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Obituary: Richard Morefield, embassy diplomat seized in Iranian hostage crisis

San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson hands Richard Morefield the key to the city on Jan. 29, 1981. Mr. Morefield's family members were on hand.
San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson hands Richard Morefield the key to the city on Jan. 29, 1981. Mr. Morefield's family members were on hand. (Associated Press/linnett)

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By Adam Bernstein
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 10:11 PM

Richard Morefield, an unflappable career diplomat who was consul general in Tehran when he was seized by Iranian militants in 1979 and endured 444 days in captivity, including three mock executions, died Oct. 11 at a hospital in Raleigh, N.C., of pneumonia. He was 81.

Mr. Morefield was a seasoned Foreign Service officer who arrived in Tehran four months before a mob of Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 4, 1979.

An economics expert with a self-possessed demeanor, Mr. Morefield was sent to Iran because of his experience working calmly amid violence-racked countries such as Colombia.

He found an explosive situation in Tehran, which was then churning with anti-American sentiment after the United States gave safe passage to the ailing shah.

The revolutionary fervor led to the seizure of the embassy and the holding of 52 U.S. hostages. An international crisis ensued, prompting 14 months of intensive diplomatic negotiations to secure their release.

The United States staged a military rescue mission in April 1980 that proved a disaster. Two of the helicopters collided, and eight U.S. service members died. Their charred bodies, left behind, were displayed on Iranian television and deepened the sense of foreboding about the embassy hostages.

Just after being sequestered, Mr. Morefield was taken to a basement holding space and blindfolded, forced to stay silent except when interrogated. He was told to kneel and a pistol was placed against his head. The gun clicked. The chamber was empty.

This happened twice more during his captivity. He was otherwise held in isolation in a cramped cell lit only by window slits high above him. It was a frightening experience, defined mostly by the uncertainty of what would happen next.

Following lessons he learned in training, he made no attempt to befriend guards and ate all food offered to him. He spoke of surviving mentally by doing light exercise - push-ups, sit-ups, pacing his cell - and trying to create crossword puzzle games in his head and recall math problems from his childhood.

He said the Iranians tried to play with his head by allowing him cards and books, only to take them away without warning. He spent his 25th wedding anniversary in a cell, thousands of miles from his wife, Dorothea, who became a formidable presence in the media during the hostage crisis.

Mr. Morefield credited his resolve to the memory of his son and namesake, Rick Jr., who in 1976 was killed execution-style in one of the Washington area's most infamous murder cases. His son, a freshman at Northern Virginia Community College, was working at a Roy Rogers restaurant near Alexandria when an armed holdup man ordered Rick Jr. and four others into a walk-in refrigerator.

The five were all shot in the head. James L. Breeden was convicted and died in prison several years ago.


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