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Friends of Steven Sotloff speak admiringly of his talent, passion

By Brian Stelter and AnneClaire Stapleton, CNN
updated 4:32 PM EDT, Wed September 3, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Steven Sotloff's "interest in journalism was evident," school says
  • Sotloff's family and friends had to keep his disappearance a secret
  • Sotloff life threatened in an ISIS video of James Foley's murder
  • Friends describe his "incredible" gift for writing on international issues

Editor's note: This report was originally published last month after journalist James Foley's execution. It has been updated to include recent events.

(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.

The abduction of Sotloff, who was beheaded Tuesday -- according to a video released by the terror group, ISIS -- has been international news since Sotloff was seen at the end of another video published last month by the Islamic extremist group.

After journalist James Foley was shown with his head cut off, the video's narrator indicated that Sotloff would be killed if President Barack Obama did 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."

Alan Gross, at right with Rabbi Arthur Schneier, has been in Cuban custody since December 2009, when he was jailed while working as a subcontractor. Cuban authorities say Gross tried to set up illegal Internet connections on the island. Gross says he was just trying to help connect the Jewish community to the Internet. Former President Jimmy Carter and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have both traveled to Cuba on Gross' behalf. On December 17, Gross was released from Cuban prison. Alan Gross, at right with Rabbi Arthur Schneier, has been in Cuban custody since December 2009, when he was jailed while working as a subcontractor. Cuban authorities say Gross tried to set up illegal Internet connections on the island. Gross says he was just trying to help connect the Jewish community to the Internet. Former President Jimmy Carter and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have both traveled to Cuba on Gross' behalf. On December 17, Gross was released from Cuban prison.
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Sotloff's mother last week issued an emotional plea for her son's release. She directed her message to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Lotzia said he has been in touch with Sotloff's father, Art, and before Tuesday's news of Sotloff's killing, last month'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 tried 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 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 attended high school at a New England boarding school, Kimball Union in New Hampshire. The school described him in a statement as "an active and involved student whose interest in journalism was evident early on."

Not only was Sotloff credited with revitalizing the student newspaper, he participated in myriad extracurricular activities, including student council, varsity football and rugby. He also appeared in the musical, "Cabaret," the school said.

After graduation, he kept in touch with school faculty and sent e-mails detailing the events to which he bore witness.

"It was important to him that Kimball Union students were exposed to world issues like the Arab Spring. Steven wrote that Kimball Union had prepared him to see the world through different lenses and to commit to using what he learned to help others," the school statement said.

After high school, he majored in journalism at the University of Central Florida. His personal Facebook page lists musicians such as the Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Miles Davis and movies "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 and Syria, among other countries.

"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.

2012: Steven Sotloff discusses Benghazi

"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."

Karisa Workman, who taught Sotloff in a UCF oral communication class a decade ago, said she remembered him well.

"He was genuinely interested in his classmates' speeches," she said. "In fact, he often asked follow-up questions to the student speeches. In retrospect, he was a journalist even in the classroom."

Another college friend, Danielle Montoya, said she remembered him as a quiet guy who was loyal to his friends.

"I remember Emerson had a show on the UCF radio station focused on sports talk, and not a lot of people would call in when they were getting the show started up," she said. "Steve would call in to support him and ask questions so the show was at least a little entertaining to listen to."

Montoya said she thought Sotloff's effort "says something about his character to support his buddy's ambition."

Beheading of American journalist James Foley recalls past horrors

Opinion: Foley is a reminder why freelance reporting is so dangerous

CNN's Lawrence Crook contributed to this report.

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