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

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.

Mr. Morefield later told the PBS "Frontline" documentary series that his son's ordeal "forced me to make the decision that I was going to cope. There was nothing more they could do emotionally to me. I really wasn't sure I was going to get out."

The Iranian captors released Mr. Morefield on Jan. 21, 1981, soon after Ronald Reagan's inauguration as president. Mr. Morefield said he left Iran with only what he was wearing and one possession: his gold wedding ring.

Richard Henry Morefield was born in Venice, Calif., on Sept. 9, 1929. After his parents divorced, he grew up in San Diego with his mother and grandmother.

He was a 1951 graduate of the University of San Francisco and, after Army service in Japan, received a master's degree in history from the University of California at Berkeley.

In 1955, he married Dorothea "Dotty" Baker. Besides his wife, of Cary, N.C., survivors include five children, Elizabeth "Betsy" Morefield of Redondo Beach, Calif., Daniel Morefield of Laguna Niguel, Calif., William Morefield of Albuquerque, Steven Morefield of Durham, N.C., and Kenneth Morefield of Fuquay-Varina, N.C.

Mr. Morefield joined the State Department in 1956. After assignments in Barranquilla, Colombia, and Oslo, he was economic officer in Uruguay in the late 1960s, a period when the violent Tupamaro guerrilla group was causing havoc with robberies, kidnappings and killings.

He later was an economic adviser to the Organization of American States and consul general in Bogota, also a city racked by violence, before being sent to Tehran.

After his release, he flirted briefly with a run for the U.S. House from a San Diego district before continuing a career in the diplomatic service.

Taking another dangerous post, he became consul general in Guadalajara, Mexico, where his friend Enrique Camarena, a U.S. narcotics agent, was tortured and killed at the behest of traffickers.

Mr. Morefield later was counselor for economic affairs at the embassy in Mexico City before returning to Washington in the late 1980s. He spent his retirement years working part time for the State Department, overseeing declassification of records for the archives, before moving in 2008 to North Carolina.

Many survivors of the Iran hostage crisis needed intensive psychiatric care. Several marriages disintegrated. But Dorothea Morefield said in an interview that, after a brief period of adjustment, her husband was able to cope better than most because his family had made it through Rick Jr.'s death.

In later years, Mr. Morefield developed sleep apnea and refused to wear a mask to treat the disorder. It reminded him of the bag the Iranians forced him to wear around his head when he was a hostage.

"Clearly, of course, it scarred him to a point, but everything in life scars us," his wife said, referring to his experience in Tehran. "He would always say to everybody, nothing was as bad as losing my son."

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