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After kidnapping, missionary prizes life
He tells of LDS duo’s captivity in Russia in ’98

SHARE After kidnapping, missionary prizes life
He tells of LDS duo’s captivity in Russia in ’98

BOISE -- Andrew Propst wanted to tell his story at the McDonald's in his old Boise neighborhood.

After what he went through in Russia a year ago, he appreciates the basics of American life.Now a student at Portland State University, Propst, 21, came home for a visit and, for the first time, shared his tale, one of the strangest ever told in Ronald McDonaldland.

It began March 18 in the Russian city of Saratov, southeast of Moscow. That evening, Propst and fellow Mormon missionary Travis Tuttle of Gilbert, Ariz., went to meet a Russian who said he was interested in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Propst, who speaks fluent Russian, took along a box of brownies he made as a goodwill gesture.

"We were pretty excited," he said. "It's not every day somebody approaches you in Russia and wants to know about the Mormon Church."

When they arrived at the man's home, he gave them slippers and asked them to remove their shoes. As Propst bent over to put the slippers on, a man he hadn't seen hit from behind with a baseball bat.

"When I got up, he smacked me again, and I fell to my knees. I heard a ringing, screaming sound in my ears. I thought it might be good to get out of there, so I reached for the door handle. It took four or five hits to make me realize it might be smarter to stay."

The last blow knocked him out. When he woke up, he was lying on his stomach, with his wrists handcuffed behind his back. The cuffs were so tight his fingertips hurt.

"When I asked them to loosen them, they smacked me again. My concern was that I was going to lose my hands. They felt ice cold. When I couldn't stand it anymore and started bawling, they put a gun to my head and threatened to shoot me."

A year later, Propst has no feeling in his right hand or the little finger of his left hand. Late that night, the kidnappers moved him and Tuttle to a shack outside the city.

"That night was the first time they showed any mercy.

They loosened my handcuffs," he said.

The two Americans spent five days there, blindfolded with tape and handcuffed to a radiator. The Russians wanted money from the Mormon Church for the missionaries' return. When they told him how much, Propst laughed.

"They said they wanted $2,000. I told them that was a joke, that I was worth a lot more than that! Then they decided on $1,750 for me and $1,250 for Tuttle. They figured he was worth less because he got sick a lot."

The kidnappers, four men and a woman, weren't as naive as they initially seemed. Their final figure was $300,000.

Following U.S. policy, the church refused to pay or negotiate. After three days without food, the Americans were given ravioli, hot dogs and water melted from snow.

By then, the Russians had grown to like them.

"We got to be pals," Propst said. "They'd drink beer and get all tanked up. They said we were the best kidnapees they'd ever had.

"They had a portable radio. Every half-hour, we'd get news updates on how we were doing. That's how we learned that unless their demands were met, they were going to terminate us. I finally told them to turn it off, that I couldn't take it anymore. Not the news updates -- the Russian rock 'n' roll."

Propst could see under the edge of the tape covering his eyes. Part of what he saw lent credibility to the termination threat. With the bats and guns, the kidnappers had brought rat poison and two syringes.

On the fifth day, they surprised the missionaries by announcing their departure.

"Did you get the money?" Propst asked. "No, we're just leaving."

They put the Americans in their car and drove 40 miles into the country.

"We turned onto a bumpy, snow-covered road and stopped. They told us to get out and lie down. I was sure they were going to poison us. Then they said, 'OK, kids. Wait two minutes, and you can leave."'

When the car was gone, Propst and Tuttle walked to a highway and got a ride to Saratov. Russian intelligence officers questioned them for 18 hours.

Three days later, they were at a hospital in Germany. With the information they provided, officers easily apprehended the kidnappers.

Propst returned to Russia in July for their trial. The defendants were kept in a cage in the middle of the courtroom. One was sentenced to a year in prison, another to four years. The rest received suspended sentences.

Propst, who now plans to be a motivational speaker, said the incident made him at once stronger and more humble.

"I was able to look deep inside myself. It changed my life. You don't know how good your life is until it's taken away from you."