By Patrick Rogers
October 07, 1996 12:00 PM

JOHN HEIDEMA, HIS BODY GAUNT and feverish, lay in a wooden shack deep in an Ecuadoran rain forest. After 38 days in the hands of bandits who demanded $5 million for his release, the New Jersey bird-watcher had begun to despair of ever returning home. In the distance, a wailing baby stirred Heidema from a fitful sleep in the predawn darkness. Then heavy bootsteps crashed up the stairway, and a blast of automatic gunfire was followed by the sound of bodies falling. The door flew open, and in strode an Ecuadoran policeman. “He came at me in a friendly sort of way,” recalls Heidema, 54. “I hugged the guy, and he patted me on the back.” With that, John Heidema, tourist, was free.

Now at home in Little Silver, N.J., Heidema, a computer scientist, is gradually recovering from an ordeal that began in late July as a vacation present for a nature-loving daughter just out of high school and ended only when Ecuador’s antiterrorist police killed four of the petty criminals who had taken him hostage. He has regained some of the 18 pounds he lost in captivity, and he says, almost with surprise, “I can walk and run again.” Adds his wife, Karen Karl, 45: “We’ll never be who we were before. I’m just grateful he’s alive.”

Since his childhood in Grand Rapids, Heidema, the son of a tool-and-die maker, has lived a mostly drama-free life. A chemistry professor who later turned to computer science as a profession, he learned early on to love the pleasures of long, solitary treks. He once bicycled 1,300 miles around Lake Michigan and, just three years ago, pedaled from his home near the Jersey shore to Washington, sleeping in fields along the way. But his first love has always been birding, a passion he passed down to his daughter Sarah, 18, who graduated this year from Red Bank Regional High School. (Heidema’s younger daughter Maggie, 16, is a high school junior.) To celebrate Sarah’s milestone, Heidema booked two tickets for a 13-day tour of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands and a mainland rain forest. At first their trip was all they expected: in the remote Galapagos, they spotted graceful seals, tortoises and dozens of exotic birds.

But after returning to the mainland, on the morning of July 29, the Heidemas, along with seven other tourists and two guides, were overtaken by three gunmen on a remote trail in the Cuyabeno Forest. The thugs confiscated the tourists’ valuables and chose two hostages, Sarah and a tour guide, saying they would be released when their families paid a ransom of $5 million. Panicked, Sarah “threw a little asthma fit,” she says. Communicating through an interpreter, Heidema persuaded the bandits to take him instead. “Don’t go!” Sarah cried. Yet she knew he would. “That’s the kind of man he is,” she explains, “very responsible.”

That, and exceptionally brave. Heidema remained stoically silent as the bandits forced him and his fellow hostage into the jungle during a driving rainstorm. “For the first two days, we never saw another trail,” says Heidema. “We were even afraid to talk.” On the second night, one of their captors entered their makeshift camp toting dinner—a freshly killed monkey. Heidema found the animal “so humanlike, it was unnerving,” but once the meat was cooked, he concedes, it “tasted pretty good—like venison.”

Despite insect bites and painful blisters on his feet, Heidema gradually adjusted to his harsh surroundings. Without his glasses, which he lost crossing a muddy river, he relied on a strong sense of direction and his memory of local maps to guide him—and, at times, his captors—as they criss-crossed the forest. “As survivalists, these men were excellent, but I think I knew my way around better than they did,” he says. Even so, he grew depressed, especially after the guide talked the bandits into releasing him on Aug. 4. Eight days later, Heidema fled into the jungle as his captors slept, but he was quickly recaptured.

Meanwhile, Ecuadoran police traced Heidema to the northeastern town of Lago Agrio, then set out into the rain forest. Karen was waiting for word in a Quito, Ecuador, hotel room on the morning police burst into the jungle shack and shot and killed Heidema’s captors (two Ecuadorans and two Colombians). “At first the death of those guys bothered me—for about five minutes,” says Heidema.

Heidema had read before his trip that Ecuador is one of South America’s safest countries. Now he offers a warning for other adventurous birders. “I find [the Ecuadoran jungle] a beautiful place,” he says, “but I wouldn’t go there without four police front and back and a bulletproof vest.”


RON ARIAS in Little Silver