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Five years after Iraq abduction, family tries making own closure

By Jason Hanna, CNN
Jeffrey Ake of Indiana was installing his company's bottling equipment in  Iraq when he was abducted in 2005.
Jeffrey Ake of Indiana was installing his company's bottling equipment in Iraq when he was abducted in 2005.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Indiana businessman Jeffrey Ake abducted in Iraq five years ago Sunday
  • Family still doesn't know what became of him but doesn't expect his return
  • Ake is one of 11 Americans still missing in Iraq, State Department says
  • Missing soldier's ex-wife: "It's like waking up to a bad dream every day"
RELATED TOPICS
  • Iraq
  • Jeffrey Ake
  • Kidnapping
  • Indiana

(CNN) -- News about Jeffrey Ake's abduction in Iraq flowed quickly at first. Militants who'd kidnapped the Indiana businessman wasted little time releasing footage of him being held at gunpoint, terrifying his family and friends.

And there were conversations with the captors, who called Ake's wife at home and demanded a ransom.

But the calls stopped less than a month later. And on Sunday, five years to the day Ake was abducted in Baghdad, his loved ones still don't know what has become of him.

"We had a lot of hope that things would be resolved relatively quickly since the terrorists who abducted him contacted the family," said Dave Dlesk, who was Ake's high school friend, college roommate and best man at his wedding. "I think the lack of closure just makes things more difficult."

Ake is one of 11 Americans still missing in Iraq, 21 months before the United States is scheduled to withdraw all its troops from the country. The 10 civilians and one soldier disappeared after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of the country, and each has been missing for at least two years, according to the U.S. State Department.

How do their loved ones cope with such uncertainty? Ake's friends, many of them from high school, rallied around his family, establishing a trust fund for which they recently launched another round of fundraising. But the adjustments have been many and difficult.

Ake, a father of four from LaPorte, Indiana, was 47 when he was snatched April 11, 2005, from a Baghdad water bottling plant, where he was installing bottling equipment that his northwestern Indiana company manufactured. Video of Ake and his captors appeared on the Arabic language TV network Al-Jazeera, and kidnappers called his wife in Indiana to demand money.

Liliana Ake told CNN in 2006 she verified they had her husband by asking questions and receiving answers that only he would know. But she never heard from the callers again after May 1, 2005, she said.

"He was in Iraq making certain that the Iraqi people have fresh, good water to drink" as the country was being rebuilt, she told CNN in 2006, adding that the first year without him was difficult emotionally for her and their children.

Ted Cruse has known Ake since they were sixth-graders in Illinois. He said it's been tough not only to be uncertain about what's happened to his friend, but also to know that Ake's family -- including his children, who range in school level from first grade to college -- has been suffering through it.

"It's been frustrating, disappointing, sad," Cruse, who lives in Chicago area, said in a telephone interview this month. "I feel sadness for [Liliana and her children], because he's a great guy and a great father."

Ake's business, Equipment Express, faltered without him and was sold. Liliana Ake, who had done marketing for the company, went to work in real estate, which has become especially hard as the economy has declined, Dlesk said in an interview late last month.

To help ease the family's financial blow, a group of Ake's friends from his high school days in Downers Grove, Illinois -- including Dlesk and Cruse -- held a silent auction in 2008 to benefit a trust fund for the family.

The group also created a Web site, JeffAke.com, to provide information and an avenue for people to donate. The group and Liliana have been grateful, Dlesk said.

"There have been donations made from as far away as Japan, sometimes from complete strangers," said Dlesk, a Massachusetts resident. "We want to thank all those who have been so generous."

On Friday, Liliana Ake, through Dlesk, released a written statement saying that she and her children have "resigned themselves to the fact that their husband and father will probably never return."

"We have waited hopefully for five years, but sadly there has been no word about Jeff," Liliana Ake said in the statement. "We are extremely grateful for the outpouring of support, prayers and help from our family, friends and many strangers during the past five years. We appreciate all the efforts that the different branches of the United States government have made in searching for Jeff."

Hope also is fading for Linda Racey, ex-wife of one of the other 11 missing Americans.

U.S. Army Sgt. Ahmed Altaie, an Iraqi-American who was serving as a translator for the U.S. military, was kidnapped October 23, 2006, after he left the Green Zone in Baghdad. The military said Altaie, then 41, was visiting family members when he was abducted.

A group in February 2007 claimed on a militant Shiite Web site that it had Altaie, and it posted a 10-second video of a man it claimed was him. The man in the video was Altaie, his uncle told CNN then.

Altaie, a Michigan resident, married an Iraqi woman after he and Racey divorced, but he and Racey still were very close friends, Racey said. She said she is just now starting to recover from the long depression she suffered after Altaie's kidnapping.

Her health deteriorated in the first couple of years as she obsessed over the abduction and called federal agencies to push for action, she said.

"Not knowing what happened, it's like waking up to a bad dream every day," Racey of Farmington Hills, Michigan, said in a phone interview.

These days, she gets comfort from exchanging posts with people who visit a Facebook page dedicated to Altaie. Though her hope for his survival is dwindling, she says she prays he is alive and hopes for closure soon.

U.S. officials are working for the safe return of all 11 missing Americans and continuing to call for their immediate release and any information about them, State Department spokesman John Fleming said. The government also is trying to help with the recovery of other nations' citizens who are missing in Iraq, including four from South Africa and one each from the United Kingdom, Russia and Japan, Fleming said.

In Ake's case, the director of the Office of Hostage Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad recently conducted a review of the kidnapping "to reinvigorate source development," Fleming said.

"We continue to search for him using these sources, operative intelligence and engagements with sheikhs and [Iraqi government] officials," Fleming said.

Fleming said U.S. officials would continue their efforts to recover the missing Americans regardless of whether U.S. forces are still in Iraq. The current Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq stipulates that U.S. forces will end combat operations by August and leave the country by the end of 2011.

Retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, a military history professor at Ohio State University, said he doesn't believe troop withdrawals would change the situation for hostages a great deal.

"Having a presence in the country helps us to mount rescue efforts once you get intelligence where these people are being held, but that intelligence has been pretty thin," said Mansoor, a former executive officer to Gen. David Petraeus. "Most [freed people] have been released, I believe, for political reasons rather than having military forces rescue them. ... They're being held for political reasons, and their release is predicated on political circumstances.

"Ironically, the withdrawal of U.S. forces may help gain the release of some of the captives, as the people who are holding them see less value in keeping them with the withdrawal of those forces."

In the meantime, relatives and friends of the missing, including Jeffrey Ake, carry on, not knowing whether they'll ever have any finality in the cases, if not safe returns.

"You keep hope alive for as long as possible, and at a certain point you have to come to a resolution yourself if there's no resolution being offered otherwise," Dlesk said.