Joshua Fattal. Shane Bauer. Amir Hekmati.
These three men have a few things in common: All are Americans. All were taken hostage in Iran and accused of espionage within the last six years. All were held at Evin Prison in Tehran. All generated headlines around the world. All were innocent.
And all owe their release, in some measure, to one man: Eric Volz.
Volz, who turns 37 this month, is the founder of the David House Agency, a Los Angeles-based firm that works to secure the release of Americans who've been charged with crimes in foreign countries and wrongfully imprisoned. He is the nation's go-to expert in the kind of behind-the-scenes diplomacy and nuanced media messaging required to work through the complicated webs of international political relationships that hold innocent people hostage. To date, all 19 of the people whose families have hired the David House Agency can thank Volz for the fact that they're safely back in the U.S.—including a few who were specifically targeted by foreign regimes because they're Christians.
"Freeing wrongfully imprisoned people is very near to God's heart," Volz tells Citizen simply. "When you've been wrongfully imprisoned, it's more like an institutional kidnapping than a miscarriage of justice. When there's corruption, you have to approach that just like you would any other kidnapping. What do (the captors) want? How can you make the captive a liability to the point that the captor wants to let them go?"
With the skills Volz brings to the table in these highly charged situations, you might think he's spent decades working in foreign diplomacy. He hasn't: His background is in business and philanthropy, and he officially established the David House Agency only four years ago.
What he does have is a lifestyle of prayer and a lot of God-given wisdom. And he has the kind of elite education that only comes the hard way: In 2006, Volz was wrongfully convicted of murder in Nicaragua and held for 14 months under some of the most horrific conditions in the world.
The School of Hardest Knocks
For Volz, a native Californian, ministry was as natural a part of his childhood as having grandparents who spoke Spanish: His father is Jan Volz, the original bassist for the seminal Christian rock band The 77s during the Jesus People Movement.
"Instead of doing church gigs, they played in clubs and would minister to everyday broken people," Volz recalls. "I had a relationship with Jesus as a child and was involved a lot in the church."
But when he was 13, his parents divorced—and Volz found himself seeking the answers to life's questions elsewhere. He discovered he was good at soccer, and became particularly adept at rock climbing and surfing.
It was the latter—as well as a growing desire to connect more strongly with his mother's Latin heritage—that led him to Nicaragua in 2000. He fell in love with the culture, and settled in Managua in 2005 to start a magazine, El Puente ("The Bridge"), aimed at connecting the locals with investors and expatriates from Europe and North America.
And he fell in love with a girl, too: Doris Ivania Jiménez, who owned a boutique in San Juan del Sur, a beachside village about three hours southwest of Managua. They dated for almost a year—but as the months went by, Volz found he was pouring more of his energy into El Puente than into their relationship, and they broke up amicably. Jiménez began seeing other people.
Six months later, on Nov. 21, 2006, Volz was at his office in Managua when he received a phone call from a friend, saying Jiménez had been found dead in her boutique. He drove to San Juan del Sur to comfort her family. He wound up leaving several days later—not on his way back to Managua in his rental car, but in handcuffs, in the back of a police car, accused of Jiménez's rape and murder and on his way to jail. He was just 26 years old.
What happened after that is the stuff of true-crime novels. Volz chronicled it all in 272 pages of exquisite detail in Gringo Nightmare: A Young American Framed for Murder in Nicaragua (St. Martin's Press, 2010): The mountain of evidence proving his innocence, the details of the three known criminals last seen at Jiménez's shop the day of her murder, the systemic anti- American bias and corruption that incarcerated him and let them go free. The obsessive daily journaling, which eventually grew to fill 48 notebooks and form the basis for his autobiography. The 30-year sentence he was handed, the violent and unsanitary conditions in which he was held, and the complex international wranglings that took his friends, his family and a former Central Intelligence Agency officer named Bob Lady 14 months to work through before he was freed.
It was a hellish experience—literally.
"I came into contact with supernatural evil there—the witchcraft, the demonic possession of certain people," Volz recalls now. "There would be drastic temperature changes in the prison that always correlated with some horrific murder. I witnessed murders and suicides—more than I could count. I was held in two police jails, an underground detention/torture facility, two penitentiaries and a military police hospital. People would die from pure neglect. It really felt like the last steps before finding out what Hell would be like."
But that little taste of Hell led Volz back to Jesus.
Six months into his incarceration, he was finally allowed to go outside to play soccer—and found his skills in demand with the gangs ruling the penitentiary.
"That afforded me just enough social rank to leave my cell safely and walk up and down the hallway," Volz explains.
On one of those trips, he discovered a Bible study led by Mario Sanchez—formerly a pilot for Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord whose Medellin cartel was believed to be responsible for about 80 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the U.S. during the 1980s and early 1990s.
