The search would lead to war-torn Guatemala

Nick Blake thrived on adventure with a dash of danger. So when the 27-year-old freelance journalist from Philadelphia vanished in 1985 while trying to contact leftist guerrillas in Guatemala, his mother assumed he would soon reappear. But Nick's younger brothers, Sam and Randy, knew of the dangers there and thought otherwise. They launched what became an arduous seven-year, $70,000 quest for Nick and his partner, photographer Griffen "Griff" Davis, 38, of Scranton, Pa. Traveling to Central America 20 times, Sam, now 30, and Randy, 32, enlisted the help of numerous friends, some in high places. Among them was President Bush's daughter, Dorothy, who had befriended the Blakes during their mutual summer vacations near Kennebunkport, Me. The Blake brothers questioned U.S. and local officials, tracked down guerrilla leaders and trekked or helicoptered into remote valleys in Guatemala, a country still plagued by a violent 30-year-old civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives. Finally, last June, their efforts paid off with the discovery of the tragic truth. Recently, Sam and Randy Blake told their story to senior writer Ron Arias.

SAM: IT BEGAN ON APRIL 12, 1985, when a woman from the U.S. State Department called my mother and in a cold, bureaucratic way said, "Your son is reported missing in Guatemala." My parents made inquiries at the American Embassy there, where Nick's friends had notified officials—but my mother [Mary] seemed to think Nick was probably OK, since he'd been with guerrillas before in El Salvador. Randy and I weren't so optimistic. Even though I was still in my last semester at Tufts University, near Boston, and Randy had just started a public relations job in New York City, we immediately took control of finding him. For the first six months, I covered the home front—getting political and diplomatic people to help us—and Randy and my mom went to Guatemala to make sure the U.S. Embassy and local authorities investigated. My dad [Richard, a retired banker] later made a few trips, but he's more laidback and left the search up to us.

Randy: The first day we met our ambassador and his staff, and the thought Nick was alive and with the guerrillas. The next day we drove in three cars with machine-toting guards for four hours up into the lush, volcanic valleys of the country's western mountains. Eventually we were briefed by a hostile Guatemalan Army colonel near the region where Nick and Griff were last seen. It wasn't a pleasant visit for my mom. At one point the colonel called Nick a subversive and had her in tears. He calmed down, though, and told us that army patrols were out looking for the two Americans. We also found out that Nick and Griff had hoped to run into guerrillas for a story on the overall war and that the two were last seen walking on a trail out of the village of El Llano. They'd been warned by authorities that certain areas were dangerous and off limits. But knowing Nick's stubborn streak, I'm sure he thought no one was going to stop him.

Sam: He was a natural rebel, something that probably grew out of the battles he had with my parents after my dad's banking job took him to Philadelphia and we had to move from Princeton, N.J. Nick was 13 at the time, and he didn't want to leave his friends. Randy and I started seeing Nick as our leader, maybe because we were younger and our father was a bit distant. Nick could be incredibly domineering—we had our fights—but he could also be a damn good friend, like when he stood up for me against childhood bullies. Later, after he had gone off to college [University of Vermont, for a B.A. in history], he became sort of the pied piper of young people at our summer home in Maine. I remember one year there was this bar in Kennebunkport called the Unicorn and the Lion, and it had this thing called the line dance. Nick was working as a bartender, and he would get everyone out on the floor, leading all us preppies in his white sailor pants and a cheap open shirt. Because of his ruddy face, biker sideburns and cynical sense of humor, he came off like a Key West character in a Hemingway novel. In fact, Hemingway was his hero, his model for a writer's life of action. So I can see Nick being cantankerous and defiant when he was in Guatemala. It may have been what got him in trouble.

Randy: After he graduated from college in 1979, he bummed around for a few years, tending bar in Telluride, Colo., working on an exploratory drilling rig for uranium in Wyoming and reporting for a small daily in New Hampshire. He had a few romances, but he wasn't about to marry and settle down. Then, in the early '80s, with so many journalists going down to cover the wars in Central America, he headed south too. After studying Spanish at a Guatemalan school for four or five months, he started traveling and writing his freelance pieces ("Hitchhiker's Guide to Central America," for Harper's, or on Nicaraguan refugees for a wire service). He raved about the beauty of the place, but Guatemala's poverty and the ravages of the war against the guerrillas—whole villages destroyed by the military—also affected him. In 1984 he even wrote a first draft of a novel that's almost prophetic. It's about an American journalist named Seeker who is killed by guerrillas.

