A team from the FBI will be here until the kidnapping of US diplomat Stephen Lesniak is “resolved” and sources say the envoy who was abducted by two armed teenagers while playing golf at Lusignan on Saturday was held hostage in a church in central Buxton while the police and army searched the village.
Sources told Stabroek News yesterday that evidence suggested that Lesniak might have been held first in one of the several houses later searched on Saturday, but was moved to the church building as the forces closed in. He was subsequently released after a ransom was paid by friends of his.
Lesniak’s kidnapping, the 18th since Guyana’s crime wave spiralled out of control last year, has prompted the much sought-after assistance of United States law enforcement agencies. When the kidnapping spree started last year, President Bharrat Jagdeo had approached the United States for assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), but was referred to private agencies.
After Lesniak was snatched, sources said an FBI team immediately flew into the country and has been having high-level talks with the government and police. Reports state that the team might be here “until the issue is resolved”.
Agents from the US State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service reportedly arrived here on Saturday evening also to assist the local police. Stabroek News has been reliably informed that the team comprises seventeen operatives, including nine from the FBI who have already blended into the local population.
Yesterday, some members of the team, Stabroek News understands, met with Home Affairs Minister Ronald Gajraj along with senior police officers and also met with a wide range of persons who it is believed could assist them with their work.
Neither Gajraj nor Police Commissioner Floyd McDonald could be reached yesterday for a comment despite several calls to their office throughout the day. Gajraj was reported as being out of the office and McDonald was reported to be in a meeting and could not be disturbed.
On Saturday, Amanda Batt at the US State Department Press Office told Stabroek News that she had seen a report about a special operations team being dispatched to Guyana. However, in Batt’s absence, another press officer told Stabroek News that she was unaware of the FBI’s presence in Guyana and suggested that contact be made with the FBI. When contacted the FBI press office in Washington DC referred Stabroek News to the Legal Attaché at the US Embassy in Caracas where she said such issues would be handled.
Lesniak, whom sources say is an ex-US Marine Captain trained in unarmed combat, had turned up at the Lusignan Golf Course at about 8 am on Saturday and was kidnapped an hour later, while at the number two tee box, which is at the eastern end of the ground near a trench separating the golf course from the canefields.
Reports state that the kidnappers emerged from the bushes, grabbed the diplomat and threw him to the ground. The caddies who were with the man ran back to the club shouting: “Call for the police! Call for the police! Steve just get kidnap.”
By the time the law enforcement agents were contacted, Lesniak and his kidnappers were gone. All that was left behind were his identification cards, a cellular phone and his vehicle. After an intense military operation on the East Coast most of Saturday, the diplomat was set free between 7:15 and 7:30 pm Reports state that a substantial ransom was paid by Lesniak’s fiancée.
A report in the Chicago Sun-Times out of Lesniak’s home state, Illinois, quoted Lesniak’s older brother, Joe, as saying that “Stephen Lesniak’s girlfriend, a native of Guyana and an embassy employee, was an intermediary between the kidnappers and Lesniak’s family”. Joe Lesniak, the report stated, said the U.S. State Department had told the family that embassy policy was not to pay a ransom, but that the family was free to make private arrangements.
According to the report, Lesniak’s mother received the initial telephone call from the kidnappers at about 10 am on Saturday at her Downstate home. The kidnappers reportedly demanded US$300,000 (close to G$60M). The FBI reportedly assisted the family during the ordeal, Joe Lesniak said. The man said he believed the motive for the kidnapping of his 35-year-old sibling was financial, not political. There are conflicting reports about the amount paid to secure Lesniak’s freedom.
“It’s an amazing story, like a made-for-TV movie,” Joe Lesniak was quoted as saying on Sunday after talking to his brother on the telephone. “He just relied on his instincts.”
Lesniak, a former DuPage County forest preserve officer, is said to be the chief security officer of the United States Embassy in Georgetown. Local police and government officials, as well as the US Embassy in Guyana have remained silent on the kidnapping.
The only information the Embassy disclosed was about Lesniak’s release about an hour after the event. The officials also refused to comment about the requests to the Guyana government for permission for a team from the US to come to Guyana to assist the local law enforcement authorities with the search for Lesniak and later in their investigations into the incident.
Two statements condemning the kidnapping, were, however, issued by the main Opposition Party on Saturday and the ruling party yesterday.
The PPP in a press statement said the party was deeply concerned about the continuing crime on the East Coast Demerara and criminals operating out of the Friendship/Buxton area.
“The kidnapping of a United States diplomat has brought this worrying situation to a new stage. Shortly after this incident, one would have expected a high state of alert [but on Sunday] another policeman was gunned down in Buxton. Notwithstanding the presence of army ranks in that section of the East Coast of Demerara for over a year, kidnapping, murders, violent assaults and robberies continue to occur in the village. Consequently, Guyanese are entitled to ask what is really happening.”
However, army sources were quick to point out that the GDF was only in a support role to the Guyana Police Force, which was the main agency on the East Coast Demerara, and was being ordered to maintain static patrols at certain points.
The release further stated: “The PPP joins with many Guyanese, including Stabroek News, in calling for a rethink of the situation at Buxton and the type of response by our security forces. A new approach is needed and is needed urgently.” The party is again calling on Guyanese to take a more active part in their own security and in the security of their communities.
“Also we urge that the safety and security of all Guyanese and guests of the country, including diplomats continue to be given adequate attention.
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Stephen Lesniak studied political science at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and worked at juvenile detention facilities in La Salle and DuPage counties before joining the DuPage County Forest Preserve’s ranger police. In 1992, Lesniak was accepted into the U.S. State Department’s rigorous training programme for special agents, his brother said. He worked in Washington and New York, where he provided security to visiting dignitaries.
“He was in Madeleine Albright’s personal entourage and travelled with her domestically,” his brother said. Albright was the US ambassador to the United Nations from 1993 to 1997, when she became secretary of state under President Clinton.
The report further stated that Lesniak, who was stationed in Jamaica in 1997 and Puerto Rico in 1999 before joining the U.S. embassy in Guyana in 2001, met Sunday with the U.S. ambassador to Guyana for a debriefing.