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Crime News Dateline

Woman Spends 3 Weeks Chained to Tree in Ecuadorian Forest after Harrowing Kidnapping

As her kidnappers threatened her life, Elisa Levy found hope through memories of her family, as seen in a recent episode of Dateline: Secrets Uncovered.

By Jill Sederstrom

For three terrifying weeks, American citizen Elisa Levy was chained to a tree in the middle of an Ecuadorian forest after a brazen kidnapping in broad daylight. 

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Watch Dateline: Secrets Uncovered on Oxygen Wednesdays at 8/7c and catch up on the Oxygen App.

“I didn’t want to die,” Elisa would later tell Oxygen True Crime’s Dateline: Secrets Uncovered, airing Wednesdays at 8/7c.

Elisa survived the harrowing ordeal, in part due to her fierce determination, creative thinking, and ability to stay positive even in the most dire circumstances as her captors threatened to kill her, cut off her finger, or sell her to South America’s most powerful guerilla forces. 

Armed with only a few old hairpins, Elisa managed to pick the lock to the chain that held her to a tree and free herself while her captors left her unattended — but the 24-year-old was too terrified to try to run after her kidnappers made chillingly threats that they’d kill her whole family. 

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Each time, she’d re-lock the chain as she tried to muster the courage to strike out on her own in the vast rainforest, until a middle-of-the-night rescue by an elite group of Ecuadorian police finally put an end to the horrific ordeal after three weeks of sheer terror.

“I was just hoping it wasn’t a dream,” Elisa said.

Who Is Elisa Levy?

For most of her life, the 24-year-old conservation activist spent her time among two very distinct worlds. 

Her father, James Levy, was raised in the United States on Long Island, but he fell in love with her mother during a trip to Ecuador with the Peace Corps in the 1980s. After they got married, the couple’s four children enjoyed dual citizenship in both countries. 

Elisa — a bold adventurer — grew up amidst the Ecuadorian jungle while her parents started the environmental group Altropico to try to preserve the endangered rainforest surrounding their home. 

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Elisa got a taste of life in the United States, too. As a teenager, she lived with some family in Long Island, visited some of the nation’s biggest tourist destinations, and worked at American institutions like Applebees and Dunkin’ Donuts.

How Was Elisa Levy Kidnapped?

By the age of 24, Elisa had returned to Ecuador and was working as a volunteer with Altropico when she got a “normal” call from a man claiming to be from the area who wanted to start a bird project in a nearby town. 

Elisa agreed to help if the man sent a driver to pick her up and on Saturday October 17, 2009, one of her brothers drove her to the meeting spot. A driver in a blue Isuzu Trooper was there waiting for her. In a moment of foresight, Elisa told her brother to write down the license plate of the vehicle and then got into the Trooper and took off with the friendly driver. 

Nothing about the voyage seemed unusual until the driver stopped to pick two people up along the side of the road and one pressed a gun to her neck and forced her into the well of the car. 

“He said like, ‘Don’t move, don’t scream, if you help, nothing’s going to happen to you,'" she recalled. 

Handcuffed, gagged, and hidden under a blanket, Elisa recalled driving for more than a hour along bumpy roads before the vehicle stopped and the man who had claimed to be starting a bird project approached the vehicle and helped her out. 

By now, it was clear there was no bird project. This was a kidnapping by those who falsely believed that due to her father’s ties to the United States her family was wealthy and able to pay a handsome ransom for her release. 

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Elisa was led into the forest where her captors brought her to a make-shift tent and chained her to a nearby tree. 

Her family had always known that their home, near the Colombian border, was in a region that was often rife with crime at the time, but they never imagined it would hit their own family.

“I think that’s one of the mistakes I made, to work in this area that’s such a complicated area for so many years and doing positive work for so many different communities on both sides of the border — [I thought] that everyone's kind of on our side,” James told Dateline reporter Kate Snow.“It was kind of an innocent, stupid way to look at things.” 

According to Fernando Matus, who worked as the regional security officer in Ecuador for the U.S. State Department at the time, the northern border of Ecuador had "a lot of security challenges” including a revolutionary armed forces group in Colombia known as the FARC that was often active in the rural villages. 

“Unfortunately, there was some serious crime issues here,” Matus said. 

How Elisa Levy Was Rescued

After the kidnappers reached out to Elisa’s family, her terrified parents had to decide whether they could trust the police and go to authorities or handle the kidnapping on their own. 

They made the decision to reach out to Unase, a special police kidnapping unit made up of 100 special agents trained to track down kidnappers and help families as they negotiate ransoms to try to save their loved ones. The American embassy also quickly got involved. 

As authorities listened in, the kidnappers finally made their ransom demand over the phone to the family.

“If you want her back, it will be $1 million,” the ringleader told James. 

The staggering amount was more than the family could possibly afford. They believed they might be able to take out a loan of $80,000 for their home and James’ siblings back in New York planned to cash in their retirement funds to get the amount closer to $150,000, but it was nowhere near the amount the kidnappers wanted. 

As the weeks passed and the negotiations continued, Elisa was still chained to that tree spending her days reading the same novel she had in her backpack and trying to fill her mind with all the positive memories she had growing up.

At night, as her captors slept, she would think of her mother and imagine having a conversation with her.

 “I don’t know if was me or because I was desperate or whatever, but I really could talk to her, especially at night,” she remembered. “And I felt a lot of like, energy, you know.”

Along with the group’s ringleader, Elisa was guarded almost constantly by two men she thought of as the “good guy” and the “bad guy.” While the good guy brought her rice and beans and would assure her that the ordeal would be over soon, the bad guy often threatened to kill her or her family.

As the weeks went by, the kidnappers’ frustrations were beginning to grow. They told Elisa she might be sold to a more dangerous group like the FARC and threatened to cut off her finger. 

After about 18 days of captivity, Elisa remembered she had a few old bobby pins at the bottom of her backpack and used the time when her guards left her alone to try unlocking the lock at her feet with the pins. She managed to unlock the lock, but had no idea where she was and was scared to run. 

“What I did was climb the trees that were nearby and try to see where I was,” she said. 

As she tried to weigh the risks of a possible escape, Elisa said she believed she heard her mother’s voice telling her, “Don’t risk yourself. Don’t try to escape, just wait a couple of days.”

Elisa decided to wait a little bit longer. Her decision would pay off on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2009, when she was suddenly woken up by armed men carrying flashlights through the trees. 

Elisa believed they were likely FARC rebels, there to take her away for “years,” until one of the men forced his way into her makeshift tent.

“He goes around me and holds me and said, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK, you’re going to be fine,’ I was like, ‘No please, just don’t take me,’ and he’s saying, ‘We’re from the police, we’re from the police, we’re rescuing you.'"

It turns out that license plate number she had her brother write down had helped the group find her. 

Just a few hours later, Elisa was finally reunited with her elated family.

“It was the best thing ever, just being able to see them,” she said. “It was all I needed, all I wanted, just to be with family.”

In the years after the traumatic kidnapping, Elisa has continued to focus on conservation, according to the blog Forest Metal,  to preserve the very ecosystem where she once spent three terrifying weeks.

“The place itself, the view from there was a really nice forest,” Elisa said of the strength she drew from the setting. “I know some people might not like to be in a forest for 21 days but I’d rather be there than in a small dark room.”