Authorities on Saturday continued to search for an Orange County woman and her driver who were kidnapped at gunpoint by a group of men who ambushed them this week in a national park in Uganda.
Kimberly Sue Endicott, 56, an aesthetician from Costa Mesa, was traveling in a car on an evening game drive with a Ugandan guide and two other tourists in Queen Elizabeth National Park on Tuesday when four men held them at gunpoint. The other tourists, an elderly couple, escaped, but the gunmen took Endicott and the driver, said Uganda deputy police spokeswoman Polly Namaye.
The tour vehicle, which belongs to Wild Frontiers Uganda, was left parked and the kidnappers took the key, Namaye said.
Endicott, who has had an aesthetician’s license since 1998, runs a skin care business in Costa Mesa. A review from a customer posted on the business’ website highlights Endicott’s professional talent and also describes her as a “wonderful and caring person.”
Pam Lopez, who met Endicott through her work as an aesthetician, said it was her friend’s lifelong dream to go on safari in Africa to see gorillas.
“I know she was planning this trip for a while, because it’s something that she’s always wanted to do,” Lopez said. “This was always a big trip she wanted to take.”
Lopez had been following Endicott’s trip through photos her friend posted on Instagram. One image she posted showed four armed soldiers who were guarding the group.
“I’m sure she felt like she was safe,” Lopez said. “I just can’t even imagine what’s happening right now to her.”
Endicott’s family declined to comment Friday.
The kidnappers have used Endicott’s phone to demand a $500,000 ransom, which police suspect was the reason for the abduction. Authorities have said the ransom demand will not be paid.
Earlier this week, at an event unrelated to the Uganda incident, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo addressed the families of American hostages and stressed that “any payment to a terrorist or a terrorist regime gives money so that they can seize more of our people,” according to the Washington Post.
“We cannot accept that risk. You wouldn’t ask that of us,” Pompeo said. “Even a small payment to a group in, say, Africa can facilitate the killing or seizure of tens or even hundreds of others, including Americans or foreign nationals in that region.”
Ugandan police said Wednesday that they had dispatched an elite group of police officers, military personnel and wildlife authority officials to assist in the search. The park’s Ishasha Wilderness Camp area, where the ambush occurred, is a popular tourist destination close to the border with Congo. Joint security teams have cut off all exit areas on the border between Uganda and Congo to search for Endicott and the tour guide.
Police said in a statement that they “strongly believe” the kidnappers and the hostages “could still be trapped within our search area, and we are hopeful that our efforts will lead to their successful recovery.”
Uganda recorded a surge in kidnapping cases last year, prompting street protests by activists who said security agencies weren’t doing enough to protect residents. However, officials this week stressed that it is unusual for a tourist to be kidnapped in Uganda, which has a thriving tourism industry stemming from its wildlife and national parks.
The northern part of the park remains open to tourists, but the U.S. Embassy has warned Americans in the area to be careful.
Bashir Hangi, a spokesman for the Uganda Wildlife Authority, told Reuters that tourists in the park are not supposed to go on game drives without an armed ranger but that this group “went out on their own without a guard.”
“From their camp in the park, they just got into a vehicle and went out,” he said. “They should have notified us and informed us that they’re going out for a game drive, and then we would have availed them a guard, but they didn’t do this.”