Somerset church group hijacked on mission trip
Despite being kidnapped, robbed and left for dead in the forests of Guatemala, the short-term mission group from Riverside Church in Somerset said they feel blessed.
"We are just grateful to be alive," said Rev. Bill Hieb, leader of the mission trip and pastor at Riverside Church.
The mission trip was supposed to run Jan. 23- Feb. 4, but it was derailed on the first night, while the group was driving to the place they planned to stay that night.
The group was about 25 minutes away from their destination on a dark highway when a pickup truck containing several men with guns drove up.
"They just pushed us off the road," Hieb said. "They were screaming and shouting and there were at least three bullet rounds that were fired, likely over the top of our vehicle. We did see the gun flashes and the sound was extremely loud."
Within moments, the attackers were in the vehicle.
Hieb, who was in the van's front passenger seat, said one man put a gun into his ribs, while another pushed the driver into the back seat and took over the vehicle. Hieb said the occupants of the back seats were also held at gunpoint.
The men drove the van into the woods. Hieb said he was told to close his eyes, but other group members said they were not.
When the van stopped, Hieb said he was pulled out of the vehicle, lined up against the van and his pockets were emptied.
Hieb's hands were tied with his own shoelaces. His captors walked him behind the van and made him kneel.
"I thought, frankly, that that was an execution about to take place," Hieb said.
Instead, he was pushed face down into the grass and his legs were tied at the ankles.
One-by-one, the other group members were subsequently robbed, tied and laid on the ground, faces down.
Hieb said the group lay there, tied up for around two hours while their captors ransacked the vehicle, their suitcases and their belongings. Hieb said this included medicine brought for the mission trip, toys for children, iPads, smart phones, cameras, laptops, watches, rings, money and jewelry.
Then the kidnappers issued a warning and left.
"They told us to lay there another three hours or they would hurt us," Hieb said. "They said they would come back and kill us."
After about 20 minutes, Grant Lind, one of the group members, managed to free himself.
"His wrists were so big and strong that they tied his thumbs together," Hieb said.
Once Lind helped the others free themselves, Hieb said the first thing the group did was pray and sing.
"It was very dark and we only had one mini flashlight, I think," Hieb said, "but we gathered in prayer in a circle and held hands and prayed thanking God for our lives."
After prayer and song, Hieb said, the group called for help and was rescued by the Guatemalan police.
The robbery left the group with just one cell phone, which had been in Romero's top pocket.
"Fortunately, it didn't ring," Heib said, "because that's the phone we used to call for help."
Hieb said the experience was beyond traumatizing, but while shaken, most of the group members said they are simply glad to be alive.
"I had such a peace during the whole entire event," said group member Grant Lind. "I think the thing that is more important through all of this for me is to truly understand that God is in control and that by me submitting to Him, He is able to care for me, even in the worst situation."
The trip was Sheryl Dzieweczynski's first mission trip.
"I wasn't expecting it to be easy, but I didn't expect it to be so horrific and violating," Dziewczynski said. "Yet at the same time, it was very beautiful ... because of just the love of God protecting us."
While a handful of people, including Hieb and Lind, opted to stay in Guatemala a few more days for a conference, the rest of the group returned home immediately and most of the trip was cancelled.
Hieb said the group is working with the Guatemalan State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala and the U.S. State Department to seek justice, although he said the group harbors no ill will toward Guatamala or its people.
Hieb said Riverside Church has learned from the experience. The group was, he said, naïve to travel at night with so many valuables.
According to the U.S. State Department's travel website, travel.state.gov, Guatemala is a high-risk area for kidnappings and armed robberies.
The state department recommends traveling with a reputable tour organization, staying in groups, traveling with two or more vehicles and not traveling between cities after dark.
Hieb said Riverside Church is developing new training for future trips, in order to keep their mission groups safe.
"There's a lot of good that's going to come out of this," Hieb said. "There's a Bible verse 'All things work together for good for those who are called according to His will."