"It was a small group, very ragamuffin," Volz recalls. "They'd just read the Word and pray for each other. That's where I really started to learn the purpose behind suffering. There aren't a lot of people who could identify with what I was going through, but Jesus was one of them. Like me, He'd been wrongfully accused and arrested, slandered, had the court manipulate and fabricate evidence. He was denied due process and tortured.
"One of the things that really unlocks power when you're facing the reality of death is the reality of the resurrected man of Jesus. If He was able to cheat death, we are able to do the same, so we're not limited by this physical body. It helped me to be free even though I was behind bars."
Volz was released on Dec. 21, 2007, as part of an arms deal between the U.S. and Nicaragua involving SAM-7 missiles. Though the last few months of his incarceration were spent in a prison hospital for a panoply of illnesses—a kidney stone, a bladder infection, bronchial inflammation, severe malnutrition and pinkeye—he suffers no lingering physical, mental or emotional trauma from his time behind bars.
What is permanent is his deep understanding of the intersection of criminology, systemic corruption, politics and media, his now-rock solid faith—and the knowledge that God allowed him to experience all that injustice for a very specific reason.
For Freedom's Sake
It didn't happen right away, of course. Once back on American soil, all Volz wanted was to decompress and get back to a normal life. But there was nothing normal about life anymore.
"The aftermath was really surprising for me and my family," he says. "I received a few death threats and spent some time living in hiding. People who defended me in Nicaragua were now facing danger—particularly my lawyer, the reporters who told the facts, even one of the appellate judges who voted to release me was slandered by the media, with people calling for him to be taken out to the ocean and drowned."
Volz set to work on his book, mostly out of a need to set the record straight and remind the world that Jiménez's killers still hadn't been brought to justice, even though the Nicaraguan police knew exactly who and where they were. After its publication in 2010, requests for his expertise started coming: Would he speak at the FBI's annual prayer breakfast? Law firms and nongovernmental organizations needed his help—as did individuals.
In 2011, the family of Jason Puracal—a Washingtonian who had just been sentenced to 22 years in a Nicaraguan prison on charges of money laundering and drug trafficking—hired Volz to work full-time on the case.
"They said, 'Name your price, we're convinced you're the only way we'll get him out.' And they were right—me and the people in the coalition who worked to secure my freedom," he says. "I inherited a network of people who have been instrumental in all these cases, people who just have a very special anointing for solving injustice."
Puracal was released in 2012—and the David House Agency became a full-fledged entity.
Despite being named for the Old Testament shepherd boy who slew Goliath, "the David House Agency is not a religious organization at all," Volz says. "We just happen to be followers of Jesus who are really good at what we do. We don't accept cases based on someone's faith. The only requirement we have is that the person is innocent."
Nonetheless, the David House Agency has worked on one of the highest-profile cases of religious persecution in the world.
Targeted in Qatar
Matthew and Grace Huang of Pasadena, Calif., love kids. In fact, they love them so much, they adopted three special-needs children from Ghana—including a 4-year-old named Gloria who suffered from an eating disorder.
"There was this heart for adopting kids that needed help," explains Grace's brother, Daniel Chin. "They come from a philosophy that adoption is for kids who need parents, not parents who want kids." Grace left her teaching job to homeschool the kids full-time, while Matthew continued his work as a civil engineer.
In 2012, Matthew's job involved moving the family to Qatar, where they stood out like an entire handful of sore thumbs: An Asian couple raising three African kids; Christians who openly shared their faith in a Muslim country; homeschooling in a culture where homeschooling doesn't exist.
So when Gloria, then 8, died suddenly from complications of her eating disorder in January 2013, all kinds of hell broke loose: The government accused the Huangs of child trafficking, as well as killing Gloria with the intent of selling her organs.
"The adoption process consists of searching for children who are good-looking and well-behaved, and who have hereditary feature that are similar to those of the parents," a Qatari investigator said during a February 2013 pre-trial hearing. "But the children connected to this incident are all from Africa, and most of the families there are indigent." In other words, exploitation was the only possible reason for the Huangs to adopt those three children, and they needed to be punished accordingly under sharia law.
The Huangs' lawyers weren't allowed to tell their side of the story to the judge through the first four pre-trial hearings, and the couple was held in jail for more than nine months before their trial finally began.
A month after their arrest, someone put Volz in touch with their families. Hiring him, Chin says, is the best decision they could have made in the midst of utterly bewildering circumstances.
"The things he said were checking out with things we had heard earlier," he tells Citizen. "One person said we needed to put together our own (diplomatic) team, but we didn't know how to do that.
"No one else we talked to had been in prison. So when Eric called and basically offered to be our team and assemble it, we thought that would be something worth looking into."
