A nightmare in real life: Va. teen’s kidnapping tale in the Philippines
By Susan Svrluga,
The nightmares still come sometimes, yanking Kevin Lunsmann back. He forgets he is safe in his own bedroom, guitar leaning against the wall, cats curled up asleep, in his family’s little yellow ranch house in Lynchburg. He forgets classes at Brookville High School, football games with his friends, learning to drive, all the normal routines of a typical Virginia kid.
In his nightmares he’s back in the Philippines, hungry and afraid, a prisoner of Islamic terrorists.
Kevin was 14 and on summer vacation with his mother when they were kidnapped.
They didn’t know at first who their captors were. They didn’t know that the men in camouflage fatigues who surrounded them on a beach barking orders in a language they didn’t understand were part of an al-Qaeda-linked group known for beheading its victims.
But as they huddled at gunpoint in a boat speeding south, a full moon glowing over a sea empty of even a single fishing boat that might send up an alarm, Kevin’s mother looked at her son, and she began to pray.
Kevin and his mom, Gerfa, had been in the Philippines for two weeks in 2011, on an island near where she had grown up, lapped by clear blue water and white sand, behind a tangle of mangroves.
Gerfa had moved to the United States as a teenager when an older sister married a U.S. naval officer, but she loved to visit her family in the Philippines. They stayed in a small hut on stilts next to relatives’ homes on a remote part of Tictabon Island, toward the southern end of the string of islands that make up the Southeast Asian nation.
Kevin grew up in Lynchburg, skateboarding with his older half-brother, Josh Driskill; riding his bike with friends in the neighborhood; and fishing. He was quiet, funny, a good student. Some days he and his mom would get in the car and drive around looking for stray cats to rescue. Their house was full of animals: Three dogs, 11 cats and a tank full of frogs.
Gerfa saved money all year from her work as a lab technician so that she and Kevin could travel to the Philippines. She knew the region was troubled — scarred by decades of poverty and violence from Islamic separatists — and that foreign tourists were targets. But she thought they would be safe visiting her Muslim family.
That summer Kevin had spent days snorkeling and swimming, learning a few words of Samal, his cousins’ dialect, teaching them a few words of English, eating strange and delicious food cooked with fresh coconut.
On July 11, he went to bed looking forward to their flight back the next day. He missed his dad, he missed his friends, it was almost time to register for classes for his freshman year of high school and shop for school supplies. He was all packed. He was ready to go home.
It was still dark when Kevin woke up and heard his mother shouting at him to run. She had gotten up early on their departure day and suddenly spotted more than a dozen silhouettes running toward their hut. Even in the dark, she could tell they were holding long guns.
“I thought it was some kind of robbery,” Gerfa said. “I thought, ‘We will run, they can have the house.’ But they surrounded us.”
Kevin thought he was having a bad dream: He heard shouting, and people running, then he was running, then he and his mom were surrounded by men in military camouflage fatigues on the soft sand of the beach. A bright light shone in his eyes. He saw assault rifles pointed at them.
He couldn’t understand the words, but the meaning was obvious: The men were motioning with the guns, ordering them into a wooden speedboat.
More men were in the houses where their relatives had been sleeping. Somehow a 21-year-old cousin got to the shore, grabbed the hull of one of the boats and wouldn’t let go. The men let him in, pushed through the mangroves, then sped off.
The moon was full, and the sea was quiet as the three boats raced south through the islands where militants have been fighting for a separate Islamic state.
Gerfa saw Kevin pinching his arm. “I was thinking, ‘I want to wake up. Wake up!’’’ he said.
They kept listening for the throb of a motor, but no one came to help. An hour stretched to two, and still the water was empty all around.
When the sun rose, Gerfa saw that the man standing in front of them in the boat was holding a grenade.
Into the jungle
Kevin saw a big island rising on the horizon, with mountains covered in dense forest. More men were waiting for them there, and they pulled the boats into a hiding place behind thick mangroves. Gerfa tried to ask questions, but they didn’t speak the same language. The men ignored her.
They stayed there all day: Kevin and his mom trembling on the sand at gunpoint, not talking, just waiting.
They could hear children playing on a beach, splashing in the water and laughing.
“I was wondering how much longer we would be alive,” Kevin said.
Gerfa had given up hope of a quick rescue. She thought, “OK, it’s survival mode now.”
