THE DIPLOMAT WHO DISAPPEARED
The Atlantic|May 2021
IN 1974, JOHN PATTERSON, AN AMERICAN DIPLOMAT ON HIS FIRST ASSIGNMENT ABROAD, WAS ABDUCTED BY THE PEOPLE’S LIBERATION ARMY OF MEXICO—A GROUP NO ONE HAD HEARD OF BEFORE. THE KIDNAPPERS WANTED $500,000 AND INSISTED THAT PATTERSON’S WIFE DELIVER THE RANSOM.
BRENDAN I. KOERNER

. . .

The Motel El Encanto in Hermosillo, Mexico, served a lavish breakfast that John and Andra Patterson liked to eat on the tiled deck near their suite. The couple would discuss the day ahead over fresh pineapple and pan dulces while their 4-year-old daughter, Julia, watched the gray cat that skulked about the motel’s Spanish arches.

On the morning of March 22, 1974, the Pattersons’ breakfast chatter centered on their search for a permanent home. They were nearing their two-month anniversary of living in Hermosillo, where John was a junior diplomat at the American consulate, and the motel was feeling cramped.

After breakfast, Andra dropped John off at work. Because this was his first posting as a member of the United States Foreign Service, the 31-year-old Patterson had been given an unglamorous job: He was a vice consul responsible for promoting trade between the U.S. and Mexico, which on this particular Friday meant driving out to meet with a group of ranchers who hoped to improve their yield of beef.

At 11 a.m., Patterson grabbed the keys to a consular vehicle, a beige International Harvester truck, and headed downstairs. One of his co-workers, an administrative assistant named Luis Sánchez, saw him standing outside the building, chatting amicably with a mustached man in dark sunglasses and a blue suit. When Patter son got behind the wheel of the truck, his acquaintance climbed into the passenger seat.

An hour later, the clerk at the Motel El Encanto spotted the International Harvester traveling north on the broad boulevard that cuts through Hermosillo. He recognized Patterson as the driver: With his thick mop of sandy-brown hair and modish eyeglasses, the vice-consul resembled an unkempt Warren Beatty. But the other man was unfamiliar to the clerk.

Around 2:30 p.m., Andra swung by the consulate to browse its library; she wanted to borrow some books before picking Julia up from school. She was immersed in that pleasant task when a secretary informed her that Elmer Yelton, the consul general, needed to see her right away.

Yelton told Andra that John had never shown up for his meeting with the ranchers. When the consulate reopened after its daily lunch break, the staff had discovered an envelope addressed to “Mr. Yelton” tucked beneath the front door. Inside was a two-page note scrawled on green stationery. The consul general showed this note to Andra, who could see that it was written in her husband’s hand. The words, however, were clearly not John’s own.

“I have evidently been taken hostage by the People’s Liberation Army of Mexico,” the note began, before segueing into a list of demands. The group wanted a $500,000 ransom, to be hand-delivered by Andra in two installments. The first payment of $250,000 was to be made at the Hotel Fray Marcos in Nogales, Mexico, two days later. Andra was then to fly to Mexico City, check into the airport Holiday Inn, and await instructions on how to make the second payment.

“Under no circumstances whatsoever is there to be any news release concerning my captivity before or after my release,” the letter warned. If word got out, or if the authorities attempted to intervene in any way, the People’s Liberation Army of Mexico would “execute 1 U.S. official each week or member of a U.S. official family.”

Once she’d gotten past her initial shock, Andra thought back to a strange moment in New Orleans. The Pattersons had stopped in the city in January on their way from their former home in Virginia to Hermosillo. They’d hired a babysitter to watch Julia so they could catch a movie. The film the couple had chosen was State of Siege, a thinly veiled account of the 1970 kidnapping and murder of Dan Mitrione, a USAID official who’d been teaching the Uruguayan police how to torture. During a scene in which the body of the Mitrione stand-in is found in an abandoned Cadillac, Andra had felt a jolt of anxiety. “Oh my God, that better not be you!” she’d blurted out to John, loud enough to startle other moviegoers.

