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John L. Hart, Deseret News
Meredith Romney at his home in Colonia Juarez in 1999. President of the Juarez stake at the time, he was later temple president.

After family members paid a ransom, kidnappers on Wednesday released a former LDS temple president who played a role in then-church President Gordon B. Hinckley's plan to build smaller temples — a plan that launched an extraordinary construction program to double the number of the faith's holiest buildings in 39 months.

Meredith Irvin Romney was kidnapped Monday afternoon while leaving his ranch outside of Janos, Mexico, with his wife and grandson. A vehicle cut off Romney's truck, and gunmen shot out the truck's tires.

Romney is a cousin of Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and president of the Salt Lake Olympic Committee who ran for president of the United States last year.

The gunmen forced Romney into their vehicle and sped away.

"I'm worn out," Romney told the Deseret News over the phone Wednesday evening. "They were pretty good to me except for hitting me over the head a few times to get me in the car. But honestly, I was just glad they didn't take my grandson."

Romney was released by the kidnappers at about 3 a.m. Wednesday, about an hour after a family member dropped off ransom money for the kidnappers in a nearby town. Romney said his brother, who handled the negotiation with the kidnappers, would not tell him how much they paid in order to set him free.

After picking up the money, the men took Romney from a cave in a canyon where he had been held about four hours away from his home, and helped him climb up a nearby mountain where they had promised Romney's family they would leave him, he said.

Romney, who is diabetic, said the climb in the middle of the night was one of the hardest things he has ever had to do. He had low blood sugar, little energy, and could barely see a few feet in front of him, but the men told him they had promised to leave him in a certain place, and they did just that.

They took his handcuffs off and left him with a flashlight, a granola bar and a cigarette lighter so he could make a fire. It was there that Romney waited until about noon Wednesday, when he saw the pickup truck of his stake president, who was part of a large search party looking for Romney in the mountains.

Romney said his kidnappers were three men in their 20s, who he called "just young kids." Romney guessed that the men most likely had worked at some point in lower levels of the drug cartel, but they told him that he was not the first person they had kidnapped.

"They said they had been watching me for about a month," Romney said. "Looking back at it I had seen their car go back and forth in front of the ranch a few times, but I didn't think anything of it at the time."

There is a federal police checkpoint on the road near Romney's ranch, and he said it wouldn't surprise him if the police had been paid to tip off the kidnappers when he was coming and going.

The Romney family was together Wednesday evening, and Romney said his return has been full of "big hugs."

"I have felt a lot of love," he said.

President Hinckley visited with Romney in June 1997 when he traveled to Mexico to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Colonia Juarez Stake, which had been the second Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stake organized outside of the United States.

Romney was the stake president at the time, and he spoke with President Hinckley about the needs of the members of the congregations under his care. Romney told President Hinckley that church members in the region had to travel to Mesa, Ariz., to attend the temple and participate in the church's most sacred ordinances, Romney said in an interview with former Church News associate editor John Hart.

President Hinckley later recalled that the inspiration to construct smaller temples came to him during a 31/2-hour ride to the El Paso, Texas, airport. Once on the plane, he sketched out a floor plan and then provided it to architects.

The church's 50th temple had been dedicated earlier that month. President Hinckley announced the plan for smaller temples four months later, at the church's General Conference in October 1997. He set a goal to complete the faith's 100th temple by the end of 2000.

The target was ambitious. The church had needed nearly 10 years between the dedication of its 41st temple, in Frankfurt, Germany, and its 50th temple, in Denver.

With President Hinckley's announcement, construction accelerated. The 60th temple was dedicated 22 months after the 51st. The 70th temple was dedicated four months later. The 80th temple was dedicated two months after that, and the 90th another two months later.

The church surpassed President Hinckley's goal, ending 2000 with 102 dedicated temples.

Romney was president of one of the first small temples, the Colonia Juarez Chihuahua Temple, from 1999 to 2004.

Chihuahua is a state in northern Mexico, which borders Texas and New Mexico. Colonia Juarez was one of many colonies in Mexico settled by polygamous Mormon families fleeing government prosecution in the 1800s before the church ended the practice of polygamy.

There is no indication that Romney's church membership or status as a former temple president played a role in the kidnapping.

A farmer and rancher, Romney was born in Colonia Juarez to Irvin Burrell and Nellie Spillsbury Romney.

His wife is Karen Sue Ellsworth Romney, who served as the temple matron while Romney was temple president.

The Romneys are parents to five children.

Growth in LDS temples, 10 structures at a time

The LDS Church started building temples much faster after President Gordon B. Hinckley visited Mexico and came up with a plan for building more, smaller temples.

1-10 — 78 years

11-20 — 23 years

21-30 — 16 months

31-40 — 23 months

41-50 — 9 years, 10 months

51-60 — 22 months

61-70 — 4 months

71-80 — 2 months

81-90 — 2 months

91-100 — 31/2 months

101-110 — 17 months

111-120 — 3 years

121-130 — 4 years*

* The 130th temple, the Oquirrh Mountain Temple in South Jordan, will be dedicated in August.

Source: 2009 Church Almanac, pp. 204-206.

E-mail: ethomas@desnews.com