PEORIA, ILL., JULY 3 -- As he trudged through virgin Amazon jungle, surviving on monkey and armadillo meat during a 61-day ordeal, Scott Heimdal wondered if his guerrilla kidnappers would let him return to the home he left here to seek fortune in South America.
Today, this proud blue-collar city of 120,000 had an early Fourth of July celebration after its residents had conducted steak fries and bake sales and passed a donation jar from house to house to raise a $60,000 ransom for Heimdal's release.
Heimdal and his mother, Marge, arrived at Greater Peoria Airport Monday night excited at seeing a crowd of 200 well-wishers there to greet them.
Heimdal, who will turn 28 Thursday, was directing a dredging operation for an American gold-mining company in a remote area near the border of Ecuador and Colombia when he was seized April 28 by the Ejercito Popular de Liberacion (EPL), a group seeking to fund a war against the Colombian government.
Marge Heimdal and her husband, Roy, had gone to Quito, Ecuador, June 18 to negotiate their son's release. He was freed Friday near the site of the kidnapping. His father is expected to return Wednesday with Scott's fiance, an Ecuadoran.
"We've seen this town turn from the deepest despair to this day of happiness," said John Picco, who does not know the Heimdals but arrived with his wife, Ethel, to greet them at the airport.
The kidnappers originally demanded a $1.2 million ransom, Heimdal said, but he told them that his parents "just don't have that kind of money." The demand was lowered to $60,000.
The EPL, a splinter group of the People's Liberation Army, would have settled for kidnapping any of three North Americans working for Heimdal's employer, the IMINCO company, Heimdal said, but especially wanted Jeff Fino, the company's owner. Fino was not harmed.
Heimdal said he was traveling by canoe on a river with three Ecuadoran men and a Colombian boat pilot when three guerrillas ambushed them. The kidnappers killed the boat pilot, injured an Ecuadoran and took as hostages Heimdal and an Ecuadoran geology student, later released.
After the incident, Marge Heimdal said she received reports from Fino that the ransom had been upped to $600,000 "and that's when I knew it was time to go to see what was really going on."
The couple, whose life savings had been wiped out in 1983 after Marge was injured seriously in an automobile accident with an uninsured drunken driver, flew to Quito with the $60,000 raised by Peoria residents within several days before they departed.
There, Marge said, they negotiated through an intermediary, who passed on money and information. She declined to discuss that aspect more specifically until her husband and Scott's fiance are safely in the United States.
She did say that the guerrillas apparently tracked her every move in Quito and knew a lot about her family and the community. "This is no fly-by-night organization," she said of her son's captors. "Their intelligence, even in and out of the jungle, is incredible."
Peoria Mayor Jim Maloof, who originally asked each household to contribute $1 for the ransom, said "this community really had a faith and a determination to take on a project that at times seemed hopeless."
At one point, pictures were released of Heimdal bound and held at gunpoint. Heimdal said today that these were staged and that his kidnappers, who numbered about 25, treated him well and allowed him to keep a diary.
"They explained to me that they did not want to do the kidnapping and they didn't particularly like kidnapping but they were under orders," Heimdal said.
The Heimdals said the federal government's role in the incident was limited to relaying information from the U.S. Embassy in Quito.
"It was feasible that a release could have happened with the police searching for Heimdal," said Philip S. Covington, a spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, reiterating the federal government's policy against dealing with terrorists. "Anytime a ransom is paid, it's an incentive for terrorists to take hostages."
Today, as Heimdal sat in his parent's cramped living room and ate a king-sized submarine sandwich, he said the scariest parts of his ordeal were firefights involving the kidnappers, the Colombian army and itinerant drug traffickers in the jungle.
In a letter sent from captivity, Heimdal told his parents, "This is not some Hollywood movie or office fantasy."
Most of the time, he said, he lived in a hammock and was moved daily to different places in the jungle with no roads or paths. Today, a makeshift hammock was rigged in the basement next to the hot-water heater because Heimdal has not adjusted to sleeping in a bed.
Eventually, he said, he would like to return to Ecuador to pursue his childhood fantasy of salvaging sunken Spanish shipwrecks. Until then, he said he plans to endure his role as local hero, albeit a bashful one, greeting neighborhood children who ring the doorbell to shake his hand.
Today, strangers drove along Corrington Avenue to glimpse the small house draped in red, white and blue bunting and perhaps see Heimdal, who has been busy requesting his favorite junk foods since arriving in Peoria.
Nadine Shaheen, a longtime friend of the Heimdals, began to weep when she saw Heimdal and his only siblings, Linda, 27, and Angie, 21, hug each other when they finally reached home. "That's worth the heartache, anticipation and worry," she said.
Heimdal, who had not lived here since he left for the Army six years ago, said he definitely will return more often.
"This isn't just home anymore," he said. "This is Peoria and people that really cared about me, and I'll never forget what these people did for me."