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A man in black

In the valley of the shadow

The hit Hollywood movie Proof of Life -- starring Meg Ryan, Russell Crowe and David Morse -- makes for great cinema: an American engineer captured by South American guerrillas. A forlorn wife. A handsome "kidnap and ransom" negotiator. A daring rescue in the heart of the guerrilla camp. But after hearing the story that inspired the movie, you may wonder why Hollywood changed the plot at all.

By David Van Meter

Susan Hargrove gives a tour of the historic Galveston home she and husband Tom bought in 1997 -- two years after the nightmare ended.

The three-story home, formerly an apartment building, was built by Thomas Lucas between 1902 and 1906. It started out as a sturdy brick manor much closer to the water.

In 1900, the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history swept across the island, destroying a third of the city and killing between 6,000 and 10,000 people. About 400 died in Lucas' home. After the waters receded, he gathered what remained, mostly bricks, and built the home the Hargroves live in today.

On this balmy January day, builders repair the original masonry, refinish the original wood floors and install a slate fireplace Susan found across town. When finished, Susan and Tom will occupy the first two floors, with one section saved for their youngest son, Geddie, a 27-year-old Compaq computer technician working in Houston. A cottage in back is reserved for their older son, Miles '99, a 28-year-old freelance TV and film professional living in Dallas.

Susan laughs. "Miles already has planned out where the swimming pool will go."

Two dogs complete the Hargrove home, Zoe and Hoover, the latter named after J. Edgar Hoover, a nod to FBI agent Oscar Tejeda, one of many who helped Susan and her sons negotiate for Tom's life in 1995.

"I love this home because I feel an affinity toward [Thomas Lucas]," Susan said. "His life was completely changed overnight, yet he was able to take his bricks and rebuild his life."

Susan looks around the room, sighing at the work left to be done.

AT 7:30 IN THE MORNING of Sept. 23, 1994, Tom Hargrove was late for work. He was driving just outside Cali, Colombia, his family's home for nearly two years. What had brought them there was rice, on which Hargrove had become a foremost expert.

Raised on a West Texas cotton farm, he graduated from Texas A&M in 1966 with a double degree in agricultural science and journalism. Hargrove was commissioned as an Army officer and served in Vietnam for the next two years. While others carried guns, Hargrove also toted grains of high-yield rice.

He returned to the Far East in 1972 with a graduate degree in agricultural science. As an agricultural journalist with International Rice Research Institute near Manila, Philippines, Hargrove helped turn complex crop science into bountiful fields for the world's poorest countries.

Colombia called for his services in 1992, at the International Center for Tropical Agricultural in Cali, or CIAT. "It was good work, a lot of travel, meaningful work," nodded Hargrove.

"We never intended to come back to the States; in fact, we thought about going to Africa next, to Nairobe." That morning in 1994, Hargrove's car slowed as he approached a split in the road. "I could either drive to work through Cali, bumper to bumper traffic, or I could turn right and drive through the countryside," Hargrove remembered.

That week, a friend had given him a Robert Fulghum book on tape for the hour-long commute to work. "Fulghum's work isn't my kind of literature, but I love books on tape," Hargrove said. "I had just finished the book, and I remembered one of Fulghum's rules for a better life."

Always take the scenic route.

Hargrove was only 15 minutes from home when he passed the first soldier carrying an M-16. "I didn't think anything of it," he said, "though I did vaguely recall that I thought maybe his hair was too long for a soldier."

The soldier was the "choke" who prevented people from turning around. "Then I came to the roadblock," he said. "I still wasn't alarmed because roadblocks are a way of life in Colombia. I saw guys whom I thought were members of the Colombian army."

Suddenly, two soldiers emerged from behind a truck wearing ski masks. "I still wasn't panicked yet," Hargrove said. "I asked one guy who they were and he said FARC -- Marxist guerillas, supposedly concerned about the poor, what I do."