When the sun began to go down, the men ordered them to begin walking toward the mountains. Kevin was wearing just the shorts he had slept in, his mom was in her pajamas; they walked barefoot, stumbling and falling in the mud, following the men in fatigues slicing a path through the jungle with knives.
They hiked through the night, exhausted, sore, pulling leeches off, sometimes seeing clotheslines or houses or cows and thinking about escape, but there were too many men, too many guns. They stopped at midday the next day in the midst of a jungle so thick they could only feel the sun, not see it. They heard birds calling. There was a camp there, sticks holding up tarps, surrounded by mountains, and more men in uniform.
A commander of the group arrived who was able to speak the dialect Gerfa knows. He told her they were fighting for an Islamic state and that she and Kevin would be killed unless her husband paid the ransom: $100 million. She told him even the Philippine government did not have that much money. Ten million, he said.
She pointed to a tiny patch of night sky just visible through the leaves overhead and said, “If you can get that star, my husband can get $10 million.”
In Lynchburg, Kevin’s dad, 50-year-old Heiko Lunsmann, was at work at a nursing home early one morning when Gerfa’s sister called him and said her family in the Philippines had told her that his wife and son had been kidnapped. He didn’t believe it until he looked online and saw Filipino news stories with photos of their U.S. passports. Then he panicked. He kicked a laundry cart so hard that he shattered a toe. He rushed to his sister-in-law’s house.
No one knew what to do. Kevin’s cousin Sherry Hutter called the State Department. Josh rushed to a congressman’s office. Heiko hurried to shut down credit cards. At the bank, he got a call: It was the FBI. They were on their way.
The next day, at the house where Kevin grew up , the phone rang. Heiko answered, then froze when he heard the Filipino accent. He could hardly understand what the man was saying, and the man could hardly understand Heiko’s heavily German-accented English.
From then on, he lived in dread of the calls, terrified he would say the wrong thing.
Weeks went by. Some days he would get two or three calls, sometimes days would go by in silence.
Sometimes Gerfa talked to him. Sometimes he could hear Kevin and Gerfa crying out in pain.
Josh, who listened in to about 25 of the calls, said, “It’s terrorism in the purest degree. They are literally instilling terror in you.”
By then, officials believed that they had been seized by the Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group in the Philippines’ violent, majority-Muslim south. The group is known for bombings — including an explosion on a ferry in 2004 that killed 116 people — executions and kidnappings. Two of its leaders are on the FBI’s most wanted terrorists list, and U.S. Special Forces are deployed in the region.
Officials thought they might be hidden somewhere on Basilan Island, where Abu Sayyaf was founded and a stronghold for the group.
Kidnapping for ransom is now the most significant terrorist-financing threat, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, which estimates that over the past eight years, terrorist groups have raised $120 million in ransom worldwide
The FBI took over the main floor of Kevin’s house. They took family pictures down from the walls, and covered the doors and windows with sheets.
Heiko lived in the basement, panicking when he heard agents’ footsteps overhead breaking into a run, or when he heard a certain ring tone on his cellphone jangling: Terrorists calling.
One time, exhausted by fear and rage, he broke from the cautious negotiations and blurted out to the kidnappers that he couldn’t possibly raise millions of dollars. “I’m not Mel Gibson! I don’t live in Hollywood!” he shouted. “I’m a maintenance man. I change light bulbs and unplug toilets!”
Frogs and freedom
Deep in the jungle, Kevin was living in a makeshift cage made of sticks, 5-feet-by-6-feet, with his mother and cousin.
At 5-foot-8, he was too tall to stand up inside, and he nearly touched both ends when he was lying down. As soon as he woke up, he began thinking about food. At midday, they were given pancakes or rice soup, though never enough, and in the evening, one plate of rice for the three of them. They tried to save a little bit of rice to eat in the morning.
“We talked about food,”Gerfa said, “but we tried not to.” Sometimes they didn’t know what they were eating — they had only a tiny light bulb attached to a battery which they would take turns holding so that they could see to eat at night — but Gerfa and Kevin both got very sick, Kevin after eating something that looked like goat brains or intestines, Gerfa after eating something shiny and hard that she was certain were goat hooves.
“We tried to talk quietly,” Kevin said, “about things we missed, about freedom.”
