World

American Parents Set Out to Find a Son Lost in Syria’s ‘Bermuda Triangle’


Elizabeth Goodwin

was on a Memorial Day getaway in 2019 when she got a FaceTime call from her son Sam. He was in Syria, nearing the end of a yearslong quest to visit all 193 countries in the world.

Mr. Goodwin, a one-time college hockey player from St. Louis, had a plane ticket back to Missouri the following week, in time to take a seat at the Stanley Cup Finals to see his St. Louis Blues play the Boston Bruins.

He held up his phone to give his mother a panoramic view of a Syrian roundabout that surrounded a towering statue of former President

Hafez al-Assad.

Ms. Goodwin later said she heard someone shout at him, and her son say. “I’m talking to my mom.” Then the line went dead.

It would be weeks before Ms. Goodwin and her family would learn what happened: How her 32-year-old son had taken a wrong turn and ended up in the basement of a Syrian prison, a place where he could hear the screams of prisoners.

Mr. Goodwin’s disappearance thrust his Midwestern family into the life-or-death world of hostage negotiations, prompting them to seek help from FBI agents, the Vatican, Middle East intermediaries, a cagey Russian emissary and Syria authorities skeptical Mr. Goodwin was anything but a spy.

President Trump during his term in office used military force and diplomatic pressure to bring home more than 50 Americans held in more than two dozen countries. In its final months, the Trump administration worked unsuccessfully to strike a deal with Syrian President

Bashar al-Assad

to free

Austin Tice,

a freelance journalist abducted in 2012, as well as

Majd Kamalmaz,

a Syrian-American therapist last seen at a Damascus checkpoint in 2017.

In the end, the U.S. government played only a supporting role for the Goodwins. The family would have to forge a rescue plan, tapping their own resources and connections, and whatever courage and luck they could muster.

Syrian officials didn’t respond to requests for comment on the case.

The street in Qamishli, Syria, where Sam Goodwin checked into the Asia Hotel before he disappeared.



Photo:

Rena Effendi for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Goodwin’s trip to Syria started with a chance meeting in May 2019 at an airport in Fiji. He ran into Joss Stone, a Grammy Award-winning musician nearing the end of her own odyssey to sing in all the world’s countries. She had just performed in northeastern Syria, an area largely controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces mopping up a four-year campaign to shatter Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate.

Syria would be the 181st country Mr. Goodwin planned to visit. He was by then a seasoned traveler, having passed through Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and North Korea.

Ms. Stone said she put Mr. Goodwin in touch with

Sangar Khaleel,

an Iraqi journalist who had helped her and many reporters get permission to enter Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria. In late May, before crossing into Syria from northern Iraq, Mr. Goodwin and Mr. Khaleel sent Ms. Stone a short video to say hello.

“He’s going to be fine in Syria,” Mr. Khaleel told Ms. Stone in the message viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Goodwin chafed at paying $500 a day for a local guide and had arranged to meet a contact alone in Qamishli, a Syrian city on the border with Turkey that hosted aid workers, journalists, informants and Westerners fighting with the Kurds.

Parts of the city were controlled by the Assad regime, and getting around safely required local experience to know who was where. After checking into the Asia Hotel on May 25, Mr. Goodwin set out to meet his contact at a restaurant a short walk away. He didn’t know he was heading toward a part of town that locals called the Bermuda Triangle.

Mr. Goodwin called his mother on FaceTime as he walked toward the roundabout, which served as a crossroads for areas controlled by the Syrian government and others controlled by the Kurds.

“We’re from here and we’re afraid to go there,” said

Suleiman Hassan,

manager of the Asia Hotel.

Posters of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad at a roundabout in the city of Qamishli, Syria, where Sam Goodwin was detained.

Suleiman Hussein, manager of Asia Hotel. ‘It’s like the Bermuda Triangle,’ he said of the area where Sam Goodwin was detained.



Photo:

Rena Effendi for The Wall Street Journal(2)

It wasn’t clear if Mr. Goodwin was drawn into the government area by a Syrian soldier. At that point, it didn’t matter.

