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

Elizabeth Goodwin.

was on the run on Memorial Day 2019 when she received a call on FaceTime from her son, Sam. He was in Syria at the end of a year-long journey that took him to 193 countries around the world.

Mr. Goodwin, a former field hockey player from St. Louis, has arranged a plane ticket to Missouri to attend the Stanley Cup final next week and see his St. Louis Blues play against the Boston Bruins.

He picked up the phone to show his mother the Syrian carousel that surrounded the former president’s imposing statue.

Hafez al-Assad.

Mrs. Goodwin later said she heard someone yelling at her and that her son had said. “I’m talking to my mother.” Then the line went silent.

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

Mr. Goodwin’s disappearance has plunged his family in the Midwest into a world of life-and-death negotiations with hostages, prompting them to seek the help of FBI agents, the Vatican, Middle East mediators, a wary Russian envoy and Syrian authorities who believe Mr. Goodwin is anything but a spy.

President Trump has used military force and diplomatic pressure during his tenure to bring home more than 50 Americans detained in more than 20 countries. In recent months, the Trump administration has tried unsuccessfully to reach an agreement with the Syrian president.

Bashar al-Assad

free

Austin Theis,

Freelance journalist kidnapped in 2012 and

Maid Kamalmaz,

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

In the end, the U.S. government played only a supporting role for the Goodwins. The family had to come up with a rescue plan, using their own resources and connections and with all the courage and luck they could find.

Syrian officials did not respond to requests for comment on the case.

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A street in Qamishli, Syria, where Sam Goodwin checked into the Asia Hotel before his disappearance.

Photo:

Rena Effendi for the Wall Street Journal

Mr. Goodwin’s journey to Syria began with a chance encounter in May 2019 at an airport in Fiji. He met Grammy-winning musician Joss Stone toward the end of his own odyssey to sing around the world. She had just performed in northeastern Syria, a region largely controlled by American Kurdish forces planning a four-year campaign to destroy the self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate state.

Syria would be the 181st country Mr. Goodwin planned to visit. At the time, he was already an experienced traveler, having visited Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and North Korea.

Ms. Stone said she met Mr. Goodwin with

Sangar Khaleel,

an Iraqi journalist who helped her and many other reporters get permission to enter Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria. In late May, before they entered Syria from northern Iraq, Goodwin and Khaleel Stone sent a brief video greeting.

“He will do well in Syria,” Stone said in a report seen by the Wall Street Journal.

The company paid $1,000 a day for the services of a local guide and arranged a private meeting with a contact in Qamishli, a Syrian town on the border with Turkey where aid workers, journalists, informants and Westerners take sides with the Kurds.

Parts of the city were controlled by the Assad regime and local knowledge was needed to know who was where in order to travel safely. After checking into the Asia Hotel on May 25, Mr. Goodwin met his contact at a restaurant just steps from the hotel. Little did he know that he was in a part of town that locals call the Bermuda Triangle.

Mr. Goodwin called his mother on FaceTime while walking to the traffic circle, which served as a crossroads for Syrian government-controlled areas and other Kurdish-controlled areas.

“We are from here and we are afraid to go there,” he said.

Suleiman Hassan,

the manager of the Asia Hotel.

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Posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at a traffic circle in Qamishli, Syria, where Sam Goodwin was arrested.

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Suleiman Hussein, director of the Asia Hotel. “It’s like the Bermuda Triangle,” he said of the area where Sam Goodwin was held.

Photo:

Rena Effendi for the Wall Street Journal(2)

It was not clear whether Mr. Goodwin had been dragged to a government camp by a Syrian soldier. At the time, it didn’t matter.

In general, Mr. Hassan said, “When foreigners disappear, they are not found.”

Family Relations

Mr. Goodwin’s parents had returned to St. Louis after their last phone call with their son, and as time went on, their concern grew. Wherever he was, Mr. Goodwin visited him regularly.

His journey around the world began many years ago. In 2012, he moved to Singapore to manage investor relations for a startup developing an online game for children. From there, he traveled as far as he could. By 2018, he had visited 120 countries. Along the way, he helped coach the North Korean field hockey team for a week in 2016 and was a volleyball coach in Afghanistan in 2018.

Sam Goodwin.

Father,

Thomas Aquinas Goodwin,

Tag called, has stepped down from his position as Vice President of the

Parsons Corp.

Technology provider to the global defense, intelligence and critical infrastructure markets. Ms. Goodwin is president of the Catholic School for Girls.

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

Friends of the family contacted Ms. Stone. “Logic says it’s not your fault, but your heart says it is.

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

Photo:

Scott Mclntyre of the Wall Street Journal.

Two weeks after Goodwin’s disappearance, his parents flew to Washington to meet with members of the FBI’s hostage rescue team, which includes State Department and Pentagon officials. Officials warned that things could go wrong and that tensions could jeopardize their marriage.