Sometimes his mother would whisper stories, the plots of whole movies like “Dances With Wolves,” to take their minds off where they were. After she told Kevin’s cousin about “Avatar,” the guards beat him; they had made too much noise.
“We tried to stay quiet,” Gerfa said. “Deep inside, we were talking.”
They watched the militants making bombs, cleaning their guns. They watched the animals around them in the jungle, monkeys and rats and birds and frogs. Gerfa shooed away the frogs, worried that poisonous snakes might slither after them into their cage, but she loved to watch them from a distance as they roamed about the jungle. “It was a constant reminder, how it is to be free. The militants usually hit the animals with a log or a stick when they see them.”
Every 15 minutes, all night long, the men would shine a bright light inside, checking on the captives.
Because the militants wouldn’t use names — they called Kevin “the boy” and Gerfa “the woman” or “the infidel” — and never revealed their own, the captives began assigning names to them. Gerfa chose names of parasites that make people sick. “The first one I called Enterobius vermicularis,” — pinworm.” Another, Falciparum, or malaria. Another was Entamoebas, which cause things like dysentery.
But her cousin had trouble pronouncing the Latin, so they switched to simpler names. One man had a beard, so Kevin called him Hagrid. Others became Skunk, Tom and Jerry, Pancake and Band-Aid.
Gerfa’s cousin, a Muslim, was treated differently by their captors, more like a servant. When Gerfa moved to the United States, she became a Christian, studied at Liberty University and read widely about religion and philosophy. On the mountain, she struggled with anger — how could she love her enemy? — prayed for resolve, talked silently with God and turned the words of the scriptures over in her mind.
“One day, sitting in the corner, I felt so hopeless, looking at Kevin, such a strong young boy,” Gerfa said. “I turned to God again, I asked him why these men pray several times a day but they follow and do evil ways . . . so cruel.” She was so angry, she prayed, “God, show me you are stronger than their God. Get us home safe.”
Kevin stayed on edge, alert for violence, or for a chance at escape. “I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, I was just concentrating on being alive,” he said. “I was hoping that there would be some kind of rescue.” He watched the numbers change on the plastic digital watch the militants had given him to observe the five daily Islamic prayer times. After the prayers, they would eat.
Occasionally they heard helicopters, but always faintly, in the distance.
Sometimes his mother would sing, in a whisper, a Shania Twain song, “Today is Your Day,” and tell him they were going to get free, that he would get home and would see his dad again.
One day a woman was dragged into the camp, sobbing; a new captive.
That week the militants forced them to march again. They finally collapsed in a windowless wooden room, the same size as their cage, buzzing with mosquitoes.
About a week after they got there, they heard gunfire, heavy shooting for 15 or 20 minutes off in the distance. Gerfa, piecing together her captors’ words, realized that the firefight had been soldiers storming the other camp and that the other hostage had been rescued. She couldn’t stop thinking about it. They had come so close to freedom.
“That hopelessness just comes in so easily,” she said. “But you try to bring yourself out of it and say, ‘Don’t give up.’ Every time I look at Kevin I think, ‘We can get out of here.’ ”
Kevin was thinking, “Why? Why me? Why is this happening to us?” Through the slats in the wooden planks he could see a field and rubber trees and hills. When he was allowed out to bathe, he winced at the brightness of sunlight. “It was hard to adjust to light again,” he said. “But it felt really good,” the warmth of the sun on his skin, the brush of a breeze. “It felt — free, I guess.”
Two and a half months had gone by.
Then the terrorists told his mom she was going to leave.
She and Kevin tried to share their last meal together, but they couldn’t eat. They didn’t know what would happen to her.
“Get home to Daddy,” she told him.
He gave her his water bottle, hoping she would need it, and watched them take her away.
Gerfa was forced down the mountain, onto a boat, and thought with certainty: They will dump my body in the ocean.
But after an hour or two, they came to a dock and told her a ransom had been paid. She was free. She stumbled toward houses on stilts, pounding on doors, gaunt, sobbing, pleading for help until she found someone who could understand her. At a police station, she sat in an office by herself until after midnight, when two FBI agents arrived. They showed her their badges and told her U.S. soldiers were waiting outside to get her off Basilan Island, to safety, to a hospital.
When they called her by her name, she burst into tears. “I knew right then I was in good hands, surrounded by true gentlemen. I felt safe.”
Heiko was at home when Gerfa called. “She didn’t sound like the right person,” he said later. “I knew it was her, but she sounded confused.”
