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U.S.A.: Buddies of Hostage Call him 'Awesome'

Public records suggest Doug Wood went through several years of money troubles and tax battles. His friends wondered if that was what led him back overseas to Iraq, where contractors commonly pull down six-figure salaries in danger bonuses. "I saw real potential to work, to build things, to make things happen in Iraq," he told a newspaper.

by Matthew B. Stannard and Leslie FulbrightThe San Francisco Chronicle
May 3rd, 2005

Doug Wood didn't talk much about his business life during the nights he spent perched on a barstool at Uptown Saloon and Eatery in the Northern California town of Galt -- he much preferred to talk football and drink beer.

But when he did talk, friends said, it was always fascinating, about the exotic locales his engineering work had taken him, and the money he made -- four times what he made stateside.

It was the distance and danger that made the work so lucrative, his bar buddies knew. But they were still shocked and horrified Monday to learn that the boisterous Aussie, who left Galt (Sacramento County) in the late 1980s and eventually settled with his wife in Alamo, had appeared on a videotape apparently made by insurgents in Iraq, surrounded by masked men with guns and pleading for his life.

"It's hard, to have it hit in your own back yard," said Frank Roa, one of Wood's circle of buddies who frequented the Uptown back in the 1980s. "You hear about it all the time, but you don't expect it to hit here. I hope to hell they let him go. He was an awesome man. Or is."

The Australian government released a brief statement Monday from Wood's brother Malcolm, who lives in the Australian capital of Canberra.

"We are distressed and extremely concerned about his situation," read the statement. "We trust that our government and its officials, liaising with other governments and agencies as appropriate, will do all that is reasonably in their power to confirm his situation and develop a response."

Wood has lived for some years with his wife Yvonne in the upscale Whitegate neighborhood of Alamo, where the lawns are manicured and most homes have three-car garages. Friends stopped by the couple's home on Vagabond Court to leave notes in the mailbox, avoiding the throng of journalists camped in the quiet cul-de-sac.

A woman who left a note would only say she works with Wood's wife and that "It's very sad."

Yvonne Wood left the house at about 9 a.m. with a family friend in a maroon Mercedes-Benz. Two men returned in the same car several hours later and went inside for about five minutes before leaving. As one of them left, he said, "We are working with the government and we can't talk. We don't want to jeopardize the negotiations."

Before moving to Alamo, Wood had lived in Galt, where according to friends he moved in the 1980s when he was working as a subcontractor for the Rancho Seco nuclear plant.

Sacramento Municipal Utility District officials said Wood was a subcontractor at the now-defunct plant from 1984 to 1987. In addition, Bechtel Corp. officials said he occasionally worked as a subcontractor for the company from the 1960s to about 1987.

"A real likable guy. He'd do anything in the world for you," said Roa.

Roa recalled sitting with Wood on a houseboat in the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, catching catfish and quaffing Fosters Lager and arguing about whether Wood's favored Oakland Raiders were better that Roa's preferred San Francisco 49ers. Wood didn't talk much about his engineering work, Roa said, but it allowed him to travel to exotic locales from Hawaii to Russia, and it paid well -- especially when he was overseas.

Jeanye Good, who co-owned the Uptown at the time, recalled that Wood wasn't in the place every night -- about half the week he'd be working in Texas. But when he was expected, the regulars would all stay late to play Liars Dice, a game Wood would inevitably open by pounding his dice cup on the table and roaring "Ten bloody ducks!" -- Aussie slang for "two" that became a bar tradition.

"He can make you like him, even if you hate him. He's just loud and boisterous and a whole hell of a lot of fun," she said. "Everybody loved him - when he wasn't there, it was like, 'Tomorrow night, Doug comes in, right?' "

Wood loved the Uptown so passionately that when Good and her husband Bob split up in late 1984, Wood partnered with Bob Good and took over. Roa recalled Wood's touches with the place. The Fosters Lager signs on the walls above the pool table and the peanut shell-strewn wooden floor. The didgeridoo on the wall, with an open offer of a free beer to any customer who could play the tricky Aboriginal instrument. The patio barbecue that Wood dubbed "The Outback," where they served little other than steak -- and lots of it.

"We had horseshoe pits out there ... It was like a big family," Roa recalled.

Sometime around 1987, late on its rent, the Uptown closed. Wood moved away with his wife, though he returned to Galt from time to time, always finding a crowd of friends to greet him, Roa said.

Roa said he thought Wood had overextended himself, trying to run the bar and a horse ranch when he was no longer bringing in cash from overseas engineering. Good suggested he was just having too good a time to watch the bottom line.

"They bought a place to drink. They did not buy a business," she said.

Public records suggest Wood went through several years of money troubles and tax battles. His friends wondered if that was what led him back overseas to Iraq, where contractors commonly pull down six-figure salaries in danger bonuses.

Nevertheless, Roa said, it was a shock to see a familiar face on the news break during the Sacramento Kings basketball game Sunday night.

"I stayed up until after the game was over, and I thought, 'Oh my god, that's Doug,' " said Roa.

Good, who learned about the abduction from a reporter, also hoped for the best, betting wryly that if anybody could talk their way out of such a predicament, it was her Aussie friend.

The statistics of abductions in Iraq are grim. Of 195 foreigners kidnapped between May 2003 and April 25 2005, there have been 33 killed, 86 released, 51 are still held, 3 have escaped, 2 were rescued, and 20 are in an unknown status, according to the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index. The numbers do not include Iraqi victims, whose abduction is even more frequent.

Wood himself, speaking to the English newspaper The Observer last April, conceded the danger of his work renovating buildings -- though he said it didn't really affect him.

"I saw real potential to work, to build things, to make things happen in Iraq," he told the newspaper. "I miss my view, jumping in my pool, BBQs in the backyard, all that crap. But I wake up in the morning wanting to go to work, creating things, making things better. ... I don't feel afraid for my life here. There are incidents that are disturbing, but I've never been personally threatened."

Freelance reporter Ilya Gridneff, who met Wood in Baghdad last February, told Australian media that Wood brought his big laugh and love of good times with him to the war-torn country. But Wood was aware of the danger in Iraq, Gridneff said, and took reasonable precautions for his safety.

Australia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer flatly rejected paying a ransom for Wood's release or withdrawing pulling Australian forces from the country as Woods said, in his videotaped statement, that his captors were demanding.

Downer said the Australian government scrambled a team of diplomats and police Monday to try to win Wood's release. He said that the Australian government would work with the United States and United Nations and has a contingency plan that he declined to detail, citing security concerns.

It's impossible to say what kind of group has Wood. David Brannan, a political scientist at Rand Corp. who was director of security policy at Iraq's Interior Ministry from late 2003 to 2004, said the group calls itself the Shura Council of the Mujahedeen of Iraq, and a group by a similar name kidnapped and later released a Turkish truck driver last year. But since the group's name is a somewhat generic term for a type of Islamic council, Brannan said, it's unknown if it's the same group.

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