“We may never see our son again,” Mrs. Goodwin told her husband outside FBI headquarters, “but this will not come between us.

The Goodwins followed the FBI’s advice not to let their son’s disappearance make the front pages. The family formed their own task force with a half-dozen friends and allies. It was called SG23, with Mr. Goodwin’s initials and the number he wore for his Niagara University field hockey team, the Purple Eagles.

The Goodwins, a Catholic family, sent a letter…

Pope Francis

and turned to the Vatican’s ambassador to Syria for help. A friend introduced him to former U.S. Navy SEALs who asked if the family could pay a $1.5 million ransom if necessary.

The couple used their family connections to contact a Russian envoy, who told them they could request a Russian ambassador to Syria. Some U.S. officials advised the Goodwins not to cooperate with the Russians. Others said Moscow, one of Mr. Assad’s key allies, would provide a better chance to bring their son home.

You asked for advice

Robert Ford,

the last American ambassador to Syria, who served in Damascus until America broke with Assad’s regime in 2014. “I hate to say it,” Ford told the Goodwins, “but your son will have to stay there for a very long time.

Mr. Goodwin’s little sister,

Stephanie McCue,

with the title

Stephanie Hajjar,

his old roommate at Belmont College in Nashville, Tenn. Both women remembered their conversation.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” asked Ms. Hajar.

“If you don’t know anyone who is friends with Assad, please pray,” Ms. McCue said.

“Let me call you back,” Mrs. Hajar said.

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

Photo:

Scott Mclntyre of the Wall Street Journal.

Mrs. McCue did not know that Mrs. Hajar’s uncle was

Joseph Abbas,

was a retired Lebanese military officer. He was friends with

Major General Abbas Ibrahim,

The top security official in Lebanon, and no one in the region was better equipped to help than General Ibrahim. He ensured the freedom of other Westerners detained by the Assad regime.

The Hajars put Mr. Goodwin in touch with Mr. Abbas, but they did not tell the family that General Ibrahim was helping them in Lebanon. Mrs. Goodwin only knew that there was “a certain Joe in Connecticut” who had a friend in Lebanon who could help her find her missing son.

First, the Goodwins had to assure Mr. Abbas that their son was not working for the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency).

At Abbas’ urging, General Ibrahim raised the Goodwin case with Syrian officials, who told the Lebanese general that they were trying to find out if the American was a spy. General Ibrahim told Syrian officials that Mr. Goodwin was a traveler, according to people involved in the negotiations. At one point, he called Mr. Goodwin a “nobody.”

The head of Syrian intelligence,

Ali Mamluk,

I was not convinced. “There are no tourists in Syria,” he said, according to the crowd.

On June 16, Mr. Abbas handed over a message from his friend, General Ibrahim, stating that their son was safe and sound and in the custody of the Damascus regime. Mrs. Goodwin was skeptical, but Mr. Goodwin hoped that her son was still alive.

Twelve days later, the Goodwins received a confusing message from their Russian contact: “The Russian ambassador in Syria says Sam is not in custody in Damascus – 100%.

Home of the message

On June 30, five weeks after Sam Goodwin’s disappearance, his father received a phone call from an unknown number in Florida. The man, who spoke coarse English, said he had a letter from Mr. Goodwin’s son. Tag Goodwin was puzzled and wondered if the phone call was not a cruel hoax. He asked for a picture of the bill.

“A safe life,” the handwritten bill reads. “Adraa Prison – Damascus Central Prison. U.S. Embassy in Beirut – I need legal and consular assistance”.

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A Syrian imprisoned with Sam Goodwin smuggled out of the United States a letter written by an American prisoner, which reached Goodwin’s family.

Photo:

the Goodwin family

The undated bill contained a telling detail. “When I eat at the Missouri Athletic Club, I always order salmon,” it read on one line.

It was the first definitive proof that Mr. Goodwin could still be alive. Family and FBI agents closely examined the handwriting and concluded that it belonged to Sam Goodwin.

The FBI pressured the Goodwins to reveal the sources they were working with in Lebanon. The family refused. Mr. Abbas asked the Goodwins to exercise discretion. The couple gave Mr. Abbas a code name: Guardian.

In late June, Abbas asked the Goodwins to cease their private efforts to bring their son home. The family agreed.

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

“Your brother is in jail with my brother,” the message reads. “Say happy birthday to Slan and B.”

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

“Sam said he loved you and couldn’t wait to have a Chipotle burrito too, and asked if the Blues won the cup. ”

FBI agents told the Goodwins that “Chipotle” might look like a code for Syrian authorities, not a reference to a Mexican restaurant chain. The family was concerned that they had inadvertently put Mr. Goodwin in danger.

A few weeks later, on July 23, Mr. Abbas stated that he had received a message from General Ibrahim: “It looks like your husband is going to make it.”

