Couple with Stewartstown ties freed from captors linked to Taliban
STEWARTSTOWN — Just over five years ago, soon after they wed, Caitlan Coleman and Joshua Boyle set off on a journey to areas of the world infrequently traveled by Westerners, an admittedly quixotic trek their parents say was in keeping with the couple's adventure-seeking spirit.
During a trip that took them to Afghanistan and neighboring central Asian countries — Coleman, a homeschooled devout Catholic raised in Stewartstown, and Boyle, her Canadian husband — the couple slept in tents and hostels, interacted with villagers and bought local goods from vendors.
The couple was supposed to return to the U.S. so that Coleman, then pregnant, could deliver her baby. Instead, they were abducted in Afghanistan and held captive by the Taliban-linked Haqqani network, surfacing periodically over the next five years in video recordings sent to their loved ones and scoured by the FBI for clues.
On Thursday, U.S. and Pakistani officials announced the release of the couple and the three children they had in captivity, a welcome development in a strange tale that vexed federal investigators for years and became part of the political debate over the U.S. government's obligation to Americans held as hostages overseas.
As news of the couple's release developed, loved ones of Coleman gathered in the family home in Stewartstown.
Neighbors had heard little of the story but were happy that the couple and their children were returning.
"It must have been a terrible experience for the family," said Joan Stoemer of Delta. "It's really a blessing that they've been released."
Growing up: Friends and neighbors describe Coleman as focused on helping the poor even as a child, when she went door-to-door to raise money for impoverished people in Haiti, and as a budding entrepreneur who made chocolates and sold them to neighbors.
Even as a child, they said, Coleman loved to travel off the beaten path.
"When she was young, we would take trips out West," her mother, Lyn Coleman, told Philadelphia Magazine last year. "But she was never interested in going to the big tourist areas. She always wanted to know what normal life was like for people."
She appeared to find a kindred adventurous spirit in Boyle, whom she met as a teenager and wed in 2012. They met online as teenagers on Star Wars fan sites. They once spent months traveling through Latin America, where they lived among indigenous Guatemalans and where Boyle grew a long beard that led some children to call him "Santa Claus."
Journey: In the summer of 2012, the couple embarked on a journey that took them to Russia and the central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. It was a risky venture for any couple traveling without escort, especially since Coleman was pregnant with their first child.
But their parents didn't find it all that surprising.
"They really and truly believed that if people were loved and treated with respect that that would be given back to them in kind," Linda Boyle, Boyle's mother, told The Associated Press in a 2014 interview. "So as odd as it may seem to us that they were there, they truly believed with all their heart that if they treated people properly, they would be treated properly."
The family's precise whereabouts were unclear as of Thursday mid-day. As the family members had been walking to the plane, Boyle said he did not want to board, one U.S. official said, and another said Boyle was nervous about being in "custody" given his background.
Boyle was once married to Zaynab Khadr, the older sister of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr and the daughter of a late senior al-Qaida financier. Officials earlier said they had discounted any link between that background and Boyle's capture.
Coleman's parents have said they last heard from their son-in-law in October 2012 from an internet cafe in what Boyle described as an "unsafe" part of Afghanistan. The couple was abducted shortly thereafter.
Videos and letters: The only trace of the couple since they vanished had been in the form of videos released by their captors and family letters. The AP reported in June 2014 about the existence of videos received by Coleman's father in which the couple — Coleman, in a conservative black garment and Boyle with a long, untrimmed beard — implored the U.S. government to help free them.
The families at the time said they were making the videos public in light of the publicity surrounding the rescue, days earlier, of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Coleman's parents told the online Circa News service that they received a letter from their daughter in November 2015 in which she wrote that she'd given birth to a second child in captivity. It's unclear whether they knew she'd had a third.
"I pray to hear from you again, to hear how everybody is doing," the letter read.
The Colemans told ABC's "Good Morning America" in 2016 they took solace in seeing their daughter and grandkids looking healthy on a video released by the captors and in seeing the children for the first time.
Thursday: The mood was decidedly different Thursday inside the Coleman home, where in the afternoon a typed notice appeared on the front door saying the family appreciated the "concern being expressed at the joyful news that Caity, Josh and our grandchildren have been released after five long years of captivity."
The sign asked that their privacy be respected while they "make plans for the future."
Retired carpenter Sam Joines said he knows the family and could hardly believe the news when he heard it.
"I figured for sure they were dead and forgot about it," he said.
Karen Nycum, a neighborhood friend of Coleman's parents, said she was happy for the family.
"I can't imagine how they feel, having grandchildren you haven't had a chance to see," she said. "I'm sure it's been hard for them maintaining that hope."
Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto and AP writer Michael Rubinkam contributed to this story. De Groot reported from Philadelphia.