John had done his best to wave off her concern. But both he and Andra knew that diplomacy had become a perilous line of work.

Word of the Patterson kidnapping reached President Nixon that evening, while he was en route to Camp David after a long week spent tangling with Watergate investigators. The president and his advisers were by now accustomed to handling situations of this nature: Patterson was the sixth American diplomat to be abducted in a little over a year.

The first had been Clinton Knox, the ambassador to Haiti, who was ambushed near his Port-au-Prince home on January 23, 1973. His kidnappers forced him to call the American consul-general in the city, Ward Christensen, who was then lured into captivity as well. A deputy undersecretary of state rushed to Port-au-Prince to help negotiate for the two men’s lives. After 20 hours of talks, Knox and Christensen were set free in exchange for $70,000 from the Haitian treasury and the release of a dozen imprisoned revolutionaries.

Six weeks later, commandos from Black September— the Palestinian group that had murdered 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympics the year before—stormed the Saudi Arabian embassy in Khartoum. Among the hostages they seized were U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel and the deputy chief of mission, George Curtis Moore, who’d been attending a dinner party. The kidnappers demanded the release of numerous prisoners, including Sirhan Sirhan, the convicted assassin of Robert F. Kennedy.

A State Department official was dispatched to Sudan to establish a dialogue with the diplomats’ captors. But this was a higher-profile crisis than the one in Port-au-Prince, and Nixon, who’d come to believe that terrorism posed an existential threat to American security, decided it was time to take the hardest possible line. On March 2, 1973, while the State Department’s envoy was still in transit to Sudan, Nixon was asked about the Black September kidnappings at a White House press conference. The president improvised an answer that left his negotiator no wiggle room: “As far as the United States as a government giving in to blackmail demands, we cannot do so and we will not do so.” Hours later, the terrorists in Khartoum allowed Noel and Moore to write last letters to their wives before executing them.

Now that blood had been spilled, the Nixon administration felt compelled to double down on the president’s off-the-cuff remark and make it policy. The U.S. government would henceforth not negotiate with terrorists, even when the lives of American diplomats were at stake.

That stance was put to the test two months later, on May 4, 1973, when guerrillas kidnapped Terrence Leonhardy, the American consul-general in the Mexican city of Guadalajara. Though the State Department publicly reiterated that it would not legitimize terrorists by giving in to extortion, it used diplomatic back channels to pressure Mexico to work toward Leonhardy’s safe return. After three days in blindfolded captivity, the consul general was let go in exchange for the release of 30 prisoners allied with the Armed Revolutionary Forces of the People, one of the many leftist groups devoted to overthrowing President Luis Echeverría’s authoritarian regime.

The White House chose to adopt a similar approach when confronting the Patterson affair. To maintain the optics of toughness— crucial to the president’s political survival in the thick of Watergate— the Nixon administration would refuse to provide even a penny to the kidnappers. But the State Department would be permitted to lean on the Mexican government to locate and liberate the vice-consul, and it could offer to quietly assist the Patterson family should they wish to pay the ransom themselves.

This decision was relayed to Patterson’s widowed mother, Ann, who lived on Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. She and her late husband, who’d been a successful supermarket executive, had powerful friends throughout the city, and Ann tore through her Rolodex in search of help. Within a few hours, she’d persuaded a department-store heiress to personally guarantee a $250,000 bank loan. That sum would be enough for Andra to deliver the first payment to the kidnappers, and thus buy John a little time.

A plan was made for Andra to fly to Arizona the next day to collect the ransom; she would then have ample time to make it to Nogales for her initial rendezvous with the People’s Liberation Army of Mexico. Andra’s stepfather, meanwhile, would travel to Hermosillo to pick up Julia.

