It was to be the trip of a lifetime — a full year in Central America and Ecuador — and Britt Leis and his fiancée, Lia Koehn, had sold their belongings to finance it. It ended less than two months after it began in a vicious and unprovoked attack on an Ecuadorian beach that left Leis near death from 18 stab wounds.
“They stabbed him 18 times, starting at the throat and working down, step by step,” Leis’ father, Ron Leis, said in a report that aired Friday on TODAY. “They started to beat Lia, and suddenly, without any warning, they left.”
Motive a mystery
It was midday on Thursday, Oct. 16, and Leis and Koehn were walking on a beach on the north coast of Ecuador near the Colombian border when a group of men descended on them. There was no apparent motive for the attack; the unidentified assailants did not take any of the couple’s possessions. They simply stabbed Leis repeatedly, apparently intending to kill him, beat Koehn, and then left.
Koehn, who recounted the attack on the blog she was keeping of the trip, said she was able to run to get help for her critically wounded fiancé. He was taken to a local facility for emergency treatment, then transported to a hospital in Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, where he underwent three surgeries that removed part of his pancreas and repaired a lacerated spleen and damaged arteries.
But infections set in, and doctors in Ecuador told Koehn that Leis could die. As he fought for his life, his family and Koehn struggled to get him back to the States for further treatment. He needed a special medevac plane and, without health insurance, the cost was astronomical: $55,000.
Still, the flight was finally arranged and Leis was airlifted first to Miami, and then to Loma Linda, Calif., where his sister is a doctor on staff at Loma Linda University Medical Center. Leis is now conscious and responsive, Koehn reported in her most recent blog entry, but he remains in critical but stable condition and faces a long recovery.
“He has injuries to both the neck and the abdomen that potentially could have large complications for him, but at this point he’s not showing any signs of that sort of problem,” Dr. Richard Catalano, who is supervising Leis’ treatment, told NBC.
Former FBI profiler and NBC analyst Clint Van Zandt told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira that it’s highly unlikely that Leis’ attackers will be found and brought to justice. Law enforcement in the area is focused on drug traffickers and various rebel groups, and the government has neither the resources nor the motivation to pursue random attacks, he said.
The U.S. State Department advises travelers to the area to exercise extreme caution. It reports on its Web site that since 1998, at least 10 Americans have been kidnapped and one killed in the region.
The department’s travel advisory reads: “U.S. government personnel are under limitations with respect to traveling alone and overnighting in these areas due to the spread of organized crime, drug trafficking, small arms trafficking, and incursions by various Colombian terrorist organizations.”
Van Zandt offered a number of tips for travelers to avoid attack, including dressing in inexpensive clothes, being wary in bars, carrying a cell phone enabled for international calls, and buying emergency evacuation medical insurance before they leave.
A yearlong adventure
By Koehn’s account, she and Leis were doing nothing extraordinary. They were dressed like locals and were not in an area that should have been considered dangerous. Koehn is fluent in Spanish and had traveled in Central America before, and Leis’ friends describe him on blogs as a savvy and nonconfrontational person.
Leis, 35, and Koehn, 24, are from Bend, Ore., where he worked as a motorcycle mechanic for Bend Euro Moto. Pictures on a Web site established by the company to solicit donations for Leis’ medical care show him racing motorcycles.
Last summer, the couple sold some belongings and packed everything they wouldn’t be taking on their trip into a storage unit. In early September, they set off on their yearlong adventure, driving first to Las Vegas, where they spent time partying with friends. They drove to California to take off for Guatemala, where they spent a week highlighted by a visit to the Mayan ruins at Tikal in the Peten jungle.
From Guatemala, they flew to Ecuador, where they intended to spend the rest of the year living in a small village and soaking up the culture. They had planned and researched their trip carefully and felt they weren’t putting themselves in danger, according to their families.
Van Zandt said that 24 percent of American travelers report either being assaulted or being the victim of a crime such as robbery in foreign countries.
“There are still bad guys who look for American tourists,” Van Zandt told Vieira. The men who attacked Leis and Koehn, he said, “didn’t come to rob them — they came to kill them.”
Friends of Leis and Koehn have established two Web sites to raise funds for Leis’ care. One, http://www.helpbrittandlia.com/, was established by Bend Euro Moto, to solicit donations. The other, http://www.studio3design.com/, is auctioning various articles, with the proceeds going to Leis.
The couple’s blog, where Koehn is posting reports of Leis’ condition and progress, is http://sudamericadventure.blogspot.com/.