New film recounts kidnapping of LDS missionaries

MERIDIAN, Idaho (AP) - Forgiveness.

That was a key to survival for two young Americans who were beaten, bound and held for ransom while serving in Russia in the late 1990s.

"The second we realized what was going on, the fastest way to get over it was to forgive them," said Andrew Propst, who grew up in Boise and Lebanon, Ore. "We got over that and said, 'Let's establish a relationship.' "

Propst, now a 35-year-old Meridian business owner, said he and fellow LDS missionary Travis Tuttle, of Gilbert, Ariz., were fans of Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends & Influence People."

"We employed those strategies," he said. "It's much easier to kill an enemy than to kill a friend. We'd ask questions about their personal lives. We used these tactics to break them down and show our human side."

The two young men were shackled to a coal-fueled radiator in a shed about 45 miles outside of Saratov, a city on the Volga River. Their captors demanded a ransom of $300,000 from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The missionaries' ordeal is told in the new film "The Saratov Approach," directed by Garrett Batty. It hit screens in the Treasure Valley on Friday.

The film, which is expected to be in local theaters for at least three weeks, also opened Friday in Idaho Falls, Montpelier and Rexburg. Propst's story has attracted national attention.

Propst said Batty called him about making a movie a couple of years ago.

"He said, 'Look, I was in film school when this whole thing happened. ... I think it would be a fantastic movie to make,'" Propst said. "He was very persistent."

Propst and Tuttle agreed, and told their story to the director in minute detail over a 72-hour period at Propst's home. The low-budget film was shot primarily in Utah, but parts were shot in Ukraine.

"They couldn't get visas to Russia. They wouldn't even entertain it," Propst said, noting the icy U.S. relations with the country.

The kidnapping occurred on March 15, 1998, 13 months into Propst's two-year mission. The two men were ambushed at what they expected to be a friendly meal with a stranger who wanted to talk about religion. A few days earlier, he'd stopped them after church and invited them to dinner at his home.

"We thought, 'This is going to be a great opportunity. This guy was all ready to go,'" Propst said.

Soon after they entered the home, they were savagely beaten with bats and kicked. Worse than the beatings, Propst said, was having their hands cuffed behind their backs.

"The pressure of those handcuffs. ... I remember thinking I wish these guys would hurry up and kill us," Propst recalled. "Both Travis and I have nerve damage from the handcuffs."

Propst said they expected to die. At one point, he used a pen to draw his captors' tattoos on his hands so investigators would have a clue about the kidnappers.

"The Saratov Approach" moves back and forth between the young men's struggle for survival in that shed and their families' painful wait. It incorporates news footage from 1998.

The men who abducted the missionaries never got their ransom. After five days, Propst and Tuttle were released into the snowy countryside.

"We don't know exactly why they released us. It's kind of a mystery," Propst said. He believes prayers from around the world helped.

The kidnappers were later arrested by Russian authorities, tried and sent to prison.

Propst said he hasn't suffered nightmares. On rare occasions, he does wonder what the consequences might have been if he and Tuttle had escaped by hurting or killing their captors.

"What type of peril would that have done to current missionaries in Russia?" he said.

Propst said he hopes the movie inspires those who see it.

"Andy squeezes every bit of enjoyment out of life," said Mac Wrigley, a close friend in Meridian. "I think he realizes that life is short. We only have so much time, so make the most of it."

One of the bit parts in "The Saratov Approach" is filled by a well-known face in the Valley: Dale Dixon, president/CEO of the Better Business Bureau, plays a TV newsman. He said it wasn't much of a stretch since he worked in television.

"It was a great experience, and the filmmaker did a really good job telling the story," Dixon said.

Propst said he was nervous about the movie being more Hollywood and "cheesy" than reality.

"He got the movie to be as close to the real experience as absolutely possible," Propst said