College student, ex-Marine among hostages in Iraq

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 13, 2008 

WASHINGTON — The mother of an American hostage whose finger was among five recently delivered to U.S. officials in Iraq said she only learned in January that her son had been taken captive nearly a year earlier. Barbara Alexander, of Roaring Springs, Texas, said that she first learned her son, Ronald J. Withrow, from whom she was estranged, was missing on Jan. 2 this year when an FBI agent contacted her.

She learned about the finger about a week later, she said.

Withrow, a computer specialist who worked for JPI Worldwide, a Las Vegas based firm that provides computer services in conflict zones, was kidnapped at a phony checkpoint near the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Jan. 5, 2007, according to news reports. The bodies of his Iraqi translator and driver were discovered the next day.

The four other fingers were identified as belonging to security contractors _ three Americans and an Austrian _ who were kidnapped in a brazen ambush of their 43-truck supply convoy on Nov. 16, 2006.

They are Jonathon Cote, 25, of Gainesville, Fla.; Joshua Munns, 25, of Redding, Calif.; Paul Johnson Reuben, of Buffalo, Minn., and Bert Nussbaumer of Vienna, Austria.

There has been no claim of responsibility for the abductions. Family members of the missing men said they hoped that the delivery of the fingers meant their relatives were still alive.

Alexander said she spent Wednesday, her son's 40th birthday, writing her thoughts in a notebook for him.

"I've got to do things like this to save some shred of hope," she said. "The good Lord's looking out for him, I really believe that. I know he's going to be fine."

Jonathon Cote's father, Francis Cote, who lives near Buffalo, N.Y., said he received a call Wednesday morning from Crescent Security, the company his son worked for, after word of the severed fingers was first reported by an Austrian news magazine. ''I'm thinking that he's still alive and obviously missing a finger, but doing well,'' Francis Cote said. Cote said the State Department told him they couldn't confirm any information and that the FBI would contact him. As of Wednesday evening, Francis Cote said that had not happened.

After graduating from high school in New York, Jonathon Cote joined the U.S. Army, where he served four years.

He was in Afghanistan and Fallujah, his father said, and while there he realized there were lucrative jobs doing private security. But he was unsuccessful finding a job and decided to go to college instead. He chose the University of Florida.

''He wanted to be in the sunny weather,'' Cote said. "He had been tired of living in the desert with the Army. He wanted to live life a little bit.''

That his mother, Lori Silveri, lives in Florida also helped.

He spent a year at Florida, starting a major in accounting and then moving to a course of study in the area of physical training. He joined Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and made close friends.

''Jon was always the life of the party — people loved him,'' said David Hankins, one of his pledge brothers. ``When we were pledging, we got all the crap, but he got along really well with the older brothers.''

But Cote wanted to get back in the line of fire — and he wanted to make some money. He took a job with the Kuwait-based Crescent Security.

Mark Munns, Joshua Munns’ father, said he hadn’t been told specifically that his son’s finger had been delivered to U.S. authorities until Wednesday.

"We had heard a couple weeks ago that they may have come across some DNA over there somewhere,” he said. “They really haven’t told us exactly what it’s from, what it is about, so basically we’re kept in the dark."

He said they've remained mostly quiet about their missing son out of fear. "We don’t know what they want. There’s been no ransom (demand). We’re afraid to come out and say something that will pull a trigger," he said.

Munns' parents say they are confident their son is alive.

"Moms have connections to their kids, and I just don't believe that he's not alive," said Munns' mother, Jackie Stewart, who lives in Ridgefield, Wash.

"We'll never give up on these kids," added Mark Munns, who lives in Redding. "They're too smart, they're too tough and they're good kids."

On the day of the attack, Munns was a gunman in a lookout vehicle escorting a convoy of 37 trailers across the Iraq desert, according to an account written by a former Crescent Security employee who escaped the kidnapping. Jackie Stewart said Crescent Security provided the account, written by former Crescent guard Andy Foord, to one hostage's family.

The convoy happened upon what they thought was a police checkpoint, Foord wrote. It turned out to be an ambush.

Militia members dressed as police and toting AK-47s dragged the Crescent employees from their SUV. They handcuffed the men, pushed their faces into the dirt and screamed, "You are going to die, (expletive)."

The witness narrowly escaped when there was no room in the getaway trucks.

The men were whisked away in pickups and not heard from until a video was delivered to news organizations a month later. In that and another video, the men deliver scripted pleas to remove American troops from Iraq.

Stewart said she watched the video only a couple of times. To the average viewer, Munns appears deadpan and gaunt. To his mother he appears angry, she said.

"At this point, I'm concerned about his mental state, what he's been through," Stewart said.

Joshua Munns grew up in the small town of Anderson, near Redding, playing baseball and growing to a lanky 6 feet, 4 inches tall.

His mother said he exuded a kind of calm that attracted children and animals. He was engaged to a high school sweetheart who rescues dachshunds.

She said after her son shed his braces he stood out as a beaming, happy-go-lucky guy.

When he returned from his tour as a Marine Corps sniper in Iraq in 2005, though, Josh Munns spoke little about the experience.

"I noticed the smile was gone for a long time," she said.

Home from Iraq, Munns installed pools and lived with his fiancée in Redding. He was getting ready to enter a police academy in Nevada but went to work for Crescent Security in Iraq to earn just enough for a down payment on a home, Mark Munns said.

Since the kidnapping, the hostages' families have met to share information and participate in weekly briefings by the State Department.

"For 18 months, we've heard the same thing: 'There's nothing new,' " Munns said. "It's almost like it's not worth the dime to call."

A twist in the case emerged when the Crescent Security report was released. Eyewitness Foord wrote that he recognized one of the militia members as a former Iraqi Crescent employee and surmised the group had been set up.

Still, Munns said he remains hopeful.

"I can tell you my son is smart. He’s a damn good Marine” Munns said. “He’s a good all-around kid. He’s a kid you’d hate to see leave this earth because he has a lot to offer."

(This report was compiled from reporting by Christina Jewett of the Sacramento Bee, Jennifer Lebovich and Dominick Tao of The Miami Herald, and Mark Agee of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)

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