How Sean Penn helped man escape prison nightmare, rebuild life
It began with an attempt to salvage an ill-fated investment in Bolivian rice farms, devolved into a prison nightmare and climaxed with an escape engineered with the help of actor Sean Penn.Updated: Jan 07, 2015, 15:55 IST
It began with an attempt to salvage an ill-fated investment in Bolivian rice farms, devolved into a prison nightmare and climaxed with an escape engineered with the help of actor Sean Penn.
But, so far, there has been no Hollywood ending for Jacob Ostreicher.
In the year since he was spirited out of Bolivia, the 55-year-old has struggled to rebuild a life upended by corrupt officials who tried to extort Ostreicher and had him imprisoned without charge while bleeding the rice venture dry.
The ordeal shredded the Brooklyn man's marriage, drained his bank account and nearly stole his sanity.
"Certain days I don't function," Ostreicher said in a series of phone conversations, his first media interview since his rescue. "It's hard to start a new life."
The former flooring business owner lives alone in Los Angeles and says he's still trying to find a new line of work. He says he is not living off charity, never has, but has gotten huge emotional support from family, the Jewish community and a few of Hollywood's biggest stars.
None have done more than Penn.
In late 2012, the Oscar-winning actor flew to Bolivia to investigate Ostreicher's case at the urging of actor Mark Wahlberg.
Ostreicher, who is an Orthodox Jew, had the attention of the Aleph Institute, a foundation that helps incarcerated Jews. The Florida-based group asked Wahlberg to reach out to Penn, who is widely known for his Haiti relief efforts and closeness to leftist Latin American leaders.
Penn became convinced Ostreicher had been unjustly imprisoned since mid-2011 so corrupt authorities could drain the assets of the $25 million rice-farming operation in which he was a minor investor. Though he was accused of money-laundering, no evidence was ever presented.
Penn was self-effacing when asked about his odd-couple friendship with Ostreicher and why he decided to help. "What can I say? He was likable."
When Penn asked Bolivian President Evo Morales to intercede, Penn got a tepid response.
So he exposed the extortion ring, sparking a scandal that eventually would see 14 Bolivian officials jailed - the ring's No. 2 figure entered a guilty plea last week - while others fled the country.
Penn then got Ostreicher moved to a medical clinic. The New Yorker had withered to 107 pounds from a liquids-only hunger strike to protest his imprisonment. Penn leveraged his Venezuelan connections - he was close to the late President Hugo Chavez - to get armed Venezuelan security guards assigned to protect him, fearing he'd be targeted for exposing the extortion ring.
Even though he had endured more than 30 court hearings, Ostreicher continued to insist he wanted to clear his name in Bolivia.
Penn told him to let it go.
"He held me down with both hands and looked at me and said, 'I am going to get you home,'" Ostreicher recalled.
But all Penn could accomplish was to get Ostreicher's confinement in the maximum-security prison exchanged for house arrest.
Then, in late 2013, Ostreicher arrived from South America on a commercial flight from Peru to Los Angeles International Airport, where Penn was waiting in the jetway to receive him.
"He is fully responsible, Sean, for saving my life," Ostreicher said. "He is much more than a friend."
Neither Penn nor Ostreicher would discuss the secretive escape in any detail, although Ostreicher said his older brother, Aron, paid for it and that he endured a nerve-wracking flight to La Paz from the eastern city of Santa Cruz sitting near Bolivia's chief of police praying he wouldn't be recognised. He said he wore a disguise.
Bolivia claimed the escape was orchestrated by the CIA, which Ostreicher denies. He would say only that it involved "professionals" whom he declined to identify.
During his years in Bolivia, Ostreicher's marriage fell apart, with his wife staying in New York. Penn took him in and, for a few weeks, Ostreicher said, he did little more than stay rolled up in a fetal position on the couch.
"I literally was crying to Sean that I want to go back to Bolivia," he said.
"Sean sat with me for hours, sometimes sitting with me all night, rubbing my back," he would later recount at a dinner honouring Penn.
The actor enlisted his own family and friends in the healing.
"I told Sean I'd like to find a person who had it all and lost it all to give me a reason that I should wake up every morning," said Ostreicher.
Penn introduced him to Robert Downey Jr.
Downey, who hit bottom in the 1990s when drug addiction troubles landed him in jail for a year, counselled Ostreicher, then sent him clothing "literally in the tens of thousands of dollars" - Gucci suits, sweaters, sneakers, underwear, a Harry Winston watch.
Penn, meanwhile, was at Ostreicher's side for some of his most trying moments.
When his daughter, Gitty, flew with her husband and their five children from New Jersey for a February reunion, Ostreicher was terrified, he said.
He tried to find excuses to avoid the meeting, telling Penn he didn't have the proper clothing.
"I need a white shirt. I need a black suit. I need a certain hat. And Sean jumped into his car and brought me back six hats."
"He said, 'One of them has got to be the right one.'"
When they arrived for the reunion, the kids didn't want to come to him.
"They didn't recognise me, the old, sick man I became," he said.
He began telling the kids about the "very strong man" who sneaked him out of Bolivia. "You want to meet this man?" Ostreicher asked. Then, he pointed to Penn. "I told Sean, 'Show the kids your biceps.'"
"Sean literally went down on his knees, unbuttoned his shirt and flexed his muscles for my grandchildren so they should come closer to me. And this is how they started coming to me."
Asked about the incident, Penn paused briefly. "Jacob has a way," he said, "of putting someone on the spot."