Hargrove was the headline. During TCU parent Tom Hargrove's 11-month kidnapping in Colombia, the only evidence his wife Susan received of his survival were several "proof of life" photos from captors, typically with a newspaper in the image to date the photograph.Hargrove was the headline. During TCU parent Tom Hargrove's 11-month kidnapping in Colombia, the only evidence his wife Susan received of his survival were several "proof of life" photos from captors, typically with a newspaper in the image to date the photograph.

The soldiers belonged to Latin America's largest militant leftist group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. To finance what is now a 36-year-old civil war in Colombia, the FARC gunmen were on a car-stealing mission. They took more than Hargrove's keys, pushing the 50-year-old agricultural journalist into the back of a pickup and driving high into the Andes.

Hargrove was the only one kidnapped that day. He figures mostly it was because he was a gringo. Another factor may have been because the acronym for CIAT on his business cards was too close to CIA. Most likely, the guerrillas simply figured Hargrove would fetch a good price.

Upon his capture, Hargrove overheard one guerrilla say to another that they had caught a pesca milagrosa, a "big fish." "That," Hargrove said, "was when I knew I was in trouble."

The guerillas took Hargrove's briefcase and $400 in cash. They gave him back two checkbooks and a ballpoint pen among other items. That night, Hargrove would begin a diary of his experiences, carefully folding each entry into a money belt the guerrillas had failed to recognize.

The papers would become Hargrove's 334-page account of his 11-month ordeal, Long March to Freedom (available from www. 1stbooks.com).

Day One
Sept. 23, 1994

As we climbed a mountain, a guerilla asks me how I like Colombia. A lot, I respond. Especially being kidnapped while driving to work. Survey my possessions, clothes I'm wearing. When guerilla took briefcase, gave me my dollar and peso checkbooks. Bury checks. Also 35 business cards with rubber band. A watch with broken band. Two packs of Post-Its. Key to closet. One ballpoint. And I should be thankful for one thing. A Random House English-Spanish Dictionary that was in my pocket. . . . Am now sitting on a bed made, apparently, of cornhusks covered by a "tent" of military canvas. We're beside an abandoned barn or house . . . it's hard to tell, we arrived after dark. The travel was hard, all up- and downhill. Seven guerrillas and me. One was female, the only female guerrilla I've seen. She carried a battered M-1 .30-caliber carbine, while every other guerrilla has an M-16, an AK-47 or an Israeli-made Galil 7.62. After arrival, we lay on the grass and talked for 30 minutes. I asked one guerrilla how long he'd been with FARC. "Three years." "How old are you?" "Fifteen." "Then you joined at age twelve?" "Si."

THE HARGROVE FAMILY lived in a walled compound in Pance, a suburb of Cali. Their home and three others surrounded a large courtyard and swimming pool. An armed security guard stood watch 24 hours a day. Their neighbors were mostly other expatriates, upper-middle-class Colombians and several cocaine traffickers.

In fact, the Hargroves discovered their rented home belonged to a Cali drug lord called El Scorpio. Such was life in Colombia. But considering the Hargroves had lived through five government coups in the Philippines, danger never seemed imminent.

The morning of Sept. 24, Susan was taking foreign language tapes to a friend's house, both of whom were taking a Spanish class. The O.J. Simpson trial had just begun, big news even in Cali.

"I was having my cable changed to another station that had CNN America, so I could watch the trial; I don't know why I wanted to watch it, I thought it was going to be historical," Susan said. "I drove up to our compound and saw this van out there. I thought it was the cable guy. Then I saw a representative from CIAT, and then I saw the guard's face, and I knew something had happened. I thought at first Tom had been in a car wreck. They kept saying, 'C'mon and sit down, we want to talk to you.' "

Ironically, 2,500 miles to the north at TCU, radio-TV-film junior Miles Hargrove had left his Brachman Hall dorm for only an hour to attend his Friday afternoon Spanish class. He had made a good grade on a quiz and was in high spirits as he returned to his room.

Four messages sat waiting on his answering machine -- two from his uncle, Raford Hargrove, and two from Assoc. Dean of Campus Life Mike Russel.