Two months later, the Huangs hired him full-time. And in the interim, "a lot of the things he said would happen, happened," Chin recalls. "We saw the government go back and forth. We saw the State Department not really provide any action. We saw our on-the-ground legal team working to a different standard. He mentioned the need to be organized with information and hold our legal counsel accountable, and he provided resources for us to do more forensic work without relying on the other people."
As a result, "we pointed out some major bias in the police reports. The amount of legal work we did in that first month, I think that was really instrumental. This was the right team and these were the right people we wanted working on that case."
The Huangs were convicted in March 2014 of child endangerment and sentenced to three years in prison. But the David House Agency continued to work on their behalf: Volz and his team proved the prosecution had faked a pathology report identifying the cause of Gloria's death. Private meetings between Volz and Qatar's attorney general took place in Europe. And on Nov. 30, 2014, the Huangs were acquitted.
Over those two years, what Chin observed of Volz impressed him deeply.
"He's always moving forward. It's never up-and-down with him," Chin says. "There are emotional points, but he never seems out of control. I think that comes from his faith in God, personally. The other thing is that he has this incredible capacity for wisdom—meeting with people on their level, talking to them in an intelligent way. I honestly think he's cut from a different cloth. I don't think there are a lot of people in the world who can do what he does at the level and volume he does it."
Bazzel Baz, a former CIA agent and founder of the Association for the Recovery of Children (ARC, profiled in the May 2015 issue of Citizen), agrees. He met Volz at a men's prayer breakfast in Los Angeles about five years ago, and now serves him in an advisory capacity. The David House Agency, in turn, provides diplomatic support to get ARC's operators safely out of high-risk areas after they've rescued abducted American children.
"I can honestly say this with all my heart: Eric is better at what he does than most ambassadors in the United States, and is probably better suited to it than anyone we'd ever see," Baz tells Citizen. "I've watched God put him before some of the most powerful people in the world, whether it's an emir or a White House strategist, and outdo them 100 times over.
"He's very good at understanding what can be said and what should be said at the right time. His mind is pretty incredible, but it's not a geeky kind of mind. He's very thoughtful and focused, and has a great sense of humor. He's passionate, but not with that hyped-up kind of passion. He's very silent and swift about it. When he says he's going to do something, he does it—and he doesn't stop until it's accomplished."
On the Horizon
But justice is neither free nor inexpensive. The families of people like the Huangs can expect to pay between $1 and $2 million in international airfare, attorneys' fees and other costs. Many—like Shelley Campanella, whose son Scott McMahon has been held in a Filipino prison for the last five years (see "The Tragic Case of Scott McMahon," next page) are forced to liquidate their assets before justice is achieved—if it's achieved at all. There simply are no guarantees.
To that end, Volz worked with former Iranian hostage Sarah Shourd (see "The Revolving Door of Iran's Evin Prison," page 16) last year to establish a nonprofit called the David House Foundation.
"If you need brain surgery, you know to hire a brain surgeon. But if you're Saeed Abedini's wife, you don't know what to do," Volz explains. "So one of our goals is to shorten the learning curve that people go through to increase success and shorten crises."
Another goal is to educate and train American missionaries before they go overseas so they don't become victims of institutional kidnapping in the first place.
"I keep hearing about young people who are going to foreign countries and doing missions work or building schools—and that's great, but there's also an increase in people putting themselves at unnecessary risk because they're not aware of what all those risks are," Volz explains. "There's a real difference between being martyred and being murdered, and there's a real spirit of delusion that says, 'I can go anywhere with the armor of God and I'll be safe.' But we see in Scripture that when things heated up, the disciples often left and waited for the situation to cool down. Even Jesus did that, because it was wise.
"So I'm interested in seeing the church become more intelligent about security and training and preparation. It costs money, but the Lord will provide that if He's breathing on an assignment to go overseas into high-risk areas."
In the meantime, the need for Volz's knowledge and very particular set of skills is only growing. The March/April 2016 issue of the travel magazine Departures contains a 10-part special report on the dangers travelers face overseas amid growing anti- American sentiment. At press time, the U.S. Department of State had issued a worldwide caution list for Americans traveling abroad, particularly to Europe, Africa, all areas of Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East due to heightened terror activity—but mentioned nothing of the risk they face from hostile government regimes and corrupt police forces throughout the world.
"I think Eric Volz is the only person on the planet who really understands what institutional kidnapping is," says Baz. "What's going to happen as things escalate is there will be more and more (of these incidents), because governments understand how they can do it and leverage Americans for all kinds of deals and still put the blame someplace else. It's a different form of espionage involving corruption, money, greed, evil and the process of using human beings as commodities.
"The people who really care about Americans are the ones who will reach out to the David House Agency. God will put it on their minds—and Eric Volz will continue to kill giants."
When that happens, Volz will be ready—figurative slingshot in hand.
"God already has things set up and the structure in place," he says. "It's just a matter of us being aware and able to receive the assignments He has for us."