Both of them were crying, relieved that she was free but furious that Kevin hadn’t been released after the money was paid. (They were told not to talk about the ransom, Heiko said.)
Gerfa didn’t even consider going home without Kevin. With U.S. protection, she stayed in Manila. She became the one to negotiate with the terrorists.
When Heiko’s phone stopped ringing, he found that in a strange way he missed the kidnappers’ calls: He felt cut off. But he was busy trying to get more money, liquidating their assets, withdrawing all the money from their retirement accounts. He held onto just enough to file for bankruptcy.
The calls were getting more ominous. If they didn’t pay within days, they were told, the kidnappers would cut off Kevin’s head.
‘Then it was just me’
After his mother left, time slowed for Kevin. “The days just went longer and longer.”
He and his Filipino cousin tried to learn one another’s languages and used gestures to communicate.
But one morning before dawn, a few weeks after his mom left, the men with guns came to take the cousin. When he saw tears in Kevin’s eyes, he told him, in his dialect, “Don’t cry.”
Kevin understood. And watched him walk away.
“Then it was just me, in that hut,” Kevin said. “Everything just went really slow. Everything was just silent after that.”
He kept looking at the watch the terrorists had given him. He waited for food. He waited for the times when he would be allowed to bathe with a hose from the river, to scrub his clothes with a hard piece of soap and hang them up to dry; those were the only times he was allowed out of the room. He felt the guards’ eyes constantly on him.
He didn’t relax, ever; his whole mind was focused on staying alive. He tried not to give up hope.
The men had given him a backpack for when they marched, and he kept it ready, filled with survival gear that he had collected: a raincoat, two half-gallon jugs and another bottle of water, a piece of rope, a few candies and crackers.
One day, weeks after his cousin left, Kevin noticed that it was very quiet. Only one man was in the building, and he seemed to be busy.
“I had that backpack ready so if the opportunity ever came,” he said. His heart was racing, thinking about what would happen if he got caught. Then something seemed to snap.
“I looked at my bag and I just felt something. It was time,” he said. He had been a hostage almost five months. “I couldn’t stay there any longer.”
The guard had gone upstairs. Kevin picked up his backpack and crept through the door into the next room.
Carefully, silently, he put the backpack by a window on the side facing the clothesline. So scared he didn’t even think about it, he snatched a long knife in a bamboo sheath and slipped it into the bag. He heard the guard’s footsteps, grabbed his backpack and ran.
Goal: Get off the island
Kevin ran as fast and as silently as he could downhill away from the huts, straight to the river, where trees would help hide him. He was shaking with fear, and his legs were rubbery. Then he ran in the water, which was a few feet deep with a current that was moving against him. He was surprised how cold the water felt. He kept falling, slipping on the pink rubber flip-flops they had given him.
He was weak from being confined so long. “I tried to use whatever strength I had to keep going — get as far as I could from there and then get home.”
He dropped the smaller bottle of water in the river, but he knew he didn’t have time to retrieve it. He kept looking back to see if they were chasing him. He kept banging his toes on the rocks. He kept running.
His bag was heavy, but he knew he needed it. After hours of running, he ran up a steep hill to see where he was, then turned in the direction of the ocean. His goal: to get off the island.
Night fell with a full moon, but Kevin kept running. He found an empty hut and hid in it for a moment to rest. He didn’t relax; he was still too scared. There were boots inside the hut; he pulled those on over his blackened, torn feet.
A tiny, striped kitten appeared and tried to climb into his backpack, then jumped onto his lap, wanting to play. It felt like a good sign.
He stopped again around 2 a.m. to drink water and eat some of the candies. Ants had gotten onto the strawberry one and died on it, a sticky mess. “More protein,” he thought.
He went up and down hills and mountains, getting closer to the coast.
With the stolen knife, he cut open coconuts, slicing his fingers in his haste.
A few times he saw people farming, but he stayed away, scared that they might be supporters of the militants.
Toward nightfall the next day, he was crossing a plantation and a farmer called out to him. Kevin tried to get away, but he saw the man had a gun. The man ran across the pasture toward him and asked questions, trying different dialects and then English: “What are you doing here?”
Exhausted and terrified, Kevin told him the truth.
The farmer said, “I’m a good Muslim. I’ll help you.”
