It was the first night of carnival. Bill and Donna Niehous, an American couple living in Caracas, Venezuela, were preparing to go to a party. They never made it. That evening, Feb. 27, 1976, would mark the beginning of a nightmare.
Donna was sitting under a hair dryer and Bill was in the upstairs bedroom when seven terrorists—two cradling machine guns—entered their house in suburban Prados del Este. The intruders bound Donna Niehous and her maid with tape. Then they gave Bill Niehous an injection and took him away. Within 45 minutes police were swarming into the area. “But it was carnival,” Donna explains, “everyone in town was in costume.” She has not seen her husband since.
Bill Niehous is one of two U.S. citizens held by guerrillas—the other is Gustavo Curtis, a food company employee, who is missing in Colombia. Bill’s 45th birthday and his 22nd wedding anniversary have come and gone. Donna, 46, feels certain he is alive—”I just know he is,” she says. But still she asks, “Why Bill?”
William F. Niehous was like hundreds of other American businessmen stationed overseas by multinational companies. He had spent his entire career with Owens-Illinois, the glassmaking firm with headquarters in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio. He joined O-l as an accountant in 1953 after graduating from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Postings followed to such capitals as Mexico City and Madrid. In 1974 he was made vice-president and general manager of O-I’s Venezuelan operation. Bill, Donna and their three sons, Mark, now 19, David, 16, and Craig, 14, moved into a house on an isolated hilltop. “It was the loveliest home we ever had,” Donna recalls. “The political situation in Venezuela was stable. Nobody worried about kidnapping.”
A leftist group claimed credit for the abduction and eventually issued demands: among them, bonuses for O-l’s Venezuelan employees and the publication of a 3,000-word manifesto attacking Bill, the company and the Venezuelan government. Owens-Illinois complied with these demands—the bonuses cost O-l $185,600—but Niehous was not freed. (A further ransom demand of $3.4 million has been made.) In March the terrorists released a photo of Bill guarded by two hooded figures. “He looked so very angry,” Donna says.
Bill was allowed to write regularly until July. His last message urged the family to return to the U.S. for the Bicentennial celebration. Donna took the boys back to Toledo. When 12 suspects were arrested in Caracas, one of whom had Donna’s identification papers taken the night of the kidnapping, she returned to Venezuela to testify in court. One of the men died in police custody, and the others are still in jail, awaiting disposition of their cases. They have revealed nothing about Bill. With money raised through donations, Donna offered a $456,000 reward but to no avail. “Bill could be held five minutes from downtown Caracas,” she admits, “and we wouldn’t know it. But how did they manage to hide him? He’s a tall American with a lousy accent.”
Donna now lives with her sons in a rented condominium in Perrysburg, Ohio. The apartment is decorated with furniture and paintings picked up abroad. Bill’s suits hang in a closet. The household byword is not “if” Bill comes home but “when.” “One day at a time,” she says. “You do what you have to do, just one day at a time.”
Owens-Illinois has continued to pay Bill’s salary and advises Donna on financial matters. She works part-time at a friend’s jewelry store and does volunteer work for the Toledo art museum to help pass the time, but she admits that fear and frustration sometimes crack her poise. “I grind my teeth so badly in my sleep I’ve made them loose,” she says, “and I cry and scream in the shower.”