Sunday, September 26, 2004


Dreams of sunken treasure lure ex-hostage back to South America


Associated Press

MORTON, Ill. - The last time Scott Heimdal set out in search of sunken treasure he ended up being the bounty instead, kidnapped and held for ransom in the jungles of South America for two months not knowing whether he would live or die.

Now, nearly 15 years after his central Illinois hometown raised the cash that bought his freedom, Heimdal is preparing to head back to Ecuador to resume a treasure-hunting dream that still burns hotter than his memories of 61 days at the mercy of Colombian rebels.

The 42-year-old former hostage says this trip will be much safer. Instead of guerillas, he says, his biggest worry will be finding a Spanish ship that sank off the coast of Ecuador in the late 1500s with a cargo he estimates could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

"I've always been someone who likes to see things through. If you decide to do something, do it," the soft-spoken Peoria native said with a laugh.

Even his parents, who went to South America and negotiated their son's release in 1990, say they have no qualms about Heimdal rekindling a dream sparked by a documentary on shipwreck recoveries he saw as a teenager.

"What happened to him when he got kidnapped was just that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time," said his father, Roy Heimdal.

At the time, though, he had feared his son would never be released by the rebels alive - "It was awful, I almost lost my mind," he recalled.

Heimdal wound up within the rebels' reach after signing on with a mining company to support himself when the Ecuadorean government thwarted his bid for a permit to salvage a potential shipwreck he had spent years researching.

He was working on a gold mine being established deep in the jungle when rebels crossed over from Colombia and ambushed Heimdal's canoe from a riverbank. They killed his native navigator and abducted Heimdal, seeking ransom money to finance their efforts to overthrow Colombia's government.

Heimdal's captivity made international news as rebels demanded $1.5 million for his release, unaware that the gold mine was not yet operating.

They ultimately settled for $60,000, a deal negotiated by Heimdal's mother, Marge, using money from fund-raisers across central Illinois. More than 50 members of the insurgent group have since been arrested, though none has gone to trial.

Other rebel groups are still carrying on the decades-old insurgency, but Heimdal said he will be out of harm's way on this trip.

He will be working with the Ecuadorean Navy on the salvage project, operating under a deal based on a new Ecuadorean law to evenly split any coins, jewelry or artifacts that might be found on the ocean floor.
When Heimdal and his crew aren't with government officials, they will stay in a resort-like area along the Pacific Ocean.

"It's like anywhere, it really depends on where you are. If you're out in the middle of the jungle and you're close to the Colombian border, you need to be careful. The rest of the country, it's a wonderful country," he said.

Heimdal, who lives in Morton and works for a computer consulting firm, prefers not to dwell on his weeks as a hostage.

But he acknowledges his past could help as the new company he formed tries to attract investors for the nearly $500,000 salvage effort in Ecuador.

"If I had just been somebody that no one ever heard of and I wanted to do this, chances are it would have been much harder," he said. His Peoria-based RS Operations LLC has about 10 percent of the money it needs, and Heimdal hopes to collect the rest and launch the yearlong project by November.

Once the project starts, imaging equipment will be used to map the ocean floor in a 35-square-mile area about 15 miles off the coast of Ecuador. Crews will then dive about 50 feet to probe the best targets, using underwater blowers to excavate up to 20 feet of sand that could cover the ruins.

Heimdal is confident the search will yield wreckage from Spanish ships that traveled the South American coast hundreds of years ago with loads of gold, silver and other riches. Coins and other artifacts that have washed ashore are signs that more may lie beyond, he said.

"I have no doubt. The question is how much," Heimdal said.

Shipwreck salvage is a growing industry worldwide, said Laura Barton of Odyssey Marine, a Florida-based company that specializes in deep-sea projects.

High-profile projects like the 1985 discovery of the Titanic heightened interest in underwater treasure hunts, and technological advances like underwater robots have helped searchers reach deeper parts of the ocean, she said.

"As these projects get more press and publicity, more and more people are going to say, 'Wow, there's money down there," Barton said.

But salvage is also a risk business, Heimdal said. Projects could turn up nothing, or have staggering returns. A Civil War-era shipwreck discovered by Odyssey Marine off the Georgia coast last year has already yielded more than 50,000 gold and silver coins and is estimated to be worth more than $120 million.

Roy Heimdal thinks his son will be among the treasure hunters who cash in, using the same perseverance that got him through his hostage ordeal.

"He basically has a dogmatic determination to do this," he said. "It's kind of been a lifetime dream of his. He's just never given up the idea."


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