Kevin went back to his house with him still scared. The farmer said he had called police and the military, but Kevin didn’t know if he could believe him. Then he heard a helicopter — not off in the distance this time. It was close. It was loud.
“It was just an amazing feeling,” Kevin said. “ ‘I can trust this guy. I can trust him.’ ”
Within hours he was with U.S. soldiers on a Philippine military base. It was strange, and wonderful, to see Americans after so many months.
“It just reminded me of home,” he said.
Kevin kept gazing at the U.S. soldiers, making sure they were still there. “I was still thinking it might have been a dream.”
When he spoke to his mother, Kevin could hardly understand her, she was crying so hard.
“When you hold that emotion for so long,” she said later, “just to hear his voice: That’s him.”
Gerfa already knew that her cousin had escaped too. He was home safe with his wife.
In Lynchburg, Heiko was delivering 160 holiday turkeys to Centra Health employees on Dec. 10 when he got a crackly call from Gerfa. He couldn’t understand her at all. Either Kevin had been shot, or he had escaped. Heiko’s best friend and boss, Jerry Davidson, got someone to fill in for him and the two ran to Davidson’s office to try to reach Gerfa and the FBI. An agent told Heiko that Kevin was safe in U.S. military hands.
“Heiko and I jumped up and hugged like we have never hugged any man in our lives,” Davidson said. “We were bouncing around like two little kids on Christmas morning. It was elation like I’ve never had in my life.”
Kevin and his mom came home to a house blazing with Christmas lights. Heiko hadn’t even thought about Christmas until he heard Kevin was safe, but that afternoon he bought $100 in strings of bulbs, and he and Kevin’s cousin Sherry and Josh put up a tree and stacked gifts all around.
“It felt so good,” Heiko said. “It felt good, good, good.”
“This is home,” said Gerfa, knowing countless prayers had been said for them while they were held captive. “Good people, good community. This is where Kevin learned how we respect each other, how we value each other.” She wants to thank scores of people, from the U.S. ambassador to soldiers to friends who donated money to the special agents who worked on the case. “This country appreciates its people — and they will do anything to protect their people.”
When word reached Kevin’s friends — many of whom heard of his escape through cellphone calls just as Brookville High was winning the state football championship — they planned a welcome party at the airport. Teachers wanted to honor him for his bravery. Kevin and his family asked them not to. They just wanted to be home, together, for Christmas.
In the Virginia General Assembly, Del. Kathy J. Byron (R-Lynchburg) gave a presentation about Kevin’s courageous escape, and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) sat down with him privately to hear his story.
“Everyone was so touched by what a tremendous story — and a horrific story — for such a young man,” said Byron. Kevin appreciated the honor, but mostly he just wanted to get back to normal. For quite a while he wasn’t ready to see friends, just wanting to be with his family, his dogs and cats, feel safe, eat when he was hungry, sleep in a bed.
He spent a lot of time, at first, playing a video game shooting terrorists.
‘I just feel grateful’
More than a year later Gerfa still thinks about the Philippines constantly, checking to see if the military has caught the kidnappers or made any headway against Abu Sayyaf, which holds several other captives. Last weekthe group released an Australian, Warren Rodwell, who had been held for more than 15 months, after a ransom was paid.
Heiko, who lost 35 pounds while his wife and son were gone, doesn’t like to think about the ordeal at all.
Kevin, who missed a full semester of high school, went back right after the holidays. His teachers said he was disciplined and very low-key. “What can I do to catch up?” he asked, and got to work. He switched from advanced classes to basics and found he had forgotten a lot, as though he had to teach his brain how to think in equations and hypotheses again. By the end of the year, he had scored well enough to go on to tenth grade and get back to advanced classes.
Today he spends a lot of time with his friends, just hanging out. He laughs easily again, but he seems a lot older, several of his friends said, more mature than the other kids.
He doesn’t talk about what he survived, but he thinks about things differently now, more aware of what the U.S. stands for, more aware of his freedom. “I just feel grateful,” he said.
Sometimes, Kevin takes out the things he brought home from the Philippines – the battered, pink flip-flops he ran in; the knife in its sheath; the green T-shirt and black pajama pants he was wearing when he escaped. The clothes are still covered in mud.
Then he puts them away and helps his dad mow the lawn, or he finishes his homework or tosses a football around with friends. Goes back to being — almost — a normal American kid.