Updated: Jan 11, 2021
The Missing American (Coming Jan 14, 2020)
THE MISSING AMERICAN, an Emma Djan Investigation in which Washington DC resident Gordon Tilson travels to Ghana and mysteriously disappears, is a work of fiction. But Americans going missing overseas is a reality played out far too often. So much so that there is a website called The Missing Americans Project.
Not that Americans are the only foreign nationals affected. In June 2019, the Ghana Police rescued two abducted Canadians who had been missing for a week. Kidnapping in Ghana is unusual (but could become more common) whereas in Nigeria, it is much better known primarily because of the ferocious actions of the fearsome Boko Haram, which targets Nigerian schoolgirls.
Of course, while we know that kidnappings of all kinds of people occur all over the world, it is stories of missing Americans in particular that tends get more attention in the US.
Missing Americans: Tourists
The disappearance and/or killing of Americans while abroad on vacation captures our attention because we think, “That could easily have been me.” Of late, the Dominican Republic (DR), has been in the news with bizarre deaths of Americans vacationing on the island, with suspicions of foul play in some cases.
Grand Bahia Principe hotel where Moore and Ravenelle stayed (Shutterstock)
One case of missing Americans in DR that was not thought to be due to foul play was that of Orlando Moore and Portia Ravenelle. On March 27, 2019, the American couple, having been on a getaway for four days, disappeared in the DR after leaving the hotel to the airport in a rented vehicle to return to the US. They never checked in at the airport and their own car remained parked at Newark Airport. For two weeks, there was no word to the family until finally the Dominican authorities came forward. It’s believed Moore and Ravenelle were on their way to the airport for a 2 AM flight when something occurred, causing them to come off the freeway and into the Caribbean Sea. Ravenelle’s body was found unconscious and severely injured (on the side of a road by some reports), and she was taken to the hospital, where she died on April 4. The vehicle was recovered from the sea on April 13.
Missing Americans: Scientists
It’s disturbing to think that a scientist, so dedicated to his or her profession, can travel overseas to share and learn in a noble field and end up missing or dead. In July 2019, scientist Suzanne Eaton, was in Chania on the Mediterranean island of Crete for a scientific conference. Believed to have gone for a run near her hotel, she vanished on July 2 and wasn’t seen for two weeks. Six miles from her hotel, she was found dead by two local men exploring a network of tunnels in an abandoned bunker carved out of the rock by the Nazis troops during WW II. Cave networks are well known in Crete.
Exploring a cave in Chania, Crete (Shutterstock)
Forensic evidence on Eaton’s remains showed she had fought hard against a knife-wielding attacker. She was a strong athlete and an avid runner with a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, so you know she did not go quietly! She used all the fight she could muster from her training. On the other hand, the police believed her killer was also physically very strong, and evidently in the end overpowered her.
Missing Americans: Missionaries
Like scientists, missionaries believe firmly in their cause, even though their respective approaches to “truths” differ. In November 2018, John Allen Chau went on a mission to the remote Indian North Sentinel Island to “declare Jesus” to the isolated tribes there. These tribespeople hail from 30,000 years ago and should not be messed with. They resist any contact from outsiders and if you come into their territory, you will likely never leave alive. Chau made three attempts to mingle with the people on this island he called “Satan’s last stronghold”. Two other Christians with a canoe helped him go ashore on each attempt. The response from the islanders was clearly hostile, but Chau preached to the tribespeople and tried to explain to them that Jesus loved them. On his third attempt to make contact, he was struck by a volley of arrows unleashed by the Sentinelese. He died there.
Aircraft photo of North Sentinel Island (Shutterstock)
Missing Americans: what to do when you travel
One misconception is that the United States government and the FBI can intervene in some way in a sovereign country when an American goes missing in that country. While American embassies state they are dedicated “to protect[ing] the lives and interests of U.S. citizens., there is often not much they can do if a crime has been perpetrated against an American, or if an American has committed a crime in a host country. Most embassies must depend on the abilities of the local police, whose levels of sophistication vary wildly depending on the part of the world.
Even “Legats,” short for legal attachés, cannot intervene in the affairs of the sovereign country unless specifically requested or if the situation directly affects the security of the United States. Lots of variability exists in this regard. As the Missing Americans Project states, “. . . the absence of clear standard operating procedures within and among U.S. embassies and a lack of State Department support leads to an unconscionable waste of time when time is of the essence.” In the novel The Missing American, Derek Tilson finds this out the hard way as he tries to find his missing father.
Before traveling to another country, check for any travel advisories by going to Travel.State.Gov and entering your destination under “Learn about your destination.” I would take any advisories about your destination quite seriously. The website will also provide emergency numbers for the embassies or consulates in that country, which can be used both inside and outside the country.
Go places only with people you know and trust. Don’t accept rides from people who say they drive you somewhere unless you have summoned that person yourself, i.e. Uber or whatever ride service might be available at your destination. Be careful where you go at night. In some countries, long- and medium-distance travel can be hazardous and could get you ambushed and robbed. Just be sensible, and you’ll be okay. Above all, avoid isolated tribes on remote islands.
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