Detained American has strong ties in vacation town

AP Photo/Palo Alto Weekly

Perched among the rowboats at a wetlands sanctuary is a slick, fiberglass shell named “Merrill,” a boat that marks just one of many ways an 85-year-old veteran detained for the past month in North Korea has touched this beachfront community.

Merrill Newman and his wife, Lee, live 45 miles away in a Palo Alto retirement home. But the grandparents keep a vacation home just steps from the beach in Santa Cruz, where for decades they have actively engaged with environmental, arts and boating organizations.

“He's a very generous person,” Santa Cruz Rowing Club president Linda Locklin said. “We're very concerned about him.”

Newman's family began their fifth week of what has become a very public vigil Monday with a new plea to North Korean authorities to confirm the Korean War veteran has received his heart medication.

Merrill Newman, an avid traveler and retired finance executive, was taken off a plane Oct. 26 by North Korean authorities while preparing to leave the communist nation after a 10-day tour. His traveling companion seated next to him, neighbor and former Stanford University professor Bob Hamrdla, was allowed to depart.

For weeks, Newman's family was mum about his case, but last week they spoke out, begging for his release. His family said Monday they were relieved that North Korean authorities have confirmed to the Swedish Embassy they are holding an American citizen. The family is certain that person is Newman.

The State Department also said Monday the person's identity was not yet confirmed. It said the situation was the same as last week, when North Korea declined to grant diplomats consular access. Sweden handles consular issues for Americans in North Korea as the U.S. and North Korea have no diplomatic relations.

“We remain concerned about his wellbeing,” Newman's family said in a statement Monday.

“We also hope that it will be possible to resolve this misunderstanding so that he can quickly rejoin his family,” the family said.

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has negotiated the release of several Americans previously held in North Korea, confirmed Monday that last week he asked North Koreans at the United Nations in New York to let Newman come home.

“I expressed concern over his detention, and said that on human rights grounds, he should be released and not be part of U.S.-Korean political differences,” Richardson said.

Richardson said he has not been in touch with Newman's family or the State Department, and he has received no response from the North Koreans.

“I'm very concerned,” he said, “because in the past the North Koreans always responded. They always gave reasons for detentions. This time there seems to be increased hostility, a total shutdown that is very hard to explain.”

Richardson said he plans to make additional inquiries and that he hopes to help bring Newman home.

Those sentiments were echoed in the couple's vacation town, where the Newmans have a sailboat and are members of the Santa Cruz Yacht Club. Many neighbors and community members said they were deeply fond of Newman and gravely concerned about his situation, but asked not to be quoted out of concern for his safety.

During the Santa Cruz Film Festival, the Newmans donated their home to a visiting filmmaker. They also are listed as donors to several environmental organizations including Save Our Shores.

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