"After I talked to my uncle, Mike Russel called again," Miles said. "I suppose TCU has a plan for everything, a drug overdose, a death in the family, suicide. But when I told him, 'My father was kidnapped on his way to work today,' there were several moments of silence on the other end of the phone."

Russel agrees. "It was unusual; it was the first time we managed a crisis at TCU by e-mail."

He, like Miles, thought the junior would miss only a week of school. Miles flew home to Colombia, joining his mother and brother Geddie, who was attending American University in Cairo, Egypt. But after three weeks and no word from the captors, Russel credited the student's account for the semester's tuition and kept his e-mail inbox open; over time, Russel said, the updates became more cryptic as the family's distrust of telephone and e-mail lines grew.

"It almost became normal after a while, and I didn't think too much of it," Miles said. "But as life has settled down, it has become clear to me just how crazy that time was. "We discovered that Colombia was the kidnap capital of the world, and that this was a business."

And his father was now for sale.

Day 30
Oct. 22, 1994

I'm called back to the hut. It's the same woman who took my notebook with its draft letter that included the word "CIAT" and tried to use it to prove that I'm CIA. Her name, I learn later, is Marli. Oh no, I think when I see what she's holding, a Sony video-8 camera. "We must make a video," Marli says. Inside the hut, they've fixed one wall like a studio, with a blanket for background and lit by a naked lightbulb powered by a six-volt battery. [Guerrillas] Javiar, Gustavo, Viejito and Melena start getting ready. They put on masks and bring out their Galils and AK-47s. Marli is focusing the camera, checking the light. "Can I go outside until everything is ready?" This is going to be hard, so I need to think." No problem. I walk outside, alone. Look, Hargrove, you knew this might come, and you have no choice. You have to make this video, so do it with as much dignity as possible. . . . I cry a little but with no tears, and my crying turns to ironic laughing. These jackasses with their masks and weapons, trying so hard to look like something they've seen in movies.

HUMAN LIFE is worth a lot. Anywhere from $250,000 to $5 million in ransom, according to news reports issued between 1996 and 1999. The Hargroves won't say how much they paid or how they got the money; they believe it endangers current and future ransom negotiations.

One thing's for certain: Kidnapping is a booming business worldwide and especially in Colombia. According to the Colombian government, abductions-for-ransom rose to 2,737 in 1999, a 32.7 percent increase over the 2,062 cases reported in 1998. The actual number may be double that, reports Kroll-O'Gara, a New York-based "risk mitigation" company -- and perhaps the foremost K&R (kidnap-and-ransom) firm in the world.

Rebel organizations use ransom payments to help pay for their operations. The largest one, FARC, which abducted Hargrove, as well as the National Liberation Army (ELN), support huge networks that hold victims for extended periods of time and demand high ransoms, but rarely kill if their ransom terms are met.

In the spring of 1999, the ELN hijacked an Avianca commuter flight, kidnapping all 41 passengers and crew on board. The following month, it took 160 people from a church in the upscale Cali neighborhood, where the Hargroves had lived, during a morning mass. Almost daily, foreign travelers on rural roads -- Hargrove's mistake -- encounter rebel-led roadblocks.

The guerrillas call this tactic "miracle fishing." The U.S. State Department reported in 1999 that U.S. citizens of all age groups and occupations have been abducted in all major regions of the country. It also stressed that U.S. policy doesn't allow it to pay ransoms or make other concessions, leaving Americans to their own resources.

The reality, then, reads like a James Bond movie, as Vanity Fair writer William Prochnau penned in his 1998 article, "Adventures in the Ransom Trade": The cost of protection -- armored Mercedeses, "nuke-spooker" radiation alarms that can be hidden inside briefcases, multimillion-dollar K&R insurance, $4,000-a-day professional kidnap-negotiation services -- totals far more than the ransoms.

A fully equipped, bulletproofed Lincoln Town Car sells for well into six figures. It can take fire from any modern combat rifle, comes with flip-down gun portholes, and has a device that discharges an oil slick to foil followers in a chase.

After Miles returned to TCU in 1996 -- 16 months after his father was kidnapped -- the campus life associate dean Russel arranged a meeting with Miles and Vice Chancellor Larry Adams, who coordinates TCU's international study and travel efforts.

