Ind. Town Still Hopes for Word on Hostage in Iraq

The American flags put up along this town's main street after Jeffrey Ake was abducted in Iraq a year ago are gone now. With little word on his fate, the ribbons put up in his honor on lampposts have given way to ones supporting troops in Iraq.

The Arby's sign on the west side of town still reads "Pray for Jeff Ake" on one side, but most other business marquees are back to touting bargains. Other signs around town, reading "Jeff, come home safe!" are showing some wear.

"They're kind of getting a little tattered," said Carol Estes, who owns Antique Junction Mall. "I've thought about taking them down, but I just can't."

A year after Ake, a father of four, was abducted near a water treatment plant outside Baghdad, this northern Indiana community of about 20,000 is still seeking answers about what happened to the contract worker.

"Jeffrey is still very much on the minds of people in LaPorte, I believe," said Mayor Leigh Morris, who brings up Ake's name at every City Council meeting in this community about 25 miles west of South Bend. "We're frustrated by the fact we don't know more about Jeffrey's situation, that there doesn't seem to be any way we can help Jeff. But we certainly haven't forgotten about him."

Ake was in Iraq working on a water treatment plant when he disappeared April 11, 2005. His company had already built a machine that fills containers of cooking oil and a system to provide water bottles to be sold in Baghdad.

No one has claimed responsibility for his abduction. He was last seen in an April 13, 2005, video that showed him being held at gunpoint by at least three assailants. In the video, Ake asked the U.S. government to withdraw from Iraq and save his life.

Since then, there has been no word. The FBI says it has no new information on Ake's whereabouts, and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad won't comment.

"We have no reason to believe he's not alive," FBI spokeswoman Wendy Osborne said.

Insurgents in Iraq have kidnapped more than a dozen Americans and killed at least five. Ake is one of five people whose fate is unknown. Aban Elias, an American engineer, has been missing since May 2004, and Sadeq Mohammed Sadeq, a Lebanese-American who formerly worked for a Virginia-based contractor, was kidnapped Nov. 2, 2004, in Baghdad.

Army Reserve Sgt. Keith M. Maupin of Batavia, Ohio, and civilian truck driver Timothy Bell of Mobile, Ala., have been missing since an April 9, 2004, attack on a fuel convoy. Arab television reported that Maupin had been killed, but he is listed as missing by the military.

Ake's family and friends have been mostly silent since his abduction. His wife, Liliana, has yet to talk to the media. Neither has anyone from Equipment Express, the company Ake owns in nearby Rolling Prairie. Ake's father, Jim, has said only that the family believes staying quiet is the best strategy to bring his son home safely.

The silence has perplexed some in LaPorte.

"It's like, what happened? Is he still alive? Is there something else going on we don't know about?" said John Pappas, owner of B&J's American Cafe. "Those are the types of questions we've been asking."

Clinton R. Van Zandt, the FBI's former chief hostage negotiator, said families of missing people can follow two strategies: Keep it in the public eye by holding repeated news conferences and keeping pressure on government officials, or lay low and work behind the scenes.

Supporters of recently released hostage Jill Carroll took the public approach. The journalist's family, The Christian Science Monitor and press freedom groups all issued pleas for her release during her 82 days as a captive that ended with her March 30 release.

Van Zandt favors keeping a low profile when someone is abducted for political purposes because he believes the captors are likely watching for video of the family "hand-wringing and crying and begging."

"They want that attention. They want to see it on CNN, because that's the power they have," Van Zandt said. "They're trying to use the loved one as a pawn. They're trying to hold him up and shake him in our face and use that to put political pressure on the United States."

But the quiet approach, LaPorte residents say, doesn't mean the hostage is forgotten.

"He's on a lot of prayer lists. I think that's how a lot of the community has been handling it," Pappas said of Ake. "We pray for them. We hope for the best and we don't try to pry too much."