Eleven years without answers for family of slain hostage Jonathon Cote

Eleven years without answers for family of slain hostage Jonathon Cote

Eleven years have now passed since decorated Army veteran Jonathon M. Cote of Amherst was taken hostage in November 2006 in Iraq, where he was working as a security guard on a convoy. His mutilated body was found 17 months after his abduction.

The FBI and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigated, with help from British intelligence services, but no one was ever brought to justice.

The murdered veteran’s family, still grieving, still searches for answers.

“It’s still hard for me to think he’s not around,” said his brother, Chris Cote, 35. “There are always moments in the day that take you back to when he was here with us. I have a wedding coming up. He won’t be there to be my best man. I have a little daughter now. He’ll never meet her. It’s tough.”

The family members are not optimistic that Jonathon’s killers ever will be punished. But they are not abandoning all hope.

His father, Francis Cote, recently revealed that he and other family members attended a teleconference briefing on the status of the investigation in May.

This is some of what they learned from the FBI:

  • Terrorists captured 19 Italian military trucks and one truck from Crescent Security, Cote’s employer, on Nov.16, 2006. Cote and the other Crescent employees were the only people abducted. Everyone else – more than 40 other people – were let go.
  • Four different terror groups claimed credit for the abduction, but authorities have never found out with certainty who was behind it.
  • The bodies of Cote, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the four hostages who were captured with him, had mud on them, indicating they were buried at some point.
  • At least six individuals, all associated with terror groups, were investigated as suspects, but no one was ever prosecuted.

Perhaps the most troubling information they learned: Some Iraqi nationals who worked for Crescent Security were considered possible suspects, but the FBI was not allowed to question them.

Although they did provide some assistance to the FBI, Iraqi government officials were not forthcoming.

“They were not really cooperative, not as committed or engaged as we were,” said Joseph Niland, a retired DEA agent who spent nearly five years in Iraq working with the FBI on the case.

As the 11th anniversary of Cote’s kidnapping passed, his family kept alive one memory of him. The family had renovated with the help of others his pride and joy — a red pickup truck — and donated it to another veteran.

The abduction

Retired DEA agent Joe Niland spent nearly five years in Iraq working with the FBI on the case.

Jonathon Cote was 23 when he was abducted. The 2001 graduate of Williamsville North High School had served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, reaching the rank of sergeant. After retiring from the military, he returned to Iraq to take a dangerous but fairly lucrative job as a private security contractor in early 2006.

Cote and four other contractors – Joshua Munns of Redding, Calif., Paul Reuben of Minneapolis, John Young of Kansas City, Mo., and Bert Nussbaumer of Austria – were abducted at a police checkpoint near Basra, Iraq. They were guarding a convoy of supply trucks for the Italian Army. They were the only individuals taken hostage. Forty-three other people in the convoy, most of them truck drivers, were released.

The people who abducted Cote and his co-workers “knew they were Americans…knew they could be used to leverage ransom money or actions from the U.S. government,” Niland said.

“It’s an incredibly complicated world over there,” Niland said. “This convoy was pulled over at an actual police checkpoint, but it was a criminally staffed police checkpoint. It was corrupted.”

The five hostages’ bodies – showing signs of torture and mutilation – were recovered in March and April of 2008. Cote had been beheaded.

The investigation

Niland, then still working for the DEA, was assigned to work with the FBI on the case because Francis Cote’s wife, Nancy Cote, was the agent in charge of the Buffalo DEA office when the abductions occurred. Investigators never found any evidence that Jonathon was targeted because of Nancy Cote’s position with the U.S. government, he said.

Niland worked on the case from July 2007 until May 2012 but received little help Iraqi officials, he said in a telephone interview.

“For them, this was not viewed as an Iraqi problem. This was an American problem,” he said.

He speculated on another reason why Iraqi officials were not overly helpful. Many Iraqi police, prosecutors and military officials operate in extreme fear for their lives and family members, he said.

Iraqi police, prosecutors and soldiers “are much more vulnerable to being victimized than we are here,” he said. Some have been murdered in their homes.

Officials at the media office at Iraq’s Embassy in Washington did not respond to three phone messages or an email from a reporter seeking information about the Cote investigation. An embassy official who spoke briefly with The News declined to comment.

Niland said he left Iraq with a “real sense of frustration” that the crime was not solved.

He said he will never forget the day in March 2008 when five fingers that had been severed from the hostages were delivered to the U.S. government as proof the men were held. And yet, no one ever asked for any ransom money to be paid for the hostages’ freedom, Niland said, a situation that baffles him and other investigators.

Niland said he could not discuss how the hostages’ bodies were finally recovered, except that to say that British intelligence agents were instrumental.

Francis and Chris Cote said they are thankful for the efforts of Niland, who put his life in danger for nearly five years trying to find the killers.

“We came to know him as ‘Joe from Basra,’ “ Francis Cote said. “I know he was out there all by himself a lot of his time there.”

“The FBI remains committed to bring to justice the perpetrators of this crime,” Buffalo FBI spokeswoman Maureen Dempsey said about the case. She declined to discuss any details of the probe.

Jonathon’s truck

A family photo of Jonathon Cote and the red pickup truck that was his pride and joy. The truck has been refurbished and donated to another veteran.

When Cote went to Iraq, he left behind his red 1999 Ford F-150 pickup truck.

For more than a decade, it sat in his grandparents’ driveway, rusting away. Cote’s loved ones didn’t know what to do with it. Finally. they decided to get it spruced up and donate it to a veteran.

Volunteers refurbished the truck, working with the Operation Automotive program run by the not-for-profit WNY Heroes.

 

Jonathon Cote’s father Francis, left, and brother, Christopher,  worked with the Operation Automotive program run by the not-for-profit WNY Heroes to refurbish Jonathon’s 1999 red pickup. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Local mechanics donated thousands of dollars of parts and service. It has more than 100,000 miles on it but now runs like a new vehicle, Francis Cote said. He thanked WNY Heroes and Chad Miller of Veteran Automotive in the Town of Tonawanda. Miller’s business partners, Vern Simpson and Mark Mayle, did extensive work on the truck. Advance Auto Parts, Monroe Muffler & Brake and Corsi Auto Body & Collision all assisted with parts or service, said Miller, an Air Force veteran who served in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Nov. 16, the family donated the truck and a $500 gasoline gift card to Peter Christ, 42, veteran of both the Marines and Army who now lives in Blasdell and works as a school bus driver. Christ and his wife, Angelena, said the truck will come in handy for them and their five sons and daughters.

Knowing that Jonathon’s truck will help a veteran allowed the Cotes to draw something positive from a painful anniversary, Chris Cote said.

“It makes me very emotional, knowing the history, knowing the truck belonged to a veteran who gave so much,” Peter Christ said.

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