"I thought what Miles learned would be beneficial in terms of what we were doing with travel for faculty," Russel said. "At that meeting, he said the best thing TCU could do is to buy kidnap-and-ransom insurance."

Day 49
Nov. 10, 1994

I feared last night could turn dangerous, and I was right. Melena finally quieted down, but then, around 2015h, bam-bam-bam-bam-bam a burst of five rounds fired full automatic from the door. Oh no, it's starting again, I thought. Commotion in the hut, then Mono yells, "!Viejito, venga!" Nothing happens, then a short burst from the woods. "Viejito!" More firing. I put on my glasses, jacket and boots, and lie off the side of the bunk, ready to fall onto the wet, muddy floor but dreading it and wondering if it would be worse than a 7.62mm round. Viejito is evidently stalking and blasting shadows in the woods. Then something happens -- and for the worse. . . . Understand that I'm lying in darkness and I can't see what's going on [illegible] on the floor of my bunk. Then that cold sound of a rifle bolt and more voices pleading with Mono. He's apparently pulled his Galil out and chambered a round and is threatening the others. More pleading and the sound of steel against steel as more bolts are pulled. Mono is right behind me -- we're separated by an inch of dried mud. . . . There's a scuffle inside, more cursing, crying. Mono seems to be lying on his bunk. Think they have his weapon. I get back in bed. I got up at 0915h today and wrote the previous account of last night's activities. . . . Those guys were drinking brandy, but alcohol isn't the chemical that fueled the craziness. It was basuco [a derivative of the cocaine-production process that is sold cheaply and smoked among the poor in South America, who call it "bazooka"].

PROOF OF LIFE. A strange term at first, it became the lexicon and the lifeline between Hargrove and his family, the only assurance from the guerrillas that the husband and father was alive, if not well.

The first proof of life -- the video FARC made of Tom on Oct. 22, 1994 -- was delivered 10 days later to his employer, CIAT. In the video, the captors demanded $6 million (an unrealistic figure; kidnappers eventually settle for 5 to 10 percent of their first ransom request) and instructed CIAT to make any counteroffer via a specific coded classified ad in a Colombian newspaper:

Lovely and durable pieces available for x
amount of pesos from 1.5 meters wide.
Tel. -- -- -- Bogota.

Instead, CIAT printed the following ad:

Lovely and durable pieces
1.5 meters wide without cost.

The CIAT version, Susan said, was interpreted by FARC as a sophisticated ploy used by many U.S. companies -- an initial refusal to negotiate followed by a "rich uncle" coming forward later, thus beginning K&R negotiations.

In reality, however, CIAT was refusing to bargain. To pay one ransom meant putting all of their employees in added danger, CIAT reasoned. It hoped its altruistic existence would appeal to FARC's dubious humanitarian side.

"They said they wouldn't talk, they wouldn't pay, they wouldn't respond, don't call again," Susan said. "Our assumption was that they were going to let us do it, but they were going to back us. But we discovered they weren't."

The ideology would leave Susan and her sons on an island, but not for long. Miles and Geddie would help coordinate radio appointments with the guerrillas and pick up several other "proof of life" packages. Miles also videotaped every important event, more than 30 hours worth.

They were joined by Miles' best friend in Colombia, a 20-year-old Colombian who became the family's negotiator. Another friend became the family's lawyer. Tom's brother, a West Texas farmer, and Susan's brother, a businessman in Kuwait, helped to arrange help with several K&R professionals.

An FBI agent would take the case under his wing. And the Hargroves' German neighbors filled the financial bookkeeping void left by Tom and made everyday dinners "events" complete with tablecloths, flowers and wine.

"Establishing that dinner every night was probably the key to our survival," Susan said, taking a puff from her cigarette. "When someone in your family is kidnapped, you are too. You can't talk to anyone, you can't go out, you have to be very circumspect. Dinner in the evening was the only normal thing we did."