Bread, blindfolds.

By this time, Mr. Goodwin had been before the Damascus court four times. Syrian authorities accused him of entering Syria illegally from Kurdish-controlled territory. He had no interpreter and no lawyer to defend him in court.

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

He was blindfolded, handcuffed and transported by cargo plane to Damascus, where he was placed in solitary confinement. The guards gave him bread, boiled potatoes and water. Day after day, Mr. Goodwin said, he heard screams as the guards went from cell to cell and beat the prisoners. When they got to his cell, they stood on the threshold, called his name and left.

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Mr. Goodwin used a piece of stone to carve a calendar on the wall of his cell with the dates of the current Stanley Cup finals. “The average prisoner spends his time counting the days until the end of his sentence,” he says. “It’s a very different thing to be a hostage. Hostages count.”

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Sam Goodwin (left) on the ice during a visit to Pyongyang, North Korea, in March 2016, with his friend Robert Martini and captain of the men’s hockey team Son Gun Kim to his right. Mr. Goodwin and Mr. Martini spent the day there as coaches.

Photo:

Shauna Martini

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Sam Goodwin (left) in September 2018 in Kabul, Afghanistan, with an Afghan bodyguard. Mr. Goodwin helped set up the volleyball camp at a local sports facility.

Photo:

Bojan Mirkovic

After weeks of solitary confinement, Mr. Goodwin was interrogated for hours, blindfolded, with his hands tied behind his back on a chair.

The researcher, who spoke impeccable American English, translated for the group of men Mr. Goodwin interviewed about his travels around the world.

After 27 days in solitary confinement, he was transferred to Adra Prison, a detention center where the United Nations and human rights activists say political prisoners are tortured.

There, Mr. Goodwin shared a cell with about 30 other inmates, trying to figure out how to get help. One of his cellmates offered to sneak a bill for Mr. Goodwin out of his dirty laundry. He mentioned his favorite salmon dish at the Missouri Athletic Club.

A week later, Mr. Goodwin found his Instagram connection. A Syrian prisoner named Alaa told Mr. Goodwin that he could use his daily conversations with his sister to send a message to the Goodwin family.

“He was alone, he had no family in Syria and no one else could help him,” said Alaa, who was released from prison and asked not to use his last name to protect his family.

Open the door.

On July 25, 2019, Mr. Abbas called Goodwins. “Assad has agreed to release Sam,” he said. “When can you be in Beirut?”

In Damascus, Syrian guards told Mr. Goodwin to pack his bags. The next day, the guards took him to another security zone, where he saw a soldier with a Lebanese flag on his uniform. The soldier said, “Today I am taking you to Lebanon. Do you want to go?

A convoy of black SUVs with sirens blaring drove Mr. Goodwin out of Damascus and across the Lebanese border about an hour later.

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Sam Goodwin on July 26, 2019, shortly after he crossed the Syrian-Lebanese border after being held by Syrian authorities for 63 days.

Photo:

Sam Goodwin.

Shortly thereafter, the Goodwins arrived in Beirut with Mr. Abbas, the supply chain manager of the Connecticut Life Sciences Company. They arrived in Beirut with their own black escort in an SUV.

On his way in, the soldier handed Mrs. Goodwin a phone.

“Welcome to Lebanon,” his son told him.

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

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

Photo:

Sam Goodwin.

As the family gathered in General Ibrahim’s office, Miss Goodwin kissed her son. “Are you all right? – she whispered in his ear.

Goodwin was one of two non-Syrian Americans known to have been released by the Syrian regime after a violent crackdown on protesters in 2011. It is estimated that more than half a million people died in the civil war that followed.

“I’ve always known miracles exist,” Mrs. Goodwin said. “I never thought God would do it for me.”

Kieran Ramsey,

who until recently was director of the FBI’s Interagency Hostage Rescue Team, said the United States is “committed to freeing all American hostages held abroad.”

The Goodwins said they had not paid the ransom, and U.S. officials said there was no evidence that the regime had accepted the money in exchange for Mr. Goodwin’s release.

“What the Goodwin family did was extraordinary.”

Robert O’Brien,

Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, who was the chief envoy when Mr. Goodwin went missing.

Back in the United States, Goodwin watched broadcasts of the Stanley Cup Final, which ended with the Blues defeating the Bruins in game seven.

Mr. Goodwin spent New Year’s Eve in Brazil, country number 193 and the final leg of his quest. He marked it with a photograph, which he placed under the outstretched arms of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.

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Sam Goodwin, in the final stages of his quest, poses in front of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro on December 31, 2019.

Photo:

Sam Goodwin.

-Isabel Coles in Qamishli, Syria; and

bone national socialist

in Beirut contributed to this article.

E-mail Dion Nissenbaum at [email protected]

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