By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
One of the men offered Plake a pack of the stolen cigarettes. Another cleaned his rifle, tossing empty shells into a bucket of diesel. Occasionally they would stop so the driver could replace an empty gas tank. Sometimes the boats broke down, and they'd float in silence as the men made repairs. Then it was full-throttle again until one of the drivers would inevitably ram into a log or run aground, nearly tossing everyone from the boat.
Just before dawn, the boats pulled up to a makeshift dock along the riverbank. For the first time, Plake could hear the sounds of the jungle, all the birds, lizards and insects surrounding him. Then Plake heard drumming. "It's just like a King Kong movie," he thought, as he watched villagers dancing, shouting and shooting their guns in the air.
They marched Plake and the others at gunpoint up a path into the camp. A medicine man splashed water on their faces, a blessing, they were told, allowing them to enter. The kidnappers forced their captives onto a hand-carved wooden bench and began interrogating them. "Name? Rank? Why are you in Nigeria taking all of the jobs?"
From the moment he was captured on May 7, 2007, Plake both hoped and feared that his kidnappers were members of a well-known insurgency group called the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND. For years, MEND had been kidnapping foreigners who worked for oil companies to use as leverage against Nigeria's corrupt government officials, who reputedly have been hoarding the billions of dollars the country makes from selling its crude instead of investing the profits in roads, schools or clean drinking water for its people. MEND was known as a ruthless, professional outfit, but most of its hostages eventually made it out alive.
As the interrogation continued, it became clear that Plake's kidnappers did not belong to MEND. These men said they belonged to the Niger-Delta Freedom Fighters, led by a rebel named Egbema One. They didn't necessarily want to make a political statement. They wanted money—more than $1 million per hostage.
Convinced that his company would never pay such a steep price, Plake closed his eyes and breathed deeply, thinking, "This is where I'm probably going to die."
Oil's been pumping through Plake's veins since the day he was born.
He grew up in Baytown, home to the largest refinery in the country, owned by ExxonMobil. His grandfather was an offshore legend, and his father rolled up his sleeves on some of the toughest jobs in the business in the North Sea. So it was pretty much expected that after Plake graduated from Ross S. Sterling High School, he would enter the family trade.
He worked offshore from ages 19 to 25, in seas all around the globe, off the coasts of India, South America and Malaysia. He worked for four years in Nigeria. One day in 1995, his back went out, and he had to come ashore.
By that point Plake had married 19-year-old Collette, whom he'd met in a local bar one night while he was home on leave. Collette, who the following year would give birth to their first daughter, Alyssa, was relieved to see her husband sidelined with a bad back. She missed him terribly on those long three-month stints and, much like a policeman's wife, lived in constant fear of that phone call at 3 in the morning.
Unlike many offshore oilmen who get itchy and long for the sea every time they touch land, Plake was OK with finding a new life. He had always been good with all things mechanical, earning him the nickname "MacGyver" among his friends, and enrolled in Baytown's Lee College, where he earned a degree in electronics. Plake next went to a specialty trade school in Watertown, Massachusetts, called the Ritop School for Mobile Electronics, where he learned to wire radios in exotic cars like Ferraris and Bentleys. With all his training, it didn't take Plake long to get a job in Deer Park, Texas, and start a new chapter.
But it wasn't easy. After 9/11, the economy seized up, and no one was spending money on luxury car radios. Plake bounced around for a while, eventually taking a job in Addison. But when the company hired too many radio installers, there wasn't enough work to go around, and Plake's paycheck once again nosedived. To support his family, which now included a second daughter, Jadyn, he delivered pizzas for Domino's, working for tips.
Late in 2006, the idea of again going offshore took hold of Plake. He was one week away from having his new home in McKinney put up for auction because he couldn't pay the mortgage, was working two jobs, never saw his wife and kids, and still couldn't make ends meet. He needed money, and fast.
"He came home one day," Collette says, "and said to me, 'Honey, I have no choice; I don't want to go back, but I have to.' He was crying for the first time in years."
(While giving interviews for this story, Plake and his wife were careful never to mention the name of the company he worked for, as per a legal agreement. The Houston Press, the Observer's sister paper, confirmed through news accounts and public records that Plake was working for Global Industries, which was doing contract work for Chevron. Global Industries did not return phone calls seeking comment.)