"Team Tom" was now in place. On Dec. 5, the group received the same video CIAT had received a month earlier. Susan learned that a certain neighborhood gas station owner whose family had endured a kidnapping would, "as a public service," provide its special radio and tower to communicate with guerillas.

"A guy came to our house and set up a radio tower," she said. "The minute the kidnap was over, the radio and tower were out in a flash and on over at somebody else's house."

The negotiations began.

Day 61
Nov. 22, 1994

"Regalo para Don Tomas," Mono shouts. Presents. . . . He handed me a stuffed plastic sack. I can hardly believe my luck. Two new shirts and trousers will double my supply and allow me to wear two sets of each when I wash the others. I watch the guerrillas sort through more arrivals, then take my plastic sack of new clothes, returning to my tent. There I load the [new] batteries. The flashlight works. . . . I shine light on the half-burned embers of my aborted fire. Is it worthwhile trying to start the fire again? I was thinking when the unexpected visitors entered my tent. Javiar enters first, and he's holding something. "Sit there!" he says, pointing at the others. Ramiro and Viejito are giggling nervously. Something's wrong. Then Javiar holds up the metal object, letting it drop. It's a chain. A chain? He holds my left foot and starts wrapping the chain around my ankles. What's going on here? . . . . By then, my ankle was wrapped tightly in chain. Javier slipped the other through a link in the mud wall and someone pulled tight, locked the chain around my ankle with a huge, heavy chain of steel, and everyone laughed at the gringo. . . . "I hope you sleep well, Don Tomas."

HIGH UP in the cold chill of the Andes -- in a hollow Hargrove named El Valle de la Muerte, the Valley of Death -- Hargrove now lived attached to a 15-foot tethered chain when not padlocked inside a tiny, windowless hut. He was allowed to go to the latrine on occasion, but mostly he urinated in a rubber boot.

The FARC comandante had accused him of being a U. S. Army colonel, a Vietnam War hero and counter-guerrilla warfare expert. Tom would have to refute the charges, in a one-page letter written in his best Spanish, and hope FARC accepted it.

Art imitates life. The movie Proof of Life was inspired by Hargrove's book detailing his 11 months in captivity, though the movie varies greatly from actual events. Actor David Morse, right, who played a Hargrove-like character, called Hargrove from the movie set to better understand what the actual kidnapping felt like.

Down below in Cali, Susan had worked with Hargrove's brother to enlist the help of a leading K&R firm. Unsuccessful, they hired a two-man independent K&R team -- which charged nearly $15,000 a week for its services. Susan wondered how she would pay any ransom at all.

Team Tom had transformed the Hargrove home into a war room. A large map of Colombia was tacked above a two-way radio in their living room. In addition to walkie talkies and cell phones, Susan had rented a high-tech spy phone impossible to tap.

With FBI agent Tejeda and a K&R consultant advising in the shadows, Miles' Colombian friend, Clerx, talked with the guerrillas; it was agreed his native voice would be welcomed by the captors.

"And by now we're using all these code names," Susan said. "I mean, why does Hollywood make this stuff up when they've got real life?" One time, Tom was the boat -- the barco -- and they were going to sink the boat. Then he was the bank, and they were going to blow up the bank."

Talks were slow; time was on the side of the men on the other end of the two-way radio, and they used it to psychologically torture the family. The Hargroves' first offer angered FARC, which responded with a two-week silence.

A second offer resulted in a four-week stalemate followed by a two-month long one. To break the silence, volunteers trekked into the mountains, but FARC refused to see them and to deliver food, clothing or mail.

"For the most part we tried not to think of him going through this experience," Miles said. "I know that sounds cold, but it became like negotiating a business deal, and I think that was how we dealt with it."

