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December 2, 2009

My Husband Was Kidnapped

Jayne Rager and her husband were living my dream life in Mexico ... until he was kidnapped.
As told to Kira Zalan.

kira zalan

Photo Credit: Melissa Ann Pinney

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It was a bright summer morning in June 2007, and my husband and I had just dropped off our three young kids at school down the road from our home in the picturesque town of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, where we'd lived for the past 15 years. As an American, I'd always dreamed of living in a place like San Miguel, with its charming town square where people gather at sunset to hear a chorus of birds. I was watching the countryside roll by on our drive home that day, when suddenly an SUV in front of us screeched to a halt, causing us to slam into it. As my head whipped back against the headrest, another car crashed into us from behind. Two men jumped out of the SUV with clubs, hammers, and guns. Before we could react, they were smashing our car windows and dragging us out of our seats.

It all seemed to happen in a fraction of a second—I heard breaking glass and the screams of my husband, Eduardo, as someone cracked a pistol on his skull. These men want to kill us, I thought, and I tried to break free. As my captor and I struggled, we fell to the ground; I pushed and he pulled. At some point, I grabbed a barbed-wire fence that ran alongside the dirt road; the wire went straight through to my finger bone, but I was too pumped with adrenaline to feel the pain. Then the man pointed his gun between my eyes and said, "Get up." I looked past the barrel, at the eyes hidden by dark sunglasses, and said, "Please don't kill me. I have children."

Minutes later, I was seated in a car next to Eduardo, our heads covered with heavy cotton pillowcases that smelled of detergent. I put my hand on his left shoulder and felt the wet warmth of blood. I feared that he would bleed to death or go into shock, so I tried to calm him, and myself. "God is all powerful," I said in Spanish. I'm not particularly religious, but with our lives hanging in the balance, I wanted to remind him that we were more than just flesh and blood. Also, I wanted our captors to hear me. If I could somehow remind them of God, maybe they would spare us.

I heard the sound of duct tape being ripped from the roll, then felt my wrists and ankles being bound tight. I tried to talk to my husband, but a man gently pressed his finger to my lips. Sensing his sympathy, I attempted to connect with him by reaching for his hand. "Do you have children?" I asked. Again he pressed a finger to my lips, but also patted me on my stomach three times. Perhaps we wouldn't be murdered after all.

I tried to concentrate on memorizing every curve, bump, and turn in the road. We made a sharp right, then hit the brakes. Eduardo shouted as he was hustled out of the car. Then I heard the sound of a car engine revving up nearby. I managed to push the pillowcase up over my eyes and saw that car driving away, with my husband in it.

I strained my eyes to burn the license plate number into my memory: UPC5152, UPC5152, UPC5152. Now alone, with my wrists and ankles bound, I threw myself out of the open car door and hopped toward the highway.

Eduardo and I had met 15 years earlier, in the parking lot of a gourmet supermarket in Maryland, where I grew up. Our attraction was immediate. A handsome investor and art dealer from Mexico City, he'd been living in the States for eight years. I told him I'd been an actress, appearing in the soap opera Loving and in occasional movies like Stella. I said that now I worked in real estate, which allowed me to do what I really loved: travel. After nearly an hour of chatting, we exchanged numbers, then had dinner the following night. Three months later, in July 1992, we were house shopping in the Mexican countryside.

I knew we'd found our home when I saw San Miguel. With its winding cobblestone lanes and colonial architecture, life seemed almost dreamlike there. The town had a vibrant, artistic expat community, and we decided to buy a ranch. We made a living in real estate and had three children, Fernando, Emiliano, and Nayah. I started a cactus farm and a Waldorf school (a school that focuses less on standardized tests and more on a child's individual development). This is the school where we'd dropped off our kids on that fateful morning in June.

Just moments after my husband's abduction, I jumped in front of a bus and made it stop. No one had a cell phone, so I flagged down a cab. "Please," I blurted to the driver, in a state of near hysteria. "I need to use your radio to call the police." Of course, everyone in Mexico knows that the local police are often corrupt, supplementing their pay with money from criminal activities. Perhaps it was my American upbringing, but it seemed completely logical then to notify the authorities.

Moments later, the police arrived and freed my wrists and ankles, then brought me back to the spot where my captors had left me. There, in the dirt, lay a note that I hadn't noticed before. It said, "Sra. Jayne: We have Eduardo. Go home and open the following e-mail address with the following password."

Chills raced through my body. No one ever spelled my name correctly, with the "y." These men had done their homework on us. On the seat of the car lay a hammer, the signature mark of the Popular Revolutionary Army, a leftist guerrilla group that claims to seek social justice for peasants. I learned later that the hammer was the group's calling card, signifying to corrupt officials that this crime should not be pursued.

Back at the ranch, I got to work immediately. I called everyone who would have any information that could possibly help me, including Eduardo's sister, who knew a family that had survived a kidnapping. Abducting wealthy people for ransom is big business for criminal groups in Mexico. But Eduardo's abductors had made a mistake in thinking we were rich. Yes, my husband's family name signified old money, as Eduardo's father had been a self-made newspaper tycoon. But Eduardo and I lived modestly, earning our living from real estate.

Sitting at the kitchen table, I thought back to a few odd things that had happened around our home in the past month—the pickup trucks that had broken down on our road, the cigarette butts we'd found near the shrubs. That very morning at the school, I'd seen a stranger parked in a light-blue Ford in the parking lot. Why hadn't I paid more attention to the signs? Still, I didn't have time to dwell on these thoughts—I needed to decide quickly whether to go with a private consultant or the police.

I networked my way up to the country's top kidnapping experts, who all said that this was a case for Mexico's federal police. I talked to U.S. officials from the FBI as well, but they said their assistance would need to be requested by the host country. With no time to waste, I called Mexico's federal authorities at the Agencia Federal de Investigación, and they sent an undercover negotiator to live in my home.

He arrived by local bus that same day. Dressed casually, with glasses and a baseball cap, he looked to be about 20 years old. Next I had to talk to the kids, who were 12, 7, and 6 years old at the time. I explained to the two younger ones the concept of stealing daddies for money. Emiliano, my 7-year-old, ran upstairs and got his piggy bank.

Five long days passed before I received the first note in the Yahoo account the abductors had set up for me: "We hope that the Ms. got home OK. To free Eduardo, we demand an amount of 8 million U.S. dollars." The e-mail instructed me to agree to the ransom demand by placing an ad in the classified section of the Universal newspaper. My response was supposed to be worded in the following way: "Wanted: Chow Chow puppy. Vaccinated, with full pedigree. 8000 pesos." I was told not to respond via e-mail; the kidnappers wanted to make it hard for the authorities to trace their locale through our communications.

Of course, I didn't have the kind of cash they wanted, so I offered all the money I did have. "The Chow Chow is beyond my realistic economic possibilities," I said, per the negotiator.

The kidnappers didn't like my reply. They beat and kicked Eduardo, then forced him to write to me about it. An electronic scan of his letter, stained with blood, arrived via e-mail. He described being tortured, starved, and held hostage in a cramped wooden box, with built-in speakers that blared nonstop music to keep him awake. He pleaded for me to save his life. After that first letter, I started taking tranquilizers.

NEXT PAGE: The negotiator didn't like my plan to wage psychological warfare on the kidnappers.

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