Reinhart Released by Rebels

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on January 25, 1999. Partner content is not updated.

Norbert Reinhart’s family was praying desperately for his release when his daughter Molly stood on a wooden pew in Our Lady of Lourdes Church in downtown Toronto. "I’m going to the mountain," said the blond two-year-old, pointing towards the dome towering above her, "to bring my daddy home.

Reinhart Released by Rebels

Norbert Reinhart's family was praying desperately for his release when his daughter Molly stood on a wooden pew in Our Lady of Lourdes Church in downtown Toronto. "I'm going to the mountain," said the blond two-year-old, pointing towards the dome towering above her, "to bring my daddy home." Six days later, at 8 a.m. on Jan. 8, the guerrillas who had held Reinhart in their remote jungle hideout in Colombia for 94 days suddenly told him he was going home. Soon afterwards, they drove him down a twisting mountain path to freedom. Reinhart, who operates a diamond drilling company, became an international hero in October when he walked into the jungle and switched places with one of his employees who had been taken hostage by the guerrillas. When Reinhart finally arrived back in Toronto last week, Molly rushed through the airport and into his arms. "Her prayers were answered," he told Maclean's. "I'm here."

The 49-year-old driller, who slept in an open tent on a bed of ferns and subsisted on a steady diet of rice and beans during his captivity, seemed unscathed by his ordeal as he later cradled Molly in his arms at his sister's townhouse in downtown Toronto. The family had draped yellow ribbons on the iron gate outside, and inside his Christmas presents still waited to be unwrapped. Reinhart's wife, Casey, 34, her face locked in a permanent smile, and his eldest daughter, Robin, 7, were constantly at his side in the cramped house where dozens of relatives and friends had gathered to welcome him to his former stomping grounds; the family recently moved from Ontario to Raymond, Alta. "Absence," said Casey, "certainly makes the heart grow fonder." As they sat down to their first meal together, Reinhart was relieved to find that it did not include a single grain of rice. Later, as he laughed and playfully picked up a handful of the fresh snow that had fallen on the city, he was obviously overjoyed to be back. "It's beautiful," he said. "I don't think I'll be going back to Colombia. I'll be taking a new direction in my life."

Yet while Reinhart basked in the glow of a hero's welcome, a number of troubling questions involving the murky world of guerrilla politics in Colombia remained unanswered. For one thing, Reinhart told Maclean's that he never fully intended to be taken hostage. Instead he had a slim hope that he would be able to purchase his employee's freedom with $100,000 in Canadian funds when he met with the guerrillas, and that both men would be set free. But the rebels then grabbed him, and it ultimately took another $70,000 to buy his own freedom. In the end, said Keith Peters, who managed Reinhart's drilling operation in Colombia, the rescue gambit became extremely dangerous. "Norbert was not sure they would take him hostage when he went in," said Peters, "but he definitely knew there was that chance." Reinhart still refuses to go into detail about many aspects of his kidnapping, insisting that he simply acted out of compassion for a fellow employee, Edward Leonard, of Creston, B.C. "Leonard was a diamond driller," said Reinhart. "I know all the diamond drillers in Canada. I just did what I had to do."

Even the payment of the ransom was not straightforward - it first had to be moved through Reinhart's company by a second firm that evidently did not want to be seen dealing directly with the rebels. Reinhart grew cautious when questioned about the money. "I will confirm that there was a ransom paid," said Reinhart. "I'm not 100 per cent clear where all the funds came from."

Reinhart's jungle odyssey began when Leonard, 60, was taken prisoner on June 24 in remote Santander province in northeast Colombia. Leonard had been working for Terramundo Drilling Inc., a firm owned by Reinhart and based in Bucaramanga, a city about three hours' drive south of the camp where Leonard was captured. Terramundo had been contracted to drill core samples on claims owned by Greystar Resources Ltd. of Vancouver - a small gold mining company.

The guerrillas, members of the violent Front 20 faction within the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, have controlled the region for decades and had intended to kidnap a Greystar executive. The Marxist rebels not only wanted to extort money from the company, they wanted to negotiate a deal that would allow them to share in the six million ounces of gold that may eventually be mined at the site. But when no one from Greystar was available, they seized Leonard. "They wanted to negotiate with Greystar over the future of the mine," said Peters, who recently returned to Canada.

Controversy surrounding frontier mining projects was nothing new to Reinhart - he had been following the life of a nomadic diamond driller since 1974, when he first began working in remote camps from northern Saskatchewan to Peru. He was raised along with his six sisters on a farm near Walkerton, 195 km northwest of Toronto. His sister Celeste, a Roman Catholic nun in Toronto, said that as he was growing up, his father George made it clear he wanted him to take over the farm.

But coming of age in the 1960s, Reinhart yearned for a more exciting life. After dropping out of the University of Western Ontario without completing his arts degree, he struck out in 1971 to see North America in a blue Ford van. Last week, Reinhart's father, waiting at the family home near Walkerton for his son to arrive, seemed surprised that his quixotic son was now being hailed as a hero. "I never saw him as being any different than any other boy," said George Reinhart. "We will have to see how it turns out."

Still, one incident that occurred on his trek by van across North America hinted at the bravery that Reinhart would later display when he rescued Leonard. Mike Weiler of Vancouver, an old schoolmate from Sacred Heart High School in Walkerton, was with him on the trip. He says that when they reached Durango, Mexico, Reinhart managed to talk his way onto the set of the movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, where the two found work as extras. When another actor was about to be beaten by police, Weiler says Reinhart risked his own safety by hiding the man in the van and driving him out of Durango. "He was the type of guy who would take care of his friends," said Weiler. "He was always ready to help."

