By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 7, 2006
LaPORTE, Ind. -- A sign stands outside the KarMel Coffee House.
7 AM--5 PM
Jeffrey J. Ake is 48 now, if he is alive. He is also a husband and son and the father of four children who miss him terribly. He is a storyteller, a Rotarian and a small-business owner who thrived in distant capitals.
He traveled to Iraq, tools in hand, on a private contract to repair machines at a water-bottling plant. Early one morning in April 2005, the telephone rang at a lakeside rambler in LaPorte, 80 miles east of Chicago. An Iraqi man, talking fast in poor English, told Liliana Ake, "We have your husband."
Fourteen months later, nothing is known about his whereabouts, while his family waits and neighbors wonder what to expect after so much silence. No American has been held captive longer in Iraq and come out alive.
Many other kidnappings in Iraq carried political motivations, but the Iraqi man who called LaPorte demanded only money. He said he wanted $1 million and he wanted it the very next day, in Baghdad.
Liliana Ake pleaded for Jeff's life.
"Don't cry, lady," he said. "Everything is fine."
She reacted quickly enough to ask questions that only Jeff -- in Iraq for just three days when he was seized -- could answer, including one about his dog. The man called back with the right answers. But three weeks later, the telephone stopped ringing.
"Nothing at all. For over a year, we haven't heard anything," Liliana Ake explained in her first newspaper interview since her husband's abduction. "We pray every night. My little boy says, 'Bad people in Iraq have my dad. It's not fair.' "
She believes he is alive, perhaps because she must. At the same time, she is bothered by the sense in LaPorte, where people have been supporting her and rooting for her husband, that Jeff is becoming mostly a memory. Signs like the one at the KarMel are fewer. It is as though Jeff Ake is slipping away.
"I pray for his faith, that he is in God's hands and he will be back when it's time," she said. "Maybe he was killed a year ago and we will not find him for 15 years. But if you let yourself ask these questions, there is no hope. These are very practical, cynical questions. I know he will be back."
More than 430 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. Among the most famous, Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll made it out. So did Roy Hallums, a U.S. contractor who escaped after 10 months. Job seeker Nick Berg did not. His beheading was shown on television.
At last count, at least 13 Americans, including Ake, were among 42 foreigners still missing, their fate unknown. U.S. authorities continue to look for clues, a State Department spokesman said.
When the first call came, Liliana Ake could barely believe her ears. Jeff was the smooth and gregarious world traveler she had met 12 years ago while studying in Chicago, the Midwestern businessman who had willingly moved to her native Russia to be with her and her daughter. When he left for Baghdad, he had carried crayons and coloring books for the children of Iraqi workers.
Al-Jazeera broadcast video images of Ake controlled by men carrying assault rifles. Television crews began to camp outside the family's modest house in LaPorte, population 22,000. Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) helped Liliana's mother come from Kamchatka. Neighbors brought food. Strangers offered to baby-sit.
The churches in town began to prepare a joint prayer vigil, which Mayor Leigh Morris said would be a "community outpouring." But he said the Akes passed word to keep a lower profile lest the kidnappers conclude Jeff Ake was a prominent citizen and raise the stakes.
Morris said, "We didn't want to do anything that could have been disadvantageous to Jeff."
Meanwhile, U.S. investigators were working the case in Baghdad and in LaPorte, focusing on the telephone calls to the Akes' house. As Liliana pleaded for time, a kidnapper, in no mood for delay, named a Baghdad hotel where he expected to collect the money.
"We said, 'We have the money. Just tell us how to get it there,' " said James Ake, Jeff's father, who also lives in LaPorte. "He said, 'That's your problem.' "
Within an hour of the abduction in Taji, 12 miles north of Baghdad, the U.S. Hostage Working Group was alerted. A team escorted by a U.S. Army patrol interviewed workers at the bottling plant. Group coordinator Dan O'Shea went to Ake's hotel to talk with the staff and gather his belongings.
"We assumed Jeff's kidnapping was criminally motivated by money and not political," O'Shea wrote in an e-mail interview. "There is a hostage-trading market for kidnap victims who are sold up the chain to insurgent groups who are going after significant sums of money or to send a political message. In Jeff's case, the information just went cold relatively early in the case."
The Akes continued to lie low, waiting for word. Following the advice of FBI negotiators, they chose not to speak to the media, contrary to the approach used by Carroll's parents and Hallums's family.
Earlier this year, the Ake family agreed to the posting of fliers in Iraq, offering a $280,000 reward for information. Still nothing.
"You just have to rely on the advice that they're giving you, which is what we did," said James Ake, who said it is "harder and harder to believe" Jeff will return. "Just think of trying to find someone in Chicago who didn't want to be found."
Loretta Ake, Jeff's stepmother, said the youngest Ake son joined the Army and recently received deployment orders for Iraq.
"He just told us he was going," she said. "I told him the only good thing to come out of it: Find Jeff."
Morris begins every meeting of the city council and the board of public works with a prayer for Ake. He looks each day at notepaper in a box. On each sheet, his wife has written a date and the corresponding number of days Ake has been missing. The total has passed 400. There are 545 sheets in the box.
"We're hoping to throw many of them away unused," said Morris, who called his fellow Rotarian "just an all-around solid person." He acknowledged that, after so many months, Ake's captivity is "not a front-burner, constant conversational item," but he is not surrendering hope.
"The fact that we have had no definitive bad news may be good news in itself," Morris said. "At least we would prayerfully hope so."
A sign at a LaPorte laundromat still reads "God Bless Jeff Ake and His Family." At the Temple News Agency, a coffee shop, Angela Stone believes Ake is "always in the back of people's minds."
"This is a small town. Nobody is used to having anyone in the national spotlight," Stone said. "It makes people not know how to react. The protocol is really up in the air."
At the KarMel Coffee House, Dianne Allen said the "Pray for Jeff Ake" sign stays out during the week, as a measure of warmth and respect for Liliana, a regular often called Lilly. Customers sometimes ask if there is any fresh news.
"I think the customers are wanting to know something so they can continue their prayers or just move on," Allen said. "People say, 'Because we haven't heard anything in so long, he's gone.' Our thoughts are, 'Well, nobody knows that.' If Lilly knew how much the community cared, she might give a public comment in the paper or a news conference and announce he's still with us or he's not."
Ake said she would give information if she had it.
"The people who know me understand that I don't have any information, except I truly believe Jeff is alive," she said. "I know he's alive. It can be a matter of time."
She follows other cases closely and traded e-mails with Carroll's twin sister.
"When she was released," she said, "I cried with joy."
While she waits, Ake does her best to manage the water-bottling-equipment firm and to pay the bills. She takes strength from fellow parishioners at LaPorte Missionary Church and generous volunteers from the Service League and Rotary Club. She has slept through the night only twice in nearly 14 months, typically waking up in fear at 1 a.m. and not falling asleep again until 5:30. She often sees Jeff in her dreams, where "he is always different, more quiet."
"I don't feel isolated, just that life is going on and it becomes a side issue [for others]. For me, it intensifies. I don't want to cry," Ake said, tears forming. "I'm trying to be strong, but you can't always be strong. I do feel sorry for myself many times. I'm without my husband, and my kids are without their father."
Ake shuttles her children to their grandparents' house and an array of activities, including dance and piano lessons. She says she wants Jeff to be proud of his children when he sees them again. She keeps a big plastic tub for him, packed with articles about his kidnapping and cards sent by well-wishers.
"Unfortunately, there are not many more cards coming," she said. "Time goes by."
Ake wears a bracelet, given to her by the sister of a fellow church member who died of cancer. It says "Miracles happen."