Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos says police, kidnappers exchanged heavy gunfire in dramatic rescue
By Juan Forero,
VALENCIA, Venezuela — In a matter of minutes, he had gone from being a major league catcher with a promising future to a hostage. Bundled up a dark mountain pass, a hood snug over his head, Wilson Ramos was then imprisoned in a cabin as gunmen threatened him unless his family paid up.
His startling rescue by heavily armed commandos, just 51 hours after his abduction, amounted to a miracle for his family and teammates on the Washington Nationals, who had been closely following the saga. But on Saturday, as the 24-year-old ballplayer recounted his ordeal, his voice cracking as he spoke, his thoughts turned to those grim hours when his storybook life had suddenly been snatched from him by criminals searching for a big payoff.
That is what Ramos, fresh off an impressive rookie season, faced after being abducted Wednesday from his family’s home in the working class neighborhood of Valencia where he grew up. Ramos shook in fear, he recalled in an interview with The Washington Post, prayed to God and wondered if he would live past the ordeal.
“For a few moments,” Ramos said, “I thought I would never see my family and that was something painful, super painful.”
And at the same time, his family huddled together, waiting for a ransom demand, and discussing what steps to take with investigators and a Major League Baseball security consultant well-versed in hostage negotiations. They tried to block out a cold, hard fact all of them were conscious of: that hostages in this crime-ridden country disappear for months and, sometimes, forever.
“There were moments when the pressure would get to me, and I felt like collapsing,” said Ramos’s mother, Maria Campos, 45. She would cry, she said, and then see all the support she had around her, her children, Ramos’s father, Abraham Ramos, and other relatives.
A fervent evangelist, she said she sought a higher power.
“Then, I would get the strength,” she said shortly past midnight Saturday morning, as she awaited the arrival of her second son.
‘They took Wilson’
The story of how Ramos was abducted and then rescued in what appeared to be a textbook-perfect operation by President Hugo Chavez’s government has gripped this country, which is passionate about baseball and the ballplayers who rise to the top of the profession and make it to the big leagues.
Ramos, a right-handed batter who had hit .267 with 15 home runs and had a .438 slugging percentage, is one of the hometown heroes who return to play in this country’s storied winter league. With only a week to go before his debut with the Aragua Tigers, who play in nearby Maracay, Ramos and his family had been outside the house, enjoying a cool evening after the sun had settled, when a mysterious SUV circled by.
Campos said she had gone to the kitchen, to finish preparing dinner for her son, who had wanted to eat a Venezuelan specialty that is hard to find in Washington, corn cakes filled with meat.
“I went inside and in the moment I left, it happened,” she said. “It was a question of seconds.”
Two men had rushed out of the SUV while another had stayed at the wheel. With a gun to Ramos’s head, the men dragged him from the patio, past an aqua-colored security gate and into the vehicle. The ballplayer’s father, two of his brothers, a cousin and friends watched helplessly, only screaming out as the automobile sped off.
“Mama! Mama! They took Wilson,” Emmanuel, the youngest, shouted. “ ‘Yes, two armed men came up and took him in a car.’ ”
News spread fast in the neighborhood and, with screams coming from the Ramos home, several people called the police. The government quickly assigned the national guard’s special anti-kidnapping team, the national criminal investigations police and other units to the case.
Joel Rengifo Añez, a Venezuelan-born senior investigative consultant for Major League Baseball, was among those summoned. He had led a team back in 2004, when the mother of pitcher Ugueth Urbina had been rescued after being abducted.
His job: to advise the family and find someone who could withstand the pressures of negotiating with the kidnappers once they made their first call to demand a ransom payment, Rengifo said early Saturday morning at the Ramos home. “We were waiting to see what the kidnappers wanted,” he said.
Rengifo said he wanted to use Ramos’s father, whom he thought was “the strongest.”
A former police investigator here with 31 years of experience, Rengifo also told the family to be patient.
In the Ramos home, in a big kitchen with concrete floors and pastel-colored walls, the family discussed their options. Jhonatan, at 25 the oldest of Ramos’s seven siblings, said some in the family wondered if an uncle, Richard Campos, would not be better at negotiating.
“My father is strong, but he is very sentimental and he would not have had the strength to confront that situation,” Jhonatan Ramos said.
‘They knew a lot’
In a cabin in the mountains, meanwhile, Ramos was guarded by four men.
“They did not tie me up, they did not tape my mouth, they did not have a hood on me,” he recalled. “They did not mistreat me physically, but psychologically the damage was very big.”
He said some of the kidnappers tried to calm him down, while others spoke about how if “there is no collaboration things will get difficult.” He spent the whole time lying on the bed.
“To be locked inside there, with these guys I did not know. Understand?” Ramos said. “I did not even want to eat, wondering what was in the food.”
Ramos said some of his abductors had been studying his movements before carrying out the abduction. “They told me many things they knew of my private life,” he said at a news conference Saturday afternoon, according to the Associated Press. “They knew a lot about me. They had very good information, an informant who told them all that.”
Meantime, investigators were making headway.
The SUV that had been used to abduct Ramos had been found, in Bejuma, a town just west of Valencia. The authorities also learned that another kidnapping victim, a baker, had been released in October in the same vicinity, after a ransom had been paid.
Investigators believed that that same group may have committed both kidnappings and could be operating in the region.
“That was the thread of the investigation,” Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami told reporters on Saturday. He said the authorities then developed intelligence that led them to identify a remote region where they thought Ramos was being held.
“At that moment, we informed President Chavez that we needed to carry out an operation,” El Aissami recounted.
The operation began at 10 a.m. Friday, the minister said, involving the commandos, anti-kidnapping teams from the national guard and elite officers from the judicial police. They soon found themselves in Aguas Claras, or Clear Water, where they discovered a car that had been used to transport Ramos after the SUV had been abandoned. They also found a house that had been used to store provisions for the kidnappers.
From there, it was a long march across rugged, mountainous terrain to the cabin where Ramos was being held. “These are remote zones,” said the minister. “All the teams got there on foot.”
At 9:58 p.m. on Friday, twelve hours after the operation began, the rescue team swooped in to rescue Ramos. The kidnappers responded with “heavy gunfire,” El Aissami said.
Ramos said he got under his bed.
“There were many shots fired,” he said. “I could not do anything but get under the bed, to pray, to cry, and then I felt a great relief when I heard the police yell my name. That is when I responded, because I could not even speak.”
El Aissami said that four kidnappers, all Venezuelan nationals, were arrested, as well as a couple that had provided food for them. He said that authorities were searching for four Colombian nationals. Ramos had earlier described the men who held him in the cabin as having Colombian accents and frequently talking “about the guerrilla,” meaning the rebels that have been fighting in that neighboring country.
At 3 a.m. Saturday, Ramos arrived home as neighbors screamed “Wilson! Wilson! Wilson!” and dozens of relatives, from cousins to siblings to uncles and aunts, savored the moment with tearful bear hugs.
“God is good! God is good!” cried his mother, holding him tightly. “Thank you my lord!”
Dressed in a blue T-shirt, tired and saying he was ready for a shower, Ramos then walked onto the patio where he had been kidnapped, went up to the metal gate and began to talk to all the well-wishers.
“Thanks to God I am again in my home, alive,” he said. “I do not have the words to express everything I feel. I thank you for your support. Thank you, really. I love you very much.”
Staff writer Adam Kilgore contributed to this story from Washington.