Islamic State hostage Kayla Mueller: Parents kept excruciating secret

Kayla Mueller's parents still hold out hope that she's alive

Little by little, family by family, word began filtering out in this small town nestled against the craggy foothills north of Phoenix.

It began in 2013 as an iron-clad secret tightly held by the parents of an American aid volunteer in Syria: Their daughter was missing. For months, they said nothing.

But in August, Islamic State militants posted a video online of their beheading of American journalist James Foley. Other gruesome slayings followed. The worried family began revealing the basics to a small coterie of friends who have also lived in Prescott for generations.

The efforts to contain that secret were extraordinary, the family said in a statement Friday, including begging journalists from around around the world to keep her name out of reports and refrain from even mentioning that an American woman was being held hostage by Islamic State.

On Friday, however, the name Kayla Mueller reverberated across the airwaves and Internet, disclosed by the group holding her captive. Mueller, they said, was dead, killed in an air attack against them in Syria by coalition forces.

"Almost another kind of violence, to release the name they said they wanted kept out of the media," said optometrist Thomas Geiler, a friend of the family.

Mueller, 26, whose parents still hold out hope that she's alive, has a history of volunteering to help women and children, having worked for aid groups in Arizona before setting out for other countries, including India and Turkey.

In August 2013, she was abducted in the Syrian city of Aleppo as she left a hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders. A purported statement from Islamic State militants said Friday that a Jordanian airstrike had killed Mueller, who was being held in Raqqa, a militant stronghold in northern Syria.

"She would tell us where she was going, and we'd say, 'What?'" Geiler recalled. "I asked her, 'Couldn't you go look at [endangered] butterflies in Colorado?' But that's not who she is."

Mueller's abduction had consequences at home. It was one of the main reasons her father sold his auto parts business, Geiler said, so he could concentrate on his missing daughter. In the meantime, her parents have relied on their Christian faith, he said.

The Turkish aid group with whom she once worked, Support to Life, did not provide details about Mueller in a statement issued Friday other than to convey their condolences and hope the report of her death was untrue.

"Our feelings go out to her family and friends in this difficult time," Support to Life said.

Mueller's parents, Carl and Marsha, said they remained hopeful that she was still alive and appealed to her captors to contact them privately. As they waited, they reflected on their daughter's dreams.

"The common thread of Kayla's life has been her quiet leadership and strong desire to serve others," a family statement said.

The Muellers live in a home accessible by only one road in an area north of Prescott called Williamson Valley. On Friday, it was jammed with Yavapai County sheriff's deputies minding barricades and blocking the entrance to their street.

The region is verdant and pastoral, with large lots where cattle graze on tall grass. It is also no stranger to tragedy: Two years ago, 19 men with an elite firefighting crew were killed in a massive wildfire in nearby Yarnell. Their names and faces are on posters still visible in Prescott's downtown.

Many in town were still learning of the reports of Kayla Mueller's death Friday night and Saturday morning, including Richard Eason, one of the so-called ambassadors of the city's Old West-style downtown.

"Sad deal," he said, eyeing the news trucks parked near the county courthouse. "Hopefully you all come back sometime when the news isn't so bad."

As a high school student at Tri-City College Prep in Prescott, Mueller received awards for her volunteer efforts with groups such as AmeriCorps, America's Promise and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

She told the hometown newspaper, the Daily Courier, in 2007 that she was interested in world affairs and wanted to work with people in the strife-torn Darfur region of Sudan.

After attending Northern Arizona University, she lived and worked with aid groups in northern India, Israel and the Palestinian territories. She returned to Arizona in 2011, where she worked at an HIV/AIDS clinic and volunteered at a women's shelter. Late that year, she moved to southeastern France and worked as an au pair while learning French in preparation for a planned move to Africa.

But the plight of families fleeing the violence in war-torn Syria drew her to Turkey in December 2012. She worked with the aid groups Support to Life and the Danish Refugee Council, assisting women and children who crossed into Turkey as refugees. She also made some trips into Syria to help reconnect family members separated by the fighting.

Citing the deaths of the Granite Mountain Hotshots in Yarnell, Geiler said Prescott had endured tragedy before.

"But no one who looks in the mirror tomorrow will be the same person they were yesterday," he said. "Not after this."

Times staff writer Duara reported from Prescott and Zavis from Los Angeles.

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