Uneasy rider - Former Hell's Angel meets Colombian rebels

Thursday, December 13, 2001

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Former Hell's Angel Glenn Heggstad, a self-styled "outlaw on the edge," was looking for danger on a solo motorcycle trip through Latin America.

He says he found plenty of it in Colombia, where leftist guerrillas took him hostage and gave him the scare of his life. Days after being freed in the mountains, the 49-year-old judo instructor from Palm Springs, Calif., is holed up in a Bogota hotel -- planning the next leg of his journey while trying to come to grips with the last.

During five weeks as a captive of the National Liberation Army, rebels aimed guns at his head, led him on grueling marches and gave him so little food that he lost nearly 50 pounds, Heggstad said.

Colombia's military announced Heggstad's release Sunday and officials at the U.S. Embassy confirmed he had been held by the leftist National Liberation Army, the country's second-largest rebel group.

As he spoke to a journalist on Tuesday, Heggstad -- wearing leather hiking boots, gray cargo pants and a long-sleeve T-shirt with the phrase "Guilty" on the front -- trembled, broke down in tears and then hid his face in his hands.

"I wasn't like this before," he said. He blames the rebels.

Long road trip

Heggstad set out Oct. 1 on a planned 20,000-mile trip from southern California to the tip of South America and back, riding his Kawasaki 650 through Mexico and Central America.

On Nov. 2, he flew to Bogota from Panama and had his bike air freighted in. He set out four days later from Bogota on a road heading northwest to Medellin, Colombia's second-largest city.

Six hours into the trip, he says, guerrillas wearing ski masks and wielding AK-47 rifles blocked his path, seized his motorcycle and motioned for him to accompany them into the mountains.

Heggstad says that during his captivity, he befriended some rebels -- mostly teen-age boys and girls -- debated politics with them, taught them judo flips and Thai boxing moves, and even hugged some goodbye when he was finally turned over to the Red Cross on Saturday.

But he also described terrifying experiences. One surly rebel would periodically lead him into the woods and click the safety off his gun, Heggstad said, leading him to fear he was going to be killed.

Why Heggstad was freed is unclear. He says no ransom was paid. The rebels, who are seeking international support for peace talks with the government, may have released him as a political gesture to strengthen their case.

After Heggstad was freed, FBI agents flew to Medellin and returned him to Bogota, where he was issued a new U.S. passport.

He plans to continue his journey, and is e-mailing friends for money and help getting a new motorcycle. He hopes to buy his Kawasaki back from the rebels for $2,000.

Heggstad insists he's not humbled by his experience.

"I'd told my friends when I set out that there was a 50-50 chance I wouldn't be coming back," he said. "What doesn't kill you, only makes you stronger."

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