Generally speaking, Mr. Hassan said, “when foreigners disappear, they can’t be found.”

Family ties

Mr. Goodwin’s parents returned to St. Louis after the last phone call with their son, and, as the days passed, their worries grew. Wherever he was, Mr. Goodwin had always checked in regularly.

His round-the-world quest had started years earlier. In 2012, he moved to Singapore to oversee investor relations for a startup developing an online game for children. From there, he traveled all he could. By 2018, he had visited 120 countries. Along the way, he helped coach the North Korean national hockey team for a week in 2016 and coached volleyball in Afghanistan in 2018.

Sam Goodwin’s

father,

Thomas Aquinas Goodwin,

who goes by “Tag,” retired from a job as senior vice president at

Parsons Corp.

, a technology provider in the global defense, intelligence and critical infrastructure markets. Ms. Goodwin is president of a Catholic girls high school.

They called the FBI, State Department and U.S. diplomats in the Middle East. FBI agents asked the Goodwins if their son was someone who would join a group in Syria, where small numbers of Americans had come to join Islamic State or U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.

Family friends reached out to Ms. Stone. “I felt personally responsible,” she said. “Logic says it isn’t your fault, but your heart says it is.”

Elizabeth and Tag Goodwin in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last year.



Photo:

Scott McIntyre for The Wall Street Journal

Two weeks after Mr. Goodwin disappeared, his parents flew to Washington for a meeting with members of the FBI Hostage Fusion Recovery Cell, which includes staff from the State Department and the Pentagon. Officials warned things might go badly, and the strain could imperil their marriage.

“We may never see our son again,” Ms. Goodwin told her husband outside the FBI headquarters, “but this is not going to come between us.”

The Goodwins followed FBI advice to keep their son’s disappearance out of the news. The family set up their own task force with a half-dozen friends and allies. It was named SG23—using Mr. Goodwin’s initials and the number he wore for his Niagara University hockey team, the Purple Eagles.

The Goodwins, a Catholic family, sent a letter to

Pope Francis

and pressed for help from the Vatican’s ambassador to Syria. A friend put them in touch with former U.S. Navy SEALs who asked if the family could pay $1.5 million in ransom, if needed.

The couple used family connections to reach a Russian emissary who said he could ask the Russian ambassador in Syria. Some U.S. officials discouraged the Goodwins from working with the Russians. Others said that Moscow, one of Mr. Assad’s most important allies, might provide the best chance to bring their son home.

They sought advice from

Robert Ford,

the last U.S. ambassador to Syria, who was serving in Damascus until America cut ties with the Assad regime in 2014. “I hate to tell you this,” Mr. Ford said to the Goodwins, “but your son is going to be there for a very, very long time.”

Mr. Goodwin’s younger sister,

Stephanie McCue,

called

Stephanie Hajjar,

her former college roommate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. The two women recalled their conversation.

“Is there any way I can help?” Ms. Hajjar asked.

“Unless you know someone who is friends with Assad, please just pray,” Ms. McCue said.

“Let me call you back,” Ms. Hajjar said.

Sam Goodwin’s sister, Stephanie McCue, 27, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in November.



Photo:

Scott McIntyre for The Wall Street Journal

Ms. McCue didn’t know that Ms. Hajjar’s uncle,

Joseph Abbas,

was a retired Lebanese military official. He was friends with

Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim,

Lebanon’s top security official, and no one in the region was better placed than Gen. Ibrahim to help. He had secured freedom for other Westerners held by the Assad regime.

The Hajjars connected Mr. Goodwin with Mr. Abbas but they didn’t tell the family that the person helping them in Lebanon was Gen. Ibrahim. All Ms. Goodwin knew was that there was a “guy named Joe in Connecticut” who had a friend in Lebanon who could help find her missing son.

First, the Goodwins had to reassure Mr. Abbas their son wasn’t working for the Central Intelligence Agency.

