A kidnapping, an international mystery, a family’s grief and a lawsuit aimed at stopping Iran from seizing and torturing Americans

Retired career law enforcement officer Robert Levinson was kidnapped 12 years ago in a hostile foreign country. His family does not know if he is alive but has filed a lawsuit against the government of Iran. Photo from the Levinson family.

Imagine you are a stay-at-home mother, with seven children and a husband who has spent a lifetime chasing criminals all over the world.

Go another step and imagine that someone kidnaps your husband in a hostile foreign country, immediately ending all contact between him and everyone else.

That’s where Christine Levinson found herself on March 10, 2007.  At her home near Fort Lauderdale, she was suddenly in the midst of an international mystery that continues to this day.

Robert Levinson, a career law enforcement officer with the FBI and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, investigated financier-drug smuggler Robert Vesco and organized crime players from many countries.  He worked internationally in all sorts of dangerous situations.  After a 33-year career with federal agencies, he retired in 1998 and began working as a private investigator.

Robert Levinson, prior to his kidnapping in 2007. Photo from the Levinson family.

At the time he was kidnapped, Levinson was helping the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency figure out a money laundering scheme that involved the sale of Iranian oil. His other private cases included the murder of a Ukrainian journalist and money laundering by Russian organized crime figures.

Mrs. Levinson has been a stay-at-home mother throughout their 44-year marriage.  But in the 12 years since her husband disappeared into the hands of kidnappers, she has been forced to step forward in ways she never expected. So have the children.

Their lives have since included a trip to Iran to meet with the country’s leaders, meetings with three different American presidents and various members of Congress and all sorts of law enforcement officials, ambassadors and others who have stepped up to try and help find Levinson.

She knows he has not been well and that he has now turned 71, while being held under extremely difficult circumstances likely to have included torture and harsh prison cells.

Levinson has missed marriages, graduations and the birth of five grandchildren in the intervening years.

When Mrs. Levinson and son, Daniel, made a trip to Iran to meet with officials in December 2007, she found them “evasive’’ and watched them deny any knowledge of Levinson’s status at the same time they made “back channel offers to release Bob in exchange for concessions by the United States.’’

In the summer of 2010, Mrs. Levinson and their three daughters met with Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, but he too denied any knowledge of Levinson’s whereabouts.

Today, Mrs. Levinson and the children will walk into a federal courtroom in Washington, D.C.

They have jointly filed suit against the government of Iran and are seeking compensation as well as the return of a husband and father.

She and all seven children have completed affidavits that describe the lives they had as a close knit family with a loving and attentive husband and father.

They are seeking $1.5-billion in punitive damages — an amount aimed at stopping Iran from continuing to seize and torture Americans.

“The harm Iran has caused the family is immeasurable,’’ lawyers for the family argued in a motion seeking damages. “For 12 years Mr. Levinson’s family has struggled to help husband and father.  This case is like no other.  The Levinson family is immersed in a never-ending nightmare from which they cannot escape. Twelve years after his capture they do not even know if their husband and father is alive.’’

Last month a lawsuit filed against Iran by a Washington Post reporter held captive for 544 days ended with a $180-million verdict against Iran.

At the time Levinson disappeared, their children ranged in age from 13 to 29.  Now the youngest is 25 and the oldest is 42.

“Family was always the most important thing in Bob’s life,’’ Mrs. Levinson has written in an affidavit accompanying the lawsuit.  “My children and I have had to live for twelve years with the knowledge that their father was being held by a hostile regime who routinely tortures its prisoners.  The resulting grief and anguish have been difficult for all of us.’’

Since Levinson’s disappearance, five of their six grandchildren have been born, two daughters have married with brothers who walked them down the aisle and the entire family has spent countless hours handling sometimes spooky communications from people who have threatened Levinson’s life and demanded as much as $3-million and the release of four Iranian individuals for his return.

The emotional toll on them has been exacerbated by threats they have received from people who claim to be holding Levinson.

The first came in an email six months after he was kidnapped.

The email was addressed to Mrs. Levinson and people whose names and addresses would have been in his cell phone. The message included a plea for help and is believed to have come from someone who was trying to make it look like someone other than Iran had taken him.

Another email with a video of Levinson pleading for help came in November 2010.  Another emailed threat was received in 2011, with five photographs of Levinson bound in chains.  He was dressed in an orange prison-like jumpsuit and held up written messages begging for help. Copies of some photos have been posted on a web page created by family members in an effort to seek information.

Through that website (helpboblevinson.com), Mrs. Levinson heard from a medical technician with knowledge of his whereabouts in a small town in southwest Iran.

The technician in an email sent in 2008 said Levinson had been brought to a hospital with a stomach ulcer. The tip did not produce any results.

Some Iranian officials have suggested the family needs “to ask the FBI why they sent him to Iran’’ when pressed to release Levinson, according to family members who have repeatedly met with officials at the United Nations.

The truth has remained elusive.

Shortly after he was abducted, an Iranian owned news agency published a report that Levinson was not missing, but “in the hands of Iranian security forces’’ and should be released in a few days. That didn’t happen.

Since then Iranian officials have offered to swap Levinson for an Iranian general who defected shortly before Levinson was kidnapped and once offered to release him if the United States helped delay an assessment that criticized Iran’s nuclear activities. A $25-million reward offered by the FBI and the United States government for his safe return remains.

Iran has not responded to the civil lawsuit filed by the Levinson’s family.

The family has been getting help from a number of Levinson’s old friends, including David L. McGee, a former federal prosecutor in Tallahassee who handled some of Levinson’s cases, and Ira Silverman, a former NBC investigative producer who also worked on stories with Levinson.

It was Silverman who tipped him to a source that met Levinson on the Island of Kish in the Persian Gulf on the day he disappeared. Kish is a free trade zone, but under Iranian control. When Silverman could not contact Levinson after the meeting, he notified the family that Levinson was missing.

It will be McGee and his firm, Beggs & Lane of Pensacola, in the courtroom for the family in Washington.  Silverman will be among the witnesses.

The anguish of knowing what is happening to him without the ability to help is difficult to put into words, Mrs. Levinson said.

“Family events that should be joyful, the weddings of Susan, Sara and David, the birth of five grandchildren, the high school and college graduations of our children, have instead become times to come together and share our grief, she noted in an affidavit.

All seven children will join Mrs. Levinson on the federal courthouse steps for a picture today, before the trial begins.

Lucy Morgan
Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.