For Missing Guards' Kin, An Agonizing Conclusion

By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 30, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Minn., March 29 -- Relatives of five private security contractors abducted in Iraq gathered at the Comfort Inn near Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport this weekend. Their 16-month nightmare had reached an excruciating and prolonged conclusion that began with the delivery of five fingers to U.S. authorities last month and continued late Saturday with the identification of another victim.

Since last Sunday, the FBI has identified the bodies of four of the five missing guards and another American contractor who was apparently held with them. The guards worked for Kuwait-based Crescent Security Group and were protecting a convoy of 37 tractor-trailers on Iraq's main highway when they were seized Nov. 16, 2006. Crescent, which was later banned from U.S. bases for possessing illegal offensive weapons, symbolized a murky, scarcely regulated side of the Iraq war.

The ordeal is still not over. The fifth guard, Jonathon Cote, 25, a former U.S. Army paratrooper from suburban Buffalo, remains missing. U.S. authorities have told his family they are aware of a body near the southern city of Basra, but its recovery appears to have been delayed by fighting between Shiite militias and Iraqi and U.S. government forces there.

"I don't know which is worse, to know that your child is gone or to be waiting like this," said Cote's mother, Lori Silveri, as she sat at one of several tables pulled together to accommodate the relatives at a steakhouse Friday night. "I still don't have any closure."

Silveri looked around the tables. The crowd included 5-month-old Ka'Leah Reuben, who was conceived and born while her grandfather, Paul Reuben, 41, a former suburban Minneapolis police officer, was in captivity; and Maria and Franz Nussbaumer, the mother and brother of Bert Nussbaumer, 26, whose body was identified Saturday. The Nussbaumers had traveled from Gmunden, Austria.

"These people are all so brave," Silveri said, sobbing.

Three times in the past week, FBI agents visited or called Jon Cote's father and stepmother at their home outside Buffalo. On each occasion, the agents informed the Cotes that at least one of the missing guard's colleagues -- but not their son -- was dead.

"At this point, I assume the worst," said Francis Cote, who did not attend the Minneapolis gathering. Asked how he dealt with the uncertainty, he said: "My wife and I have a strong Christian faith. We pray to God for strength. And our relationship with each other is strong enough so that when one of us falters, the other person can be there for them."

Meanwhile, relatives of the four guards whose bodies have been identified said that the FBI still has not told them how and where the men were killed and that the lack of information has prolonged their grief. They said U.S. authorities have told them it may be weeks or months before autopsy reports can be provided.

"We haven't been able to find out anything," said Sharon DeBrabander, whose son, John R. Young, 45, was identified last Sunday. "I think it's important; we ought to know. What happened to our children? What was going on the last few days or months of their lives? We want to know how they were treated. We want to know how they were killed."

"I figured this would be a closure for us, but it's not," DeBrabander said Saturday afternoon as she smoked a cigarette in front of the airport hotel. "It just opens up another can of worms. There's too many questions unanswered. And we're going to keep at it until we get our answers."

Richard Kolko, an FBI spokesman, wrote in an e-mail that the agency's "Victim Assistance specialists will be providing the preliminary information as soon as it is available directly to the families. More detailed information will be provided to the families when the medical examiner's reports are completed."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company