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Medical trip to Kenya becomes nightmare, ETSU medical student escapes captors

Jennifer Sprouse • Aug 23, 2013 at 10:50 AM

As a fourth year medical student at East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine, Logan Key said she decided to look into a summer program abroad where she could get hands-on experience.

But what was supposed to be an overseas experience of a lifetime, working with a medical missions group in a small city in Kenya, slowly turned into a hostage situation for Key and others from the program staying in the Gilly Hotel in Migori, Kenya.

Key said she had found the program through Medics to Africa while surfing the Association of American Medical Colleges website, which she took to be reputable.

She said from the start program director Josh Omolo had answered all of her questions and had been quick to email back with anything she was concerned with about regarding the trip.

Key left for Kenya on July 25 and arrived in Nairobi the next night. After spending two nights in Nairobi, she said she was then taken, with two other students in the program from George Washington University, to the hotel in Migori.

Key said the program had originally said the students were to be boarded in a house, so she said she was surprised when they arrived at the hotel. She said the two students, who had already been participating in the program for seven weeks, said they were told the house was being renovated.

Key said she reported to St. Joseph’s Mission Hospital, where she said she had a great experience for about a week and a half into her trip.

“My hospital experience was really good,” she said. “For the first two weeks that I was there, everything at the hospital was great. I got a lot of hands-on experience. I got to work with kids. We did ... an HIV home visit and went out to a village and got to ... interact with the family.”

It was on Aug. 6 that Key said the group of seven staying at the hotel had their first hint of trouble.

“That night the hotel manager asked to speak with one of the girls,” she said. “He spoke with her and he warned her that ... there was this issue with debt to the hotel. He told her that there was an outstanding debt to the hotel of $14,000 and that if this debt was not paid it was going to be very difficult for some of us to leave.”

Key said the entire group was on high alert and contacted the U.S. Embassy to let officials know what was going on.

“They got all of our names and knew that we were there and told the group to call them if something happened,” she said. “They didn’t really ... advise us one way or another. We really felt like it was not very helpful talking to them at that point in time.”

Key said they had been talking with a duty officer at the embassy, who she said was not someone who could make direct decisions and that since the course of their problems landed during the weekend, there wasn’t much more that could’ve been done.

She said the two girls from George Washington had been directed to the program through their university program director and when they contacted the university to tell them the situation, the director started making arrangements for the girls to be evacuated by a security firm.

On Tuesday, Key said Omolo arrived in Migori and proceeded to tell the group at the hotel that they were overreacting and that he had been paying a big group sum to the hotel.

“He would never be very direct with us as far as when he made the last payment,” she said. “That Friday we said down with Oscar, the hotel manager, and Josh and we basically had Oscar and Josh sign a contract that we wrote up saying that we were in no way financially responsible to the hotel and ... that we would each ... be allowed to leave at our regularly scheduled time.”

Key said the two men signed the document and said at the same time the two girls from George Washington were evacuated by the security firm, as well as another student who decided to leave too. She said the three students left without any problems, so when just their group of four remained, they decided to just stay at the hotel.

Key said another student in their group, a Norwegian, left on Aug. 14, but said the following Friday, Aug. 16, another student went to get in her cab for the airport around 9:30-10 p.m., but couldn’t leave.

“There were armed guards posted there and we were told that they had been ordered to close the gates and to not let us leave until the bill was cleared,” Key said.

She said they couldn’t get in touch with the hotel manager or owner. Key said that they had called Omolo, who told them to go pack their bags and said they were leaving that night. Key said the police were also supposed to come that night to help them leave, but never did and Omolo was on his way to the hotel the next morning.

Key said the next morning the hotel owner told the three who remained that they were not leaving until a $17,000 bill was cleared.

Key said police arrived and the three showed them proof they had paid in full for their trip, but said the police could not do anything about the guards at the gates for fear the hotel would sue them for the amount owed.

She said they sat around all day Saturday, trying to solicit help from those at the hotel, but said even asking for a police phone number came with a price tag attached.

Key said on Saturday afternoon, Oscar approached her to enlighten her about the reason they were being held captive.

“He said, ‘I just want you to know that the reason that we’re keeping you here is we want you to go to court on Monday morning,’ ” she said.

Key said Oscar and his father, the owner, wanted them to go to court to prove they had paid their expenses and that Omolo had acquired the debt with the hotel.

She said the group called the embassy, who recommended lawyers, but she said they were uneasy about the situation and feared the language barrier could potentially cause an even bigger problem.

Key said they were able to contact the same private security company the girls from George Washington used and said the group woke up at 5 a.m. to see if they could slip out of the gates.

She said the guards were there, but said by this time the embassy had instructed the police to let them go, and when she told them, the guards acted like they didn’t understand her.

On Sunday, the students decided to take matters into their own hands.

“We basically decided that we were going to force the hand of the hotel and that we were going to force them to do something,” Key said.

She said the group sat on their already packed bags and barricaded the gate, refusing to let any vehicle onto the grounds.

“The guards at the gate tried a couple of times to get us to move, and I had Mace with me. I was videotaping on my phone ...and I was pretty much like “if you touch me, I’m going to Mace you and I’ve got this all on video, so unless you want to assault an American citizen and have it on video, and I’ll send it to the news right now, you need to stay off me,” Key said. “That was the only way that we were not physically removed.”

She said the girls waited at the gate for around three hours and said they had attracted a lot of attention from locals, including pastors and friends they knew in Kenya, who were trying to advocate for the students release.

Key said one of the girls reported to her that a gate was open during all of the commotion outside and said she went outside to check it out. She said a reporter had approached her to talk and said she saw one of her fellow students start running for the open gate.

Key said the student made it through, barely, and was almost pulled back through by the guard, at which point she tried to get through the gate. Key said she and the other student were unsuccessful.

“There was a TV crew there, they were filming this whole thing and I pretty much just took a chance that this guy was not going to shoot me or hurt me in front of the TV crew,” Key said. “I just started climbing over the gate.”

Key said she and the other student were able to make it over the gate without any problem and said they were ushered to a safe location.

Key said she arrived home in Nashville around 4 p.m. Tuesday.

Key said during the whole experience she tried to keep her composure during the tough times, but said she was very happy to be home.

“I just tried to stay levelheaded the whole time and I really feel like I did,” Key said.

She said initial reports of the students’ escape relayed by the Kenyan news organizations were fabricated.

• Editor's note: The Association of American Medical Colleges does not have such a database to search for programs like Medics to Africa. Key said Friday that it was possible she found the program on the American Medical Student Association website.

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