Sam: After Randy and my mom went down in April 1985, there were many more trips to push the search with the embassy and the Guatemalan military. I talked to Billy and Doro Bush LaBlond [now Dorothy Koch], who were close friends of ours from our Maine summers, and Doro called her father—then the Vice President—to see in he could raise some interest in our case. Later we heard that Bush called the embassy as well as the country's military head of state at the time.

We'd been told by various people that Nick was either with the guerrillas or had been killed by them. So we met with a guerrilla leader in Mexico City who swore they had nothing to do with Nick's disappearance. Later, even Senator [Edward] Kennedy wrote a letter on our behalf which was sent through the Cuban government to the head of the Guatemalan guerrillas, who denied any responsibility in the matter. We also ran into a lot of dead ends and heard many rumors and unverified stories. But we never let up. We weren't expecting to find Nick alive—only my mom believed that—but we were determined to uncover his fate, find his remains and expose his killers.

From 1986 to 1991 we kept up our shuttle trips to Guatemala. By then we had heard enough stories from reliable sources to start believing it was the Civil Patrol, a local militia group backed by the military in the fight against the guerrillas, that might have been involved in killing Nick and Griff.

Randy: In pushing the military we tried to be careful because we knew they had no real interest in solving the case. Eventually our patience was rewarded when we found out through a village schoolteacher that the Civil Patrol was indeed responsible for the crime. He'd been told five or six Civil Patrolers marched two gringos about a mile out of El Llano. Then the leader said, "All right, let's kill them." One man was shot and died immediately. Then the one who fit Nick's description, and seemed to be pretending to call for help on his short-wave radio, was winged, probably in the shoulder. The third shot killed him.

After three anxious visits to Guatemala and $2,000 paid to a Civil Patrol informant—who said he could get us the remains—we came away with two small boxes containing a lot of dirt and some of the remains of two young males. Griff could be identified from these, but not Nick.

So last June we headed back to El Llano. The last day turned out to be something out of a movie. We had only a few hours to get to that site, dig and get out before the afternoon rains socked us in; also, we were worried the killers might want to stop us. So we took off on a beautiful morning with a cooperative Guatemalan Army colonel, some machine-gun protection and two forensic scientists in three rented helicopters. We went roaring over green mountain ridges—some of them 10,000 feet high—cutting through notches and swooping down into valleys.

Sam: We'd already been on some fruitless, exhausting hikes in the area, but this time, once we were led to a fire-blackened patch in the side of an embankment, everything seemed to click. We were super-serious. Some of us dug, some sifted, some took pictures, and a chopper pilot kept telling us to hurry, counting down the minutes. When we pulled out a dozen metal tent stakes—they were Nick's from his camping gear—that's when his presence started to hit me. It was the same with his eyeglasses—a blob of glass attached to a wire frame.

But I kept thinking, "We've waited seven years for this moment—why aren't we crying?" It was only later, after we'd finished sifting the pieces of bones from the dirt, that I cried. I had been clutching the bag with Nick's teeth, protecting them because they were probably the only way we had to identify him. As we choppered out before the rains hit, I felt elated, triumphant but also sad. We had gotten our brother back—and lab tests later on proved the remains were Nick's—but how about all the other thousands of families who've lost loved ones to military repression? Most of them are Indian peasants who don't have the money or influence to do what we've done.

Randy: The case isn't over. We're convinced that Nick's murder was covered up, if not sanctioned or ordered, by local army commanders. Our embassy was helpful in the investigation, but now we intend to take the case to an international court and file charges against those responsible. We know Nick was overconfident and may have quarreled with the Civil Patrol. But, my God, they didn't have to kill him for that.

by Sam and Randy Blake as told to Ron Arias

  • Contributors:
  • Ron Arias.