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Friends of ISIS captive Sotloff speak out admiringly of his talent, passion

By Brian Stelter and AnneClaire Stapleton, CNN
updated 10:28 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Steven Sotloff's family and friends had to keep his disappearance a secret
  • Sotloff is shown in a video of James Foley's murder, and his life is threatened
  • College friend: He's "someone you want in your circle of friends"
  • Friends describe as "incredible" his gift and passion for writing on international issues

(CNN) -- When freelance journalist Steven Sotloff disappeared during a reporting trip to Syria in August 2013, his family kept the news a secret. Families of hostages are frequently advised to do this by security firms, and news organizations are sometimes willing to cooperate.

But Sotloff's abduction is now international news. Sotloff is seen at the end of a video published on Tuesday by the Islamic extremist group ISIS. After another journalist, James Foley, is shown with his head cut off, the video's narrator indicates that Sotloff will be killed if President Barack Obama does not cease U.S. airstrikes against ISIS.

"I've known Steve was missing for the past year -- the problem is, he was a low-profile freelance journalist -- his family didn't want anyone in the media talking about Steve because they were afraid of retaliation," said Emerson Lotzia, who lived with Sotloff in college. "If any old friends asked me about Steve over the past year, I'd just say I hadn't seen him in a long time."

Sotloff's family members have not commented on their son's disappearance. But Lotzia said he has been in touch with Sotloff's father, Art, and Tuesday's video "was the first time his dad and family have heard anything about Steve since last December."

Out of public view, the family and a number of government agencies have been trying to gain Sotloff's release for the past year. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, who represents the district where the family lives, said Wednesday that she had met with the family in Miami and spoken with them by phone.

"My office has contacted the relevant agencies, departments and even organizations with connections on the ground in Syria to try to get answers for the Sotloff family," Ros-Lehtinen said. This is a tragic situation and we have seen that [ISIS] has no respect for human life."

Sotloff, 31, grew up in South Florida with his mother, father and younger sister. He majored in journalism at the University of Central Florida. His personal Facebook page lists musicians like the Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Miles Davis and movies like "Lawrence of Arabia" and "The Big Lebowski" as favorites. On his Twitter page, he playfully identifies himself as a "stand-up philosopher from Miami."

Lotzia met Sotloff when they were both starting college in 2002. He described Sotloff as "someone you want in your circle of friends -- just a good, good guy."

He reminisced about "epic video game battles at our apartment" -- usually NCAA football or other sports games.

In 2004, Sotloff left UCF and moved back to the Miami area. "I think he was at a crossroads of life," Lotzia said. "He talked about wanting to go over to the Middle East."

He graduated from another college, began taking Arabic classes and subsequently picked up freelance writing work for a number of publications, including Time, Foreign Policy, World Affairs and the Christian Science Monitor. His travels took him to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey -- among other countries -- and eventually Syria.

"He's an incredible writer," said Tim Smith, another college friend who kept in touch with him via Facebook over the years. "I know reporting on an international level is what he always wanted to do."

Ashley Burns, who edited some of Sotloff's work for their college newspaper, said that out of all the people he met through the newspaper, he wished he had followed Sotloff's work more in recent years.

"He writes with incredible passion, about Benghazi and his experiences in Syria and Turkey, while showing an incredible relationship with -- and understanding of -- the people that he met in the countries that he has worked in," Burns said. "He has seen things I'll never see and his courage is incredible."

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