Day 113
Jan. 13, 1995

One third of a year without speaking, or more importantly, without a friend, without a conversation with someone I trust, one third without laughing. The weeks of isolation with no communication from outside. I'm so lonely. Maybe that's the worst, the loneliness. . . . I pray every morning, every evening. Sometimes I pray in Spanish. But I don't feel a comfort, a closeness. At first I prayed for deliverance from here, for reunification with my family. Then I thought that may be selfish, so I prayed, "Thy will be done," and for strength. . . . I pray a lot for Susan, to give her strength, and for Daddy. I feel those are the strongest parts of my prayers, the most sincere. But none of it seems to give me much comfort -- at least not that I recognize. . . . I like the line "deliver us from evil." I use it a lot: "Lord, deliver me from this evil, from these evil people." I ask that my FARC captors be forgiven, but I probably don't mean it. Maybe I'm too much a hypocrite to pray. I seldom pray for anything selfish except for freedom, and that because it's total hypocrisy not to pray when that's what I want so desperately. But really, I pray for the strength to get me through what is happening until death or freedom ends it.

Hargrove wrote in his diary in December that he hoped to be released by Christmas, but it wasn't until May that the guerrillas agreed to a ransom and provided another proof-of-life photo.

Miles and Geddie drove to a fast-food restaurant and found the photo taped behind a toilet. Their father had lost weight and his hair had turned orange from malnutrition, but he was alive. In a face-to-face meeting with the guerrillas, a "bagman" hired by the Hargroves delivered sack after sack of 10,000-peso Colombian bank notes.

Three days passed, but Hargrove was not delivered. A week passed. After a month, Hargrove's sons pleaded their case on Colombian television.

"The next day we got a letter by courier mail from the guerrillas complaining that they had seen the boys, and the boys had said their dad looked starved," Susan said. "And the guerrillas said, 'Well, this money will help feed him,' and they asked for more."

But a second ransom was not the only problem. Cali was suddenly filled with Colombian special forces, the final assault on the crumbling Cali drug cartel, which FARC partially controlled. Not only was Hargrove's life now in greater jeopardy, so was the operation that held him.

Day 134
Feb. 3, 1995

Breakfast: arepa and potato soup. Lunch: rice and beans. Saved 28 beans. Day 159 Feb. 28, 1995 It's so easy, easy to cry here, Hard not to give up hope and die here. Walking the valley, the valley of the shadow, I walk the valley of the shadow of death but I won't die. Day 233 May 13, 1995 Anguish -- worse -- sheer panic gripped me, and tore at my chest and throat. No. Anything but to be locked in darkness in the cold damp cell. I once spent 48 hours in solitary confinement, 36 hours another time, 23 and 21 hours lots of times. But that was five or six months ago, and I can't stand to think about those endless terrible hours of grief and anxiety, listening to every footstep outside, hoping, praying, that someone is coming to let you out. I got permission to go to the latrine and stopped at El Templo, on the way and coming back, but I didn't pray that God give Susan and Daddy strength this time, nor for forgiveness for these pitifully cruel, ignorant bastards that hold me. There was no time. I prayed only for strength, for myself, if possible, the ability to sleep through some of the dark hours that were coming. Two arepas and coffee were waiting when I returned. I emptied my piss bucket and my candela of ashes, and grabbed some chusque from my stack outside. Judi ordered me inside and shut the padlock. That cold sound of metal grating against metal -- I've heard it every day for eight months; it will lurk in the darkest recesses of my mind as long as I live.

NEGOTIATIONS continued as summer arrived. Another radio appointment. Another dollar figure. Another note behind the toilet at a fast food restaurant, directing Miles and Geddie to another restaurant across town, and then to another. Finally, the second ransom demand came.

Again, volunteers trekked into the Andes and delivered the sum. According to sources, about $300,000 was paid for the life of Tom Hargrove. The guerrillas promised Hargrove would be home in two days. Susan, Miles and Geddie bought T-bone steaks in anticipation of his return. Eight days passed.

"At that point, I think we gave up," Miles said. Family members retreated to their rooms, each lost in his or her own grief. That evening, they came together as they had for dinner so many nights over so many months. They put the T-bones on the grill.

"Le toca de salir," Hargrove heard. He glanced at his watch. It was 6:30 a.m. The significance of the words hit him. He sat upright in his bunk and stared at the two guerrilleros in the mist outside his tent.