At Mr. Abbas’s urging, Gen. Ibrahim raised Mr. Goodwin’s case with Syrian officials who told the Lebanese general that they were trying to learn if the American was a spy. Gen. Ibrahim told the Syrian officials that Mr. Goodwin was a wayward traveler, according to people briefed on the talks. At one point, he called Mr. Goodwin “a nobody.”

Syria’s intelligence chief,

Ali Mamlouk,

wasn’t persuaded. “There are no tourists in Syria,” he said, according to the people briefed.

On June 16, Mr. Abbas passed along a message from his friend—Gen. Ibrahim—saying their son was safe, healthy and being held by the regime in Damascus. Ms. Goodwin was skeptical, but Mr. Goodwin gained hope their son was alive.

Then, the Goodwins received a confounding message from their Russian contact 12 days later: “The Russian ambassador to Syria says Sam is not under Damascus arrest—100%.”

Message home

On June 30, five weeks after Sam Goodwin went missing, his father got a call from a Florida number he didn’t recognize. A man speaking broken English said he had a letter from Mr. Goodwin’s son. Tag Goodwin was rattled, wondering if the call was a cruel hoax. He asked for a photo of the note.

“Safe-alive,” the handwritten note said. “Adraa Prison—Damascus Central Prison. USA Embassy in Beirut—I need legal/consular help!”

A Syrian detained with Sam Goodwin smuggled out a letter written by the American prisoner that reached Mr. Goodwin’s family in the U.S.



Photo:

Goodwin family

The undated note contained a telling detail. “I always order the salmon when eating at the Missouri Athletic Club,” one line said.

It was the first clear evidence Mr. Goodwin could be alive. The family and FBI agents scrutinized the handwriting and concluded it was Sam Goodwin’s.

The FBI pressed the Goodwins to reveal what sources they were working with in Lebanon. The family declined. Mr. Abbas had asked the Goodwins to be discreet. The couple gave Mr. Abbas a code name: The Gatekeeper.

At the end of June, Mr. Abbas asked the Goodwins to stop any other private effort they were making to get their son home. The family agreed.

On July 6, Ms. McCue, Sam’s sister, received an Instagram message from an unknown account with no followers and no posts.

“Your brother is with my brother in the prison,” the message read. “Tell Slan and B happy birthday.”

Ms. McCue knew it was from her brother because he used the nicknames of their mother and sister. She didn’t wait to tell the FBI before responding. “Please tell Sam that I love him, to stay strong, and I can’t wait to eat a Chipotle burrito together,” she wrote. A response arrived the next day.

“Sam said that he love you and can’t wait to eat the Chipotle burrito too and asked if the Blues won the cup??”

FBI agents told the Goodwins that “Chipotle” might sound like code to Syrian authorities, instead of a reference to the chain of Mexican-food restaurants. The family worried they had inadvertently endangered Mr. Goodwin.

Weeks later, on July 23, Mr. Abbas said he got a message from Gen. Ibrahim: “Looks like your guy will make it.”

Bread, blindfolds

By that time, Mr. Goodwin had been to court four times in Damascus. Syrian authorities accused him of illegally entering Syria from Kurdish-controlled territory. In court, he had neither a translator nor an attorney to defend him.

After his last call to his mother, Syrian soldiers put him in a minivan and took him to a cinder block cell in the middle of a field, Mr. Goodwin told the Journal in his first public account of his captivity. He feared he would be executed.

He was blindfolded, handcuffed and flown by cargo plane to Damascus, where he was locked in a solitary cell. Guards served him bread, boiled potato and water. Day after day, Mr. Goodwin said he heard screams as guards moved from cell to cell, beating inmates. When they came to his cell, they stood in the entry, called his name and left.

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Mr. Goodwin used a rock chip to carve a calendar on his cell wall that included dates for the ongoing Stanley Cup Finals. “A normal prisoner spends their time counting down the days to the end of their sentence,” he said. “It’s completely different being a hostage. Hostages count up.”

Sam Goodwin, left, on the ice during a visit to Pyongyang, North Korea, in March 2016. He was joined by his friend Robert Martini, right, and Song Gun Kim, captain of the men’s national ice hockey team. The Americans spent a day coaching there.



