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Our Laguna: Laguna family hopeful for relative’s release

Words spoken by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday in New York brought a measure of comfort to the family of Sarah Shourd, one of the three young Americans detained in Iran.

“We are feeling hopeful after Ahmadinejad’s speech last night,” Susy Sandys said Wednesday. “His exact words were that he would seek maximum leniency for the three American hikers who strayed across the Iranian border.”

Sandys’ husband, Dr. Michael Sandys, is the brother of Shourd’s mother, Nora.

The Sandyses are a well-known family in Laguna. Michael Sandys, who is head of Family Practice at Kaiser Permanente in Irvine, served on the SchoolPower Board for two terms. Susy Sandys worked for the group for four years.

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They still live in the Woods Cove home they bought when they moved here 21 years ago. Their son Patrick was 5. His younger brother, Hugh, was 3. Both graduated from Laguna Beach High School.

Patrick Sandys’ gut feeling is that Shourd will be released unharmed.

“My cousin has such a way of meeting people at their own level,” he said. “I keep telling my aunt that Sarah probably knows the names of all her guards and the names of their children.”

Shourd was raised mostly in Southern California, her cousin said.

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“She hasn’t been around for a couple of years, traveling around, but she used to spend a lot of time in Laguna — most Christmases that I remember,” he said.

Ahmadinejad’s remarks were the first positive words the families of Shourd, 31, Shane Bauer, 27, and Joshua Fattal had of their loved ones since the UC Berkeley graduates were detained for allegedly stepping across the Iranian border without a visa July 31.

Bauer is a freelance reporter and photographer who earned his degree in peace and conflict studies. Fattal graduated in 2004 with a degree in environmental economics and policy. He was visiting Bauer and Shourd and joined them for hiking vacation in Kurdistan.

“Sarah and Shane are a couple,” said Susy Sandys, who met Shane at Shourd’s graduation from Berkeley with a degree in English in 2003. “They moved to Damascus a year ago. She was teaching English to Syrian students and learning Arabic.”

The families of the three hikers issued a statement following Ahmadinejad’s televised interview: “We are greatly encouraged that President Ahmadinejad has said that he will ask the Iranian judiciary to treat the case of our children with maximum leniency.

His expression of compassion raises our hopes that the day they return to us will not be far off. Shane, Sarah and Josh were hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan when they were detained and accused of illegal entry. If they strayed across the border into Iran, it can only have been by accident, and it is obviously a matter we regret. Our immediate concern now is to know that our children are well. We hope the Iranian authorities will allow our children to speak to us without delay and grant them their right to consular access.”

Shourd was practically born hiking, according to Susy Sandys.

“Love of the outdoors is a family trait,” she said.

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The mothers of the three hikers had hoped for more than words from Ahmadinejad when he arrived in America.

“They wrote an open letter to him asking him to bring the kids with him when he came to New York to visit the United Nations,” Susy Sandys said.

Ahmadinejad’s response to the letter sent late last week was less encouraging than his statement Tuesday. He said that he sympathized with the families Sept. 17, but the hikers needed to be punished.

Cold comfort perhaps, but until then, the families did not even know if their loved ones were still alive.

“The only way we even knew they had been detained was that one of their friends stayed behind,” Susy Sandys said. “Shon McFessel had a bad cold, and he said ‘I’ll meet you at the waterfall.’ The next thing he knew he got a call from Shane saying we are surrounded, contact the U.S. Embassy.”

Then silence for 51 days. It is every parent’s worst nightmare, not knowing where your children are or what is happening to them, unable to do anything about it.

“There is no American consulate or Embassy in Iran, so the families have been working through the Swiss, who have had no success,” Susy Sandys said. “It has been frustrating and very, very scary.”

She is especially concerned that Sarah has been separated from her companions because she is a woman — and a beautiful one — but was relieved to learn about a female detainee, released several months ago, who said she was not ill treated.

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The families of the hikers originally kept a low profile, but have recently ramped up efforts to engage the public.

Press conferences have been held and Patrick Sandys plans to fly this weekend to New York for another round of national network interviews.

“With my legal background, this has been a fascinating experience on an academic level,” said Patrick Sandys, who is interning with the Orange County district attorney’s office while awaiting the results of the California Bar Examination.

“On a personal level, being used to rigid due process under two Constitutions — California’s and the United States’ — and not having that kind of document to work with is difficult.

“But my father and I have an innate level of belief that [most] people aren’t evil.”

If the detained trio is not freed by Wednesday, the Sandyses will hold a vigil at 7 p.m. at Main Beach.

“We encourage as many people as possible to join us,” Susy Sandys said.

Other vigils will be held the same day around the country where the families of Bauer and Fattal live and at Sproul Plaza in Berkeley.

Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, where one of the detainees family lives, is sponsoring a resolution calling for the release of the hikers.

Free the Hikers T-shirts are being sold to fund legal representation in Iran if needed. If not needed, contributions will be donated to charity.

The website www.freethehikers.org has been created to let people get to know a little bit about the detained trio and their situation:

“They care about the world and respect different cultures and religions and share a love of travel that has taken them to many countries. That is why they went to Kurdistan, not because they wanted to enter Iran.

“We hope the Iranian authorities understand that if our children and friends did happen to enter Iran, there can be only one reason: because they made a mistake and got lost. Please let them return home as soon as possible.”

From the website to God’s eyes, please.


OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Write to Barbara Diamond, P.O. Box 248, Laguna Beach, 92652; call (949) 380-4321 or e-mail coastlinepilot@latimes.com


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