Saratov Thursday. The note reportedly said the young men would be harmed if the ransom is not paid. It is U.S. government policy not to pay ransoms, on the theory that to do so would be to invite more abductions.
Kidnapping is a danger that never crossed former missionary Melvin Richardson's mind when he spread his church's gospel through Saratov two years ago.
"My mission was scary because of the unknown," said Richardson, now a BYU student from Tempe, Ariz. "I never felt really in danger."
He remembers Saratov as a place with "really nice people who were receptive to our message. Of course, you get all types of people and some would rather not hear our gospel. And some were interested in us only because we were Americans, and they are very interested in Americans but not interested in the gospel. That could be frustrating. But most of the people were very nice."
He said the missionaries were warned to be careful, especially since in winter darkness fell about 4 p.m. in Saratov and the missionaries sometimes had later appointments. But the most dangerous thing he encountered, he said, was "lots of drinking and lots of drunks."
Still, with news of the kidnapping, Richardson said his mother is "freaking out. I'm sure every parent (of a missionary) is."
Before the abduction, Jon and Carol Lear's greatest worry was that their son Dan wouldn't be in Russia long enough to master the language.
Tuttle, who became a missionary in November 1996, was Dan Lear's first missionary companion. They were paired for about four months, beginning in July.
New missionaries were often paired with Tuttle, Carol Lear said, because "he's a very successful missionary and has a good grasp of the language."
She said that Tuttle and her son both have strong personalities, which sometimes created healthy tension between them regarding who was in charge.
Dan Lear was transferred from the Samara mission to another mission in Russia several months ago. But his mother said her family is nagged by a lack of information, although they've been assured by church officials that other missionaries in Russia are safe and precautions have been taken.
"What I fear is, it has to be awful to be cooped up, told they can't go out and have nothing new to read," Carol Lear said. "I mostly fear for his psychological health and his well-being. He's probably as uninformed as we are. I think they're cooped up and they're probably afraid for their friends and there isn't much for them to do."
Meanwhile, members of Congress were pressing the president and State Department officials to intervene to ensure the safe return of the young men.
Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., took advantage of a Friday NATO event at the White House to corner President Clinton and tell him about the young man from Oregon, Propst, who had been kidnapped in Russia two days earlier.
Smith, an LDS Church member, was not planning to attend the NATO event because of scheduling conflicts. He changed his mind because he thought he might be able to corner Clinton, said John Easton, the senator's spokesman.
"He not only met with Clinton but conferred with Secretary of State (Madeleine) Albright and National Security Adviser (Sandy) Berger as well," Easton said. "He huddled with the three of them and essentially asked President Clinton to do everything he could to bring about a positive and peaceful solution to the problem there, which (Clinton) said he would - he'd do his best."
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., added his name to the growing list of congressmen who have contacted the White House regarding the abduction. He asked Clinton to "personally contact Prime Minister Chernomyrdin to convey our earnest desire that this situation be resolved as quickly as possible."
Official news on the kidnapping was spotty Friday. The LDS Church continued to say little. "At this point, we have provided you with all the information we can on the missionary abduction in Russia," church spokesman Don LeFevre said in a release Friday afternoon.
Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, said Friday he had been assured by the State Department earlier in the day that "they are doing everything they can to safely recover the two young LDS missionaries kidnapped in Russia (Wednesday). As soon as they learned of the kidnapping, they immediately sent two representatives from the American Embassy in Moscow to the town these young men were taken from."
The State Department confirmed that by Friday, three FBI agents had been sent to Russia and a fourth who is fluent in Russian and experienced in hostage negotiations was en route to help in the search for Propst and Tuttle.
The ITAR-TASS news agency reported Friday that regular and secret police forces in Russia's Saratov region are searching for the missionaries.
According to American news dispatches from Russia, the kidnapping has created little stir there, where they report that kidnappings are not uncommon.
Russian officials have said they believe the motivation for the kidnapping is not religious or political, but rather monetary. And rumors were reportedly circulating that the Russian Mafia, the country's version of organized crime, is involved.
Richardson was skeptical of that.
When he served a mission in Saratov, "it sounds strange, but the Mafia generally really liked us," he said. "They protected us and invited us into their homes."
He said it was "obvious" who belonged to the Russian Mafia, by their cars, their demeanor, their actions. And he added that it is "incredible how infiltrated the social structure" has been by the Russian Mafia. "They are everywhere . . . and they're pretty easy to spot."
Both the Propst and Tuttle families said they had been asked not to release information in order to protect the safety of their sons. The Propst family has released a statement offering some background on their son.
Propst was born in Boise, the youngest of five children. The family moved to Lebanon, Ore., in 1989. He has always been active in church and sports activities. He became an Eagle Scout at the age of 14. He attended Lebanon High School where he was involved in cross country, track and baseball. He was the senior class vice president, always active in leadership.
While on his mission to Saratov, Propst and his companions have worked in orphanages, caring for the children and teaching them English. After his mission he plans to attend college and major in communications.
Tuttle has been lauded for his leadership and athletic ability.
According to the Arizona Republic, a Phoenix newspaper, he played tennis for Gilbert High School, was an announcer for varsity baseball games and was a trainer for the football and wrestling teams. He is also a good auto mechanic.
High school buddy Mike Rodriguez, 21, of Gilbert, said Tuttle was excited about serving his mission. Rodriguez and Tuttle have kept in touch by letters. Tuttle is slated to return home in November.
Cook said he is confident the government and LDS Church are doing everything they can. "Right now, all the rest of us can do is wait and pray."
The need for prayer was a running theme among friends and relatives of the two missionaries. While neither family wanted to comment, both asked for prayer and expressed faith that God would bring the young men back safely.
"We appreciate the love, support and prayers everyone has offered on behalf of Andy and his companion. We have placed this matter into the hands of the Lord and have faith that he will return Andy and his companion home safely," said the statement released by the Propst family.