Hope for Families of Forgotten Hostages

After four years, a witness says he saw three Americans held in Colombia.

ByABC News
February 9, 2009, 9:40 PM

May 20, 2007 — -- After four years of waiting for any word that their loved ones are still alive, the families of Keith Stansell, Mark Gonsalves and Thomas Howes have renewed hope.

The three defense contractors have been held hostage in the Colombian jungle since their surveillance plane, on a mission for the Defense Department, went down and they were captured by guerillas in 2003.

Now, Jhon Frank Pinchao, a Colombian police officer who escaped from the violent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels holding the Americans, says he was with the three men and they are still alive.

Pinchao says he was held for eight years and frequently slept with a metal chain around his neck that was linked to one of the Americans. Last month, Pinchao escaped. For 17 days he walked, swam and hid in Colombia's dense jungle, finally coming upon an army patrol. Now free, he says he worries about the fate of those still in captivity, including Stansell, Gonsalves and Howes.

"I ask God to protect them," said Pinchao. "I know they must be paying the price because of me."

The families of the Americans say Pinchao's account is the first conclusive evidence they've had in four years that the men are still alive.

"To me, this is the most wonderful thing we could have gotten," said Lynn Stansell, Keith's mother — "the message that all three of our Americans are safe and hopefully, there's a chance they'll get out soon."

The guerillas have offered to release the Americans in exchange for FARC prisoners being held by the U.S. and Colombian governments. But President Bush and Colombian President Uribe refuse to negotiate because they consider the captors terrorists.

Earlier this year, Colombian and U.S. forces conducted a joint operation aimed at a FARC stronghold in Colombia. They were apparently searching for intelligence about the hostages' whereabouts. The families worry that a rescue attempt could get the men killed.

In a video broadcast after the Americans were taken, Stansell said of his captors, "They carry automatic weapons. I assume they know how to use them. You may show up, but when you get there we're going to be dead."

In a recent phone call, the State Department told the Stansell family that the U.S. embassy will interview Pinchao to get details about the Americans' well-being. Stansell's father, Gene, says he is sure there will be a full debriefing.

Pinchao has already told Colombian officials about the status of the Americans. At night, he says, they listen to the radio but have not heard the messages broadcast from their families. Their diet consists of rice, plantains and beans. They've picked up some Spanish and they play Parcheesi. The bad news is that Gonsalves is suffering from hepatitis.

Gonsalves' mother, Jo Rosano, knows that Pinchao's escape offers her a rare glimmer of hope, but she still questions how long the men can hold on.

"How much more can my son endure?" she asks. "How much more can I endure? How much more can these hostages endure?"

ABC News' Jessica Yellin and Lindsay Hamilton contributed to this report.