From Colombian hell back to Bradenton, ex-hostage tells of tension, narcissism

Keith Stansell, front, steps from an Air Force plane in July in Texas after his rescue from Colombian rebels.

Getty Images (2008)

Keith Stansell, front, steps from an Air Force plane in July in Texas after his rescue from Colombian rebels.

In the steamy jungle camps where he was held for more than five years, Keith Stansell says his guerrilla captors weren't the only ones making life miserable. Sometimes it was his fellow hostages.

Stansell, 44, was one of three American defense contractors captured by leftist rebels in February 2003 when their single-engine drug surveillance plane crashed in southern Colombia. They were rescued in July along with 12 other hostages in a daring military operation.

So far, most accounts by the other Colombian hostages have sought to paint a harmonious picture of life in captivity, focusing on their captors' inhumanity. Psychological battles and personal rivalries have only been hinted at.

But Stansell, a former U.S. Marine from Bradenton now working in Tampa, and co-authors Marc Gonsalves and Tom Howes have shattered that image in their book Out of Captivity, published this week.

"I was not the perfect guy in the jungle, but whatever I did I'll talk about it, good or bad, because that is how I get over it," Stansell said in a phone interview Friday from New York where he was taping TV news shows.

In the book, Stansell has especially harsh words for fellow hostage Ingrid Betancourt, a former Colombian presidential candidate. While Betancourt is usually depicted as a heroine for her bravery, Stansell says he saw another side of her.

Betancourt is described as giving the Americans a frosty reception when they showed up at her rebel prison camp. The well-educated daughter of a wealthy Colombian family, she had until that point used her political fame to hold sway over the other prisoners, Stansell says. He nicknamed her "the Princess."

The arrival of the Americans changed the camp's hierarchy. That did not sit well with Betancourt and led to several fights. The book describes Betancourt ratting out the Americans to rebel guards. It also says she hoarded the scarce camp belongings, including clothing, books and writing materials, as well as a highly prized radio.

Betancourt, now living in Paris, has not commented.

Stansell said he realized that speaking ill of a fellow hostage, especially a woman who was held even longer than the three Americans, might sound unkind.

"I don't want to come out as an ogre," he said. "But I'm not going to spend five years and three months in the jungle, in chains, and come out and have another ex-hostage put chains on me so I can't talk about what happened."

The Americans had spent a grueling eight months before reaching the camp, including a 24-day forced march after their capture that nearly cost Stansell his life. Injured with broken ribs from the crash, Stansell went nine days unable to eat and suffering from vomiting and diarrhea before collapsing.

"I was done. I laid down and I said, 'Hey, if you want to shoot me, shoot me. I'm not moving. I can't move. I'm finished. Just leave me in peace.' "

Instead, his captors cut some poles, threw him in a hammock and carried him until they could find a mule.

In the book, Stansell does not hide his weaknesses, including a complicated love life before the crash. He had been unfaithful to his American fiancee and impregnated a Colombian flight attendant.

During his absence, his fiancee left him. But the Colombian stuck by him and gave birth to twin boys, Nicholas and Keith, now 5 years old.

Together for the first time, they moved into a house close to Stansell's parents in Bradenton. Stansell is back at work with Northrop Grumman in the company's Tampa office.

Stansell says he came out of the ordeal a better person.

"It's the best thing that ever happened to me," he says.

Contact David Adams at dadams@sptimes.com.

From Colombian hell back to Bradenton, ex-hostage tells of tension, narcissism 02/27/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 27, 2009 11:58pm]

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