Notes from underground: days of fear

August 19, 1993|By Francis X. Clines | Francis X. Clines,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Lean, grizzled and grateful for life, Harvey Weinstein described yesterday his frightening passage from kidnapping crypt to freedom regained, lingering over a despairing plea that his kidnappers at least leave his dead body to be claimed by loved ones.

"I begged, I pleaded with my captors to take me out and shoot me and leave me on the road where my family would have to find my body and I could be buried properly next to my parents," the 68-year-old ransom victim declared in a low, shaky tone at a news conference that ranged from the joyous to the macabre as he recounted his 12 days underground.

Mr. Weinstein's now-celebrated fortitude was on display as he beamed happily at his family and his detective-rescuers gathered in the Police Headquarters auditorium. All laughed in delight as he relived his subterranean shouts to the U.S. attorney general, Janet Reno:

"Janet, you get more agents out there. This is not the Branch Davidians. This is Harvey!"

But the gray-haired apparel company executive also admitted to struggling with some deep bitterness toward his kidnappers at what they had done to him.

"I can't answer the question; I'm not completely in touch," he said, pausing gravely and recalling the nearness of death he sensed in being chained below and buried alive.

Part of him rules out bitterness now, he said. But another part thinks, "Oh, my God," at the evidence that his kidnappers "intended to abandon me to die in the hole."

"I knew immediately the key was my mind, not my body," the business executive said firmly of his fight to survive as he waited 6 feet underground near the roar of traffic from the Henry Hudson Parkway in northern Manhattan. His inspiration was his reading decades ago in Arthur Koestler's writings on totalitarian torture and isolation.

There were many moments of depression, he said, and not all of them were felt underground. "The most devastating, in retrospect, was driving back after being rescued," said Mr. Weinstein, who glanced repeatedly at family and police, as if to bolster his emotional reserves.

"One of the officers," he said, "told me that it was one of my people," an employee at his Queens tuxedo factory, who was arrested as the mastermind of the kidnapping. He struggled successfully to maintain composure, admitting, "That was crushing."

Within an hour of his news conference, however, an escort of four howling police cars triumphantly whisked Mr. Weinstein back to the bosom of his company, Lord West Formal Wear, in Queens. There, employees hugged him and welcomed him back with shouts of "Harvey!"

The lanky factory boss, his natty tan suit hanging loosely for the 18 pounds he lost in captivity, walked from person to person, hugging seamstresses and security guards alike.

Mr. Weinstein was ebullient as he arrived at Police Headquarters in lower Manhattan with his four adult children and a dozen other family and friends. Mayor David Dinkins greeted him. And Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly hailed him at the news conference:

"It's said that events don't make the man, they reveal him. And I think that's precisely what happened in the case of Harvey Weinstein, who showed the true grit of a true New Yorker."

The first thing Mr. Weinstein did was to walk over and regrasp the hands of the two detectives who had hauled him from his pit on Monday, Ruben Santiago and William Mondore. He smiled and hugged his rescuers, telling the audience, "You have to just understand the depth of despair when I really gave up -- almost."

"Grabbing his hand through this little aperture to get pulled from my prison is an experience that very few humans are ever given," Mr. Weinstein said, hands entwined with Detective Mondore's. "I knew I was home. I knew I was safe, and God had smiled down on me."

He described the pit as like a shaft or a sewer opening as his kidnappers forced him down inside.

Mr. Weinstein did not see his kidnappers; they covered his eyes with goggles he couldn't see through.

Eventually arrested were Fermin Rodriguez, a 38-year-old worker at the tuxedo factory; his brother, Antonio, 29; and Aurelina Leonor, 44.

"I told them they had the wrong guy," Mr. Weinstein said. "They talked about a $5 million ransom. I added my checking account, and I felt I was going to be a little bit short."

He said he would respectfully reject detectives' request to lie low while the investigation continued. "I can't permit fear to govern my life," he said. "I will walk proudly on the streets of New York."

Beaming, he thanked the city for streets to walk on.

Then he went over to Queens and hugged his tuxedo workers.

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