"What did you say?" he asked in Spanish. The answer was the same. "It's your time to leave." "Leave╔ to where?" Hargrove remembered all too well the times his captors had said he was leaving, only to take him to camp either higher, lower or deeper in the mountains. But this time, the words felt different. "To your family, in Cali."

"When?" Hargrove was suspicious, afraid to believe it. "This morning, after breakfast." "Is this a joke?" "No.In two days, you'll reach an area where you can hire a car to take you home."

The guerrillero handed him a bank note for 10,000 Colombian pesos -- about 12 dollars. It was Day 333. Hargrove hiked nearly 20 miles out of the Andes and accepting rides from kind strangers, including one Indian who drove his motorcycle down a mountainside without turning on the motor once.

Hargrove arrived in Cali at 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 22, 1995.

Just as the T-bones came off the grill.

A BLUE-SKY day on the wharf of Galveston Island is a long way from the gray, sad mist of Colombia, and Tom Hargrove knows it. He sips a Shiner Bock while seagulls pull french fries off plates abandoned at a nearby table.

"Right now, I have nothing but contempt for any of those people," Hargrove said. "When you're in that situation and you have nothing, every little thing means so damn much. Now I can't imagine being grateful for any little thing they did for me, because overall they took a year of my life."

He missed the Oklahoma City bombing, the fact that the governor of Texas was George W. Bush. He also didn't quite understand what his family had gone through, nor did they him.

Reunited. "The kidnapping didn't make our family strong," Susan Hargrove said. "It was strong to begin with." From left to right are Geddie and Miles '99 with Tom and Susan in the "coral" window boxes unique to their turn-of-the-century Galveston home.Reunited. "The kidnapping didn't make our family strong," Susan Hargrove said. "It was strong to begin with." From left to right are Geddie and Miles '99 with Tom and Susan in the "coral" window boxes unique to their turn-of-the-century Galveston home.

Susan explains. "When Tom got out, we couldn't find the turn-off switch. He had had this horrible experience that really had nothing to do with ours. "We were still under this siege mentality and really disliked talking to anybody. Tom on the other hand wanted to talk to his kindergarten teacher and go to reunions at his school. He didn't want us to say anything we did because it would hurt CIAT. We thought they were sons of bitches, and we didn't care what happened to them. Whenever he had friends over, we would hide upstairs or go to my mother's house until his friends left."

A family psychologist told the Hargroves that Susan and her sons had formed a "platoon," and Tom was not a member.

"That was the situation when we moved to Galveston," Susan said. "I wanted to live at the end of this island on a beach in a house by myself where there was nobody as far as I could see, and Tom wanted to live in the crowded historic district."

Two years later, Geddie doesn't comment about the situation. Miles, on the other hand, shot an HBO special on the making of Proof of Life and is now crafting a documentary -- The Marketing of Despair -- from the footage he shot. He was also the video archivist for Proof of Life, and later, Miss Congeniality.

Hargrove, meanwhile, is the editor of PlanetRice.net, an information-packed Web site about the world of rice. He and his sons attended the Hollywood premiere of Proof of Life. Susan stayed behzind but saw the film on New Year's Day.

Today, the couple speak to at-risk corporate groups at K&R seminars. They get phone calls from families now facing what the Hargroves did five years ago. The last call came at Christmas. In three days, Hargrove would speak at a conference on the dynamics of international terrorism.

"I enjoy it, it's meaningful," Hargrove said. "They pay attention. We're going, next month I think, to a deal for the California Hostage Negotiators Association." Susan raises her eyebrows at the reminder. "Oh, I should check that with my hair appointment."

The Hargroves know they will never return to normal, if such a condition exists. There is only before the kidnap, and after. But that's not always a bad thing.

"You don't very often have the opportunity to test yourself -- how you're going to react to a situation where your loved one's life is on the line and in constant danger," Susan said. "In our case, we did. And we succeeded."

And, Hargrove would add later, they now understand what's really going on. "You realize that others are living the nightmare," he said. "Right now, I know of four Americans between Galveston and Houston who have been kidnapped. I know another in Texarkana who was held for 18 months. "There's a whole other world out there that hardly anybody knows about -- and we're a part of it."