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He stared death in the back of the head and lived to tell it

Jesse Bystrom shares a tender moment with two young girls after a service for Word in Action Church in Coatepeque, Guatemala, in 2008. Bystrom is the son of Larry Bystrom, owner/operator of Bystrom's Barbering on Main Street, and Char Bystrom, who runs Char's Family Hair Care on Second Street. <i>Submitted photo</i>

Bound face down late at night in the depths of a Guatemalan jungle, Jesse Bystrom, husband, father of a kindergartner, felt his 35 years of life would end with a bullet to the head.

"Laying there I had this sick feeling where I could see someone taking my place back home, marrying my wife, raising my son," said Bystrom, a 1996 River Falls High School graduate. "I was battling against the fear and terror on the outside, but inside I really felt a spiritual realm and the peace of God. I hadn't gone into shock. My mind was alert."

Bystrom "graduated" from his near-death terror and lived to talk about it. What makes his story unique is who he is -- and he's not a special-ops soldier combatting global terrorism.

During his abduction and mugging in late January, Bystrom was with nine Americans on his fourth missionary trip to Guatemala.

Members were connected to Riverside Church of Somerset, where Bystrom once served as youth pastor. He now lives in California.

The trip was planned for Jan. 23 to Feb. 4. The group would visit schools, churches and medical clinics.

Bystrom was assigned spiritual mentoring -- that meant leading Pentecostal church sermons and outdoor preaching on makeshift stages.

None of that occurred -- not this time.

On the day of their arrival the group drove by night toward their destination on Guatemala's west side and the city of Coatepeque. Group members ranged in age from 35 to 62 -- Bystrom, the youngest.

Their van was going about 60 mph on the country's main highway at 9 p.m. They had another hour to go.

"With absolutely no warning," Bystrom said a red Toyota pickup truck roared alongside.

"There were men inside the truck screaming in Spanish and shooting into the air above us," he said. "They passed, cut us off and forced our van onto the shoulder."

Four male intruders, two with pistols drawn, tore open the van's sliding door. The driver was shoved back to another seat. Another passenger had a gun stuck to the ribs.

One intruder took the wheel. The van went plunging off the shoulder into the bumpy terrain and underbrush of the wayside jungle.

Wearing civilian clothes, the abductors identified themselves as police officers. They claimed to be tipped off that the van carried drugs. They were going to search it and everyone.

Passengers were ordered to keep their eyes down and to shut up.

Bystrom described the jungle drive as a "violent, zigzagging, turbulent ride of about a half mile."

The group's interpreter was a St. Paul man of Guatemalan descent. He arranged the trip and it was to his parents' house that the group was headed.

Bystrom said this man was yanked from the van, kneed in the groin, kicked in the stomach and then, after falling to the ground, stomped on the head. He began begging for his heart medication.

One by one the others were forced out, hands up, as if under arrest.

Bystrom said the abductors were methodical about searching, frisking and handling their prisoners.

He said they likely really were police officers, though not the good guys.

What they were after weren't illicit drugs but loot -- wallets, cash, jewelry, electronics, computers, smart phones. Bystrom said the tally later of stolen money and property came to $15,000.

Missionary members were forced to lie belly down in the grass. Shoes were removed. Ankles bound, hands tied behind backs with either shoelaces or rope.

While lying helpless this way, the so-called cops ransacked the van and its luggage, from the top rack to everything inside.

The jungle night was dark and silent. The van's lights were off. The captors used flashlights.

Nobody but the interpreter was roughed up. A few had begged the captors not to hurt or kill them.

Bystrom kept quiet except when it was his turn to exit the van.

"I told one of them, if they needed money, it was in my bag under the seat," he said.

The ordeal lasted maybe two hours. Before rushing away, the captors told the missionary group to stay put for three hours and not call police.

Disobedience, they were told, meant: "We will come back and kill you."

No more was ever said about drugs -- the reason given for stopping the van on the highway.

Left on their own, one group member untied his knots, freed himself and helped the others tied up. During this time Bystrom said they could hear what to him sounded like "coded whistling" in the jungle.

"I'm sure they had people posted who were watching and that's how they were communicating," he said. "Those whistles really creeped me out, especially knowing that, as we freed ourselves and were talking, we were under observation."

The group's interpreter, using a plain cellphone not stolen, called the church pastor in Coatepeque. A rescue team was dispatched that included two police officers.

Less than an hour after their captors vanished -- yet with more whistling from the jungle's interior -- the interpreter and driver walked for the highway.

They were to wait, concealed in the vegetation, until the rescue team came.

Bystrom said the rest of the group sorted through and salvaged from their scattered belongings.

The rescuers -- pastor, church volunteers and two police officers -- arrived in two vehicles, one being a law-enforcement pickup truck.

The wary officers were hardly inspiring. Bystrom said they had machine guns but told the group: "We need to get out of here because it's really dangerous."

For the complete story, please see the March 7 print edition of the River Falls Journal.