Andra passed the sleepless night worrying about her husband, whom she’d known since college. The two had met in the fall of 1962 while spending their junior year abroad in France. On their first date, at an Aix-en-Provence café, John ordered them both espressos in perfect French and then drank his through a sugar cube wedged between his teeth—a trick he said he’d learned from his brother in-law in Rome. Nineteen-year-old Andra Sigerson was smitten.

That summer, John and Andra rode a Lambretta scooter across Europe. They basked on the verandas of seaside hotels, washed their clothes in the Mediterranean, and rescued a stray mutt from a swarm of bees on Mallorca. One day, as they whizzed down a mountain road toward Spain’s Costa del Sol, Andra pressed her cheek between John’s shoulder blades and thought, I can die right now, because I’ve felt the highest high a person can ever feel.

But the love affair faded once John and Andra returned to their respective midwestern universities, 400 miles apart. Andra was vexed by John’s habit of canceling his weekend visits without notice, and by the awkward pauses on their phone calls. Days before graduation in 1964, John tried to salvage the relationship by proposing on a Wisconsin bluff. When Andra declined, she assumed she’d never see him again.

Six years later, Andra left an unhappy marriage to the man with whom she’d had Julia. She and her 1-year-old daughter relocated from eastern Washington State to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where she’d grown up. While adjusting to life as a single mother, she decided to find out what had become of John. She learned that he was now a student at Columbia Business School and arranged to meet him on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. She watched him stroll down Fifth Avenue toward the church, his hair as wild and glorious as she remembered. Andra knew they would never part again.

Andra and Julia soon followed John to Washington, D.C., where he’d found work with the ad hoc commission that was implementing Nixon’s emergency freeze on consumer prices. But the Beltway grind didn’t suit the couple, who craved the sense of adventure they’d experienced aboard their Lambretta scooter a decade earlier. The escape plan that John proposed was one he’d secretly been aching to pursue since adolescence: He would join the Foreign Service.

When he graduated from the Foreign Service’s training program, in the summer of 1973, the State Department asked him to begin his career in Santiago, Chile. But after the country’s Marxist president, Salvador Allende was deposed in a bloody coup that September, John was reassigned to Hermosillo, a place assumed to be relatively safe for a rookie diplomat and his family.

Andra left Hermosillo at midday on March 23. Joining her on the Tucsonbound plane were two State Department veterans who’d flown up from Mexico City at dawn: Victor Dikeos, the supervisor for all of the American consulates in the country, and Keith Gwyn, a diplomatic- security agent. Neither man had ever met John, but they’d volunteered to serve as Andra’s bodyguards because they considered the Foreign Service a sacred family.

Andra and her guardians went by car from Tucson to Nogales, Arizona, where they stopped at a motel near the crossing into Nogales, Mexico. Andra had been told to wait there to receive the ransom money, which was being couriered from a bank in Phoenix. As she bided her time, a phalanx of FBI agents descended on the motel. They said they’d obtained the Mexican government’s permission to cross the border with Andra and stake out the Hotel Fray Marcos, where the payoff was to take place. The agents hoped to identify and track whoever collected the cash.

This plan made Dikeos nervous. He worried the kidnappers would execute John immediately if they detected any hint of surveillance. He was not informed of the FBI’s hunch that the person who showed up to take the money would not be a genuine terrorist, but rather someone with clandestine ties to John and Andra Patterson.

The ransom money, consisting of $50 and $20 bills stacked inside Girl Scout cookie boxes, arrived at the Arizona border motel well past dark on March 23. Andra took a taxi into Mexico and checked in at the Hotel Fray Marcos, a mere block away from American soil.

The next morning, Andra waited for the phone to ring; outside, more than two dozen FBI agents tried to remain incognito. Hours passed, yet no one came looking for the money. By lunchtime, the FBI and the State Department concluded that the payoff wasn’t going to happen, and that Andra should return to Hermosillo by car at once.

When she arrived late that afternoon, Andra learned of an important discovery that had been made in her absence: The police had found the International Harvester truck that John had been driving on the morning of his disappearance. Someone had left it at a gas station on the edge of town; there were no signs of a struggle.

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