I asked Gus whether I could accompany him on a job, and he agreed. A ride-along was ethically fraught—I would be witnessing an act that could be against the laws of the country where the child was being held. Still, I felt there would be journalistic value in observing one of the missions Gus called “snatchbacks.” And at a deeper level, I wasn’t sure what I thought about Gus’s work. If I were a parent and my child had been taken from me, wouldn’t I feel justified in seeking out someone like Gus?
In November of 2007, Gus called to tell me that a California businessman, Hal Berger, had hired him. Hal’s four-year-old son, Liam had disappeared, and he suspected the boy had been abducted to South Africa by his estranged wife, Linda—for the second time in three years. After the first abduction, Hal had won a Hague application, ordering Liam’s return to the United States. Gus invited me to jump on a plane and meet him in Johannesburg.
When I arrived in South Africa, a newspaper confirmed Hal’s hunch: Linda had turned up at a court in Pretoria. She claimed that Hal had made death threats against her. In addition to Gus, Hal had hired an investigator in Johannesburg who said that she and Liam traveled everywhere with armed bodyguards. On Hal’s previous trip to South Africa, he’d been jailed on what he said were trumped-up charges, so he was afraid to enter the country again. He flew to Windhoek, Namibia, to be nearby.
Gus and I made two trips to southern Africa. On the second trip, Hal was indeed arrested and jailed when he drove from Namibia into South Africa. I started to take more seriously Gus’s insistence that I get a bulletproof vest in case a snatchback was required. I was relieved that the situation was resolved peacefully when the South African courts ruled in Hal’s favor during one of his court-ordered visits with Liam.
But I had yet to witness a snatchback, and Gus’s business ebbed in 2008. I kept in close touch with him as he talked through possibilities in India, Spain, and Brazil that didn’t pan out. In September, however, Gus started talking about a case in Costa Rica involving a lawyer in Florida—Todd Hopson—who wanted to recover the boy he’d raised, Andres, from Andres’s biological father. Gus was headed to San Jose to do reconnaissance and meet Andres’s mother, Helen Zapata. When next we spoke, he was furious, blaming Helen for backing out on their plan—even though he hadn’t initially intended to snatch the boy during the trip.
Gus didn’t waste much breath grumbling about Costa Rica, however. Business seemed to be picking up, and he was eager to update me on some possible jobs in Tunisia and India—“My Indian clients are always business, business, business and ready, ready, ready.” By January of 2009, however, Costa Rica was back on the agenda. Gus was also planning to travel to Japan to help an American father recover his 10-year-old daughter. I spoke to Todd, the client involved in the Costa Rican case, and debated which trip to take. From my conversations with Gus, I suspected that the girl he’d been hired to recover in Japan might balk; sure enough, Gus later told me she’d “screamed bloody murder.”