Both men later entered the mining business and Reinhart launched his own diamond drilling company. One contract took him to the northern Saskatchewan town of La Ronge, where he met his wife, Casey, while she was working on the desk at the local hotel. They later married and she often travelled with him. But eventually, with two young children to look after, the wanderlust took its toll, and eight months ago they settled in Alberta. "My family was in the west," said Casey. "I wanted to be closer to them."

Leonard's capture would soon undermine Casey's attempt to find stability for her family. In September, Reinhart insisted he had to do something to help Leonard. After a tense discussion with his wife, he decided to press ahead. Working through intermediaries near Bucaramanga, he finally made contact with the guerrillas. Despite strong warnings against his plan by both Canadian diplomats and Colombian officials, Reinhart met the rebels on a remote mountain road on Oct. 6 and handed over the $100,000. Reinhart said he had hoped the guerrillas would simply release Leonard and the two would walk away to freedom. But when the rebels seized him, Reinhart shook hands with Leonard, saying: "Your shift is over, it's time to go home." Leonard still becomes emotional when he recalls the exchange. "The guerrillas had threatened to kill me," he said. "It was heroic of Reinhart to put his life on the line for an employee."

Reinhart was then moved between three remote jungle camps with eight young guerrillas, all of whom were armed. "They never hurt me," said Reinhart, "but I knew they would kill me if they had to." They slept in open tents on mattresses of ferns. "When they ate, I ate," he said, "and when they moved, I moved." He occupied himself by learning Spanish, playing gin rummy with his guards and honing his reflexes by snagging the ever-present mosquitoes in midair. While many hostages eventually become friendly with their captors, Reinhart maintains that he did not, telling them at every opportunity that they were violating his civil rights. Still, they felt comfortable enough to allow him to take their pictures.

But the hardest part of his captivity, he said, was simply knowing that "other people at home were suffering because of me." Reinhart's relatives were not content to suffer in silence. Casey and Celeste Reinhart went public at every opportunity with his plight. They organized a massive letter-writing campaign and created a Web site where his situation was updated regularly. People flooded the offices of Greystar and local MPs with faxes demanding that they do something.While the department of foreign affairs refuses to comment on the case, Leonard and Casey say the family's decision to go public enraged Gar Pardy, the department's director general of consular affairs who was in charge of the file. At one point, Pardy reduced some of the family to tears when he claimed that the heightened publicity surrounding the case could result in violence. Said Casey: "I had to kick Pardy off the phone a few times."

While the family waged its public war, the struggle to secure Reinhart's release continued quietly in the Colombian capital of Bogotá and in the rebel-held territory. Canadian Ambassador William Ross met regularly with Guillermo Perez, one of the top anti-kidnapping officials in the Colombian government. Two other men, Jorge Gomez, peace commissioner for Santander state, where the kidnapping took place, and Father Fabio Osorio, a priest in Bucaramanga, tried to make contact with the guerrillas.

Bogotá's Perez told Maclean's that although Canadians may see Reinhart as heroic, he believes Reinhart's intervention actually complicated negotiations for Leonard's release. When the guerrillas learned that Reinhart was the president of Terramundo, they felt they had an even better hostage. "Obviously," said Perez, "that opened up possibilities for the FARC to ask for a lot more money for Reinhart than for Leonard."

Suddenly, Reinhart's supporters had to come up with an additional $70,000 in ransom money. But Greystar president David Rovig, who hired a second company to carry on the drilling, insists the outfit never paid a ransom for Reinhart or Leonard. Peters, however, said Greystar is trying to hide its involvement because it does not want to be seen giving in to guerrillas. So instead of formally handing over the money, said Peters, Greystar channelled the additional cash through Terramundo under the guise of equipment purchases and used it to secure Leonard's release.

Reinhart's ransom was one of the lower ones paid in Colombia's booming kidnapping industry. Last year, more than 2,100 people were abducted, including at least 43 foreigners. More than 1,300 have been released and rescued. Only a relatively small number - about 80 - have been killed. The problem has become so ingrained that many companies now routinely pay so-called vaccination money to the rebels to keep them from kidnapping their employees. "I can confirm that vaccination money is paid," said Reinhart, but he refused to say whether Greystar or Terramundo had done so.

Reinhart's release had also become a factor in the peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. On Jan. 7, the same day FARC leaders initiated preliminary peace talks with the government, Father Osorio and Gomez met with a FARC Front 20 leader known as Danilo at an undisclosed location. The mediators were at the site for nearly eight hours, and eventually talk got around to Reinhart. They suggested that it would be a "good gesture for peace" on the part of FARC to release Reinhart. "That's why it was done on Jan. 7," said Gomez. Leaving at 3 a.m., the mediation team took most of the day to reach the remote spot, where they found one rebel guarding the Canadian. "Reinhart looked as normal as anybody who has been kidnapped could look," said Gomez, "with bags under his eyes and ready to be out of there."

Reinhart's story is clearly destined to pass into legend. Major U.S. networks and popular morning talk shows, intrigued by the story of the selfless boss who sacrificed himself for an employee, were in Toronto to interview him. And as he walked through the lobby of a Toronto hotel, the owner of a restaurant in the building seemed to be speaking for many Canadians when he slapped Reinhart on the back and offered him a meal on the house. "This man," said restaurant owner Louis Jannetta, "is a real Canadian hero." Few hero stories are all black and white anyway, and Norbert Reinhart's 94-day captivity seems sure to overshadow any shades of grey.

Maclean's January 25, 1999