Families want men home

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Piles of Christmas presents, wrapped and waiting, sit in the homes of Sarah Hoeller and Sara Rakowski.

The presents are for Jonathan Coles, Hoeller's boyfriend, and Steve Rakowski, Sara Rakowski's husband.

The two men were supposed to do a two-week surveying job in the United Arab Emirates with the Colorado-based company CompassCom. They were expected to be back in Steamboat Springs three days before Christmas.

More than three months later, Coles and Rakowski have yet to leave the UAE. The paper on the presents has gotten a little torn, but they are still there, Sara Rakowski said.

On Dec. 12, Coles and Rakowski were working as surveyors near the capital city of Abu Dhabi when they were taken in for questioning by UAE authorities about their work.

UAE officials later took their passports, and the men have not been allowed to leave.

"To describe the last three months, it has been hell," Hoeller said. "Not knowing what has been going on, not really knowing who the people are and what the policies are ... it has been really difficult."

Coles, 37, and Rakowski, 39, are longtime Steamboat residents who have worked numerous jobs here.

Coles came to Steamboat in 1990 and a few years ago started a mapping and geographic information system business. That company was on hold for two years as Coles went to work with CompassCom, which is based in Centennial. Before the mapping business, Coles was an Alpine Taxi driver and professional river guide.

Despite the other jobs, Coles' passion was in mapping and GIS, Hoeller said.

Steve Rakowski has lived in Steamboat for more than 20 years, lured here with his brother Mike. Both brothers worked at the Inferno, a nightclub, and were painters. Steve Rakowski spent the past few years as a surveyor, prompting him to go to school for a GIS certificate.

"He just fell in love with making maps," his wife said.

Rakowski also worked for Alpine Taxi, where he built a close friendship with Coles, Sara Rakowski said.

Coles and Rakowski are outdoor lovers. Coles telemark skis, fly fishes, river rafts and snowmobiles.

Rakowski loves to ski and was looking forward to skiing this season after having back surgery last year, Mike Rakowski said. He also loves to camp, and walks and rides his bike everywhere through town, said Sara Rakowski, who has been married to Steve for eight years.

CompassCom collects ground data to make field maps. The company often does subcontract work for larger contractors.

Information from Rep-ublican Sen. Wayne Allard's office indicates the UAE authorities questioned the men about taking photos in a sensitive location and possibly violating radio transmission laws in the UAE.

Sara and Mike Rakowski and Hoeller said the two men did nothing wrong. Mike Rakowski stressed that the men are not mad at the UAE government; they just desperately want to come home.

"Basically they are being held against their will," Hoeller said. "They would love to come home, but want to make sure they dot their i's and cross their t's," Hoeller said.

Rakowski was taking online classes at Denver University to work toward a GIS certificate. Coles, who was helping Rakowski with the classes, asked whether his friend could go to the UAE when another CompassCom employee couldn't make the trip. Rakowski, who was getting straight A's in his classes, had all the necessary training for the job.

"It was supposed to be a trip of a lifetime," Sara Rakowski said. "It was supposed to be two weeks."

Coles and Rakowski have significant experience traveling in foreign countries. Coles previously had been on international trips with CompassCom. Although there were the occasional hang-ups in the field, Hoeller said, their situation in the UAE is unprecedented.

"There has never ever been anything like this at all," Hoeller said.

The UAE borders the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf and is between Oman and Saudi Arabia. The country is slightly smaller than Maine and has an estimated population of 3.44 million.

Hoeller said it is a very modern country that has friendly relations with the United States.

The two men have been able to keep in contact with friends and family daily. Hoeller said she talks to Cole twice a day. Physically, the men are comfortable, Mike Rakowski said, but mentally, the situation is straining.

The two can travel across the country; they just cannot leave it, Mike Rakowski said. The men have been staying in a hotel.

Recently, Coles and Rakowski have been learning to play squash, Sara Rakowski said.

Coles has been reading, sending e-mails and working out at the gym, Hoeller said.

"I don't have any idea when he is going to come home. I hope it is sooner rather than later," Hoeller said. "I'm keeping the general morale up as much as I can. It is the only thing I can do."

Hoeller has been writing letters and contacting state senators and representatives in hopes of helping get the men home. She is in daily contact with Sens. Allard and Ken Salazar.

Allard plans to meet with the UAE ambassador next month to discuss what needs to be done to get the men home.

"I just want my brother to come home," Mike Rakowski said.

Sara Rakowski urges people to contact elected officials to ask for their support in bringing the men home.

"E-mail them," Sara Rakowski said. "Let them know we want to get these guys home and they need our support."

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