Photo:

Shauna Martini

Sam Goodwin, left, in Kabul, Afghanistan in September 2018, joined by an Afghan bodyguard. Mr. Goodwin helped host a volleyball camp at a local sports facility.



Photo:

Bojan Mirkovic

After weeks in solitary confinement, Mr. Goodwin was interrogated for hours, blindfolded, his hands cuffed behind his back to a chair.

An interrogator who spoke impeccable American English translated for a group of men who questioned Mr. Goodwin about his world travel.

After 27 days in solitary confinement, he was transferred to Adra Prison, a detention center where U.N. and human-rights activists said political prisoners were tortured.

There, Mr. Goodwin shared a cell with about 30 other inmates and tried to figure out how to get help. One of his cellmates offered to smuggle out a note for Mr. Goodwin in his dirty laundry. He included mention of his favorite salmon dish at the Missouri Athletic Club.

A week later, Mr. Goodwin found his Instagram connection. A Syrian prisoner named Ala’a told Mr. Goodwin that he could use his daily calls with his sister to get a message to the Goodwin family.

“He was alone, he didn’t have any family in Syria and no one else could help him,” said Ala’a, who was released from prison and asked that his last name not be used to protect his family.

Open door

On July 25, 2019, Mr. Abbas called the Goodwins. “Assad has agreed to release Sam,” he said. “How soon can you get to Beirut?”

In Damascus, Syrian guards told Mr. Goodwin to pack his things. The next day, guards drove him to another security compound where he saw a soldier with a Lebanese flag on his uniform. The soldier said, “I’m going to take you to Lebanon today. Do you want to come?”

A convoy of black SUVs with sirens blaring sped Mr. Goodwin out of Damascus and crossed into Lebanon about an hour later.

Sam Goodwin on July 26, 2019, shortly after crossing the border from Syria to Lebanon after 63 days in custody by Syrian authorities.



Photo:

Sam Goodwin

Not long after, the Goodwins arrived in Beirut with Mr. Abbas, a supply chain executive for a life sciences company in Connecticut. They drove into Beirut in their own escort of black SUVs.

On the way, a soldier handed Ms. Goodwin a phone.

“Welcome to Lebanon,” her son said.

Ms. Goodwin learned that the Lebanese friend who freed their son was Gen. Ibrahim. The general told U.S. officials in the middle of the negotiations that he was working on the case. Over the past decade, Gen. Ibrahim helped free more than 65 people from regional governments and extremist groups. “I have a soft spot for mothers,” he said.

Sam Goodwin, left, stands with the two men who helped free him: Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, center, head of Lebanon’s security services, and Joseph Abbas.



Photo:

Sam Goodwin

When the family reunited in Gen. Ibrahim’s office, Ms. Goodwin threw her arms around her son. “Are you OK?” she whispered in his ear.

Mr. Goodwin was one of two Americans without Syrian heritage known to have been freed by Syria’s regime since its brutal 2011 crackdown on protesters. More than half a million people are believed to have died in the civil war that followed.

“I always knew miracles were real,” Ms. Goodwin said. “I just never thought God would do one for me.”

Kieran Ramsey,

who served until recently as director of the FBI-led interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, said the U.S. was “committed to the recovery of all U.S. hostages held abroad.”

The Goodwins said they paid no ransom, and U.S. officials said there was no indication the regime took money in exchange for Mr. Goodwin’s release.

“What the Goodwin family did was extraordinary,” said

Robert O’Brien,

Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, who served as the top hostage envoy when Mr. Goodwin went missing.

Back in the U.S., Mr. Goodwin watched replays of the Stanley Cup Finals, which ended with the Blues beating the Bruins in Game 7.

Mr. Goodwin spent that New Year’s Eve in Brazil, country No. 193 and the final stop on his quest. He marked it with a photograph posed below the outstretched arms of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.

Sam Goodwin at the last stop on his quest, posing at the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro on Dec. 31, 2019.



Photo:

Sam Goodwin

Nazih Osseiran

in Beirut contributed to this article.

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at [email protected]

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