An Oakland couple on a South American biking trip who hadn't been heard from in weeks has been located, U.S. and Peruvian government officials said Tuesday, but some family say they won't rest until they hear from their loved ones directly.
"We have received phone calls from the U.S. Embassy and Peruvian government that my son Garrett Hand and his girlfriend, Jamie Neal, have been spotted in a remote village in Peru," Hand's mother, Francine Fitzgerald, posted on a Facebook page dedicated to finding the couple.
She added in a follow-up post, "Let me reiterate, until we have PROOF OF LIFE, we cannot celebrate these rumors and sightings. Proof of life is my son's voice on the phone and a picture of him holding the missing poster."
She declined to speak with reporters at her Concord home, saying she expected more information Wednesday and would speak then.
Peruvian Minister of Foreign Trade and Tourism José Luis Silva Martinot said the couple is safe and in the midst of an "extraordinary experience," and was surprised to hear that they were considered missing persons at all.
"I think they don't even know what is happening outside in the U.S., or how the TV channels are talking about them," Martinot said. "There has been a lot of information around these two Americans on a trip to Peru, saying they've been kidnapped. Truth is, they are more than happy, and are having the best trip of their life. They are going around by plane,
Peruvian police say they made contact Tuesday with Neal, 27, and Hand, 25, about five hours from Iquitos, Peru, at a place called Angoteros on the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon. The two were reportedly traveling with an unidentified Italian man, who is also a tourist, in a small, wooden boat called a "peque-peque," driven by a Peruvian boat driver named Reynaldo Vega.
The couple is now on their way to Cabo Pantoja, the boundary between Peru and Ecuador, where they will be able to contact their families, Martinot said.
"Tomorrow we will send an airplane to meet them and tell them 'Please go home now' so the family can know they're OK," Martinot said. "The problem is right now they are in the middle of the jungle, in the middle of nowhere, and are going against the river."
U.S. officials are also tracking the case.
"We have seen (media) reports that the missing U.S. citizens in Peru have been located," said U.S. State Department spokesman Peter Velasco. "We are working with (Peruvian) authorities to confirm these reports."
The couple departed from Buenos Aires, Argentina, in November on a six-month "dream trip" bike tour that was to take them through many parts of South America, according to family members. The couple bicycled through Argentina into Chile and then Peru, charting their progress daily online.
On Jan. 25, the couple's frequent Facebook reports and photos stopped while they were en route to Lima. Pictures taken from a surveillance video on a bus headed for Lima were aired on Peruvian TV last weekend along with a story about the couple's disappearance. But, still no word from them.
When asked about the couple's abrupt loss of contact, Martinot said that until a few days ago, it was not for any lack of connectivity.
"I have personally talked to the mother of Garrett Hand, and she expressed to me that she was worried that her son hadn't communicated with her in almost one month," Martinot said. "I don't know why he hasn't called home, but he had the opportunities to talk to them in Lima and Iquitos."
Although the couple are both avid cyclists and familiar with the outdoors, friends and family were concerned because the U.S. Embassy in Peru had warned Americans to beware of kidnapping threats in the Cusco area, which is near Machu Picchu, and a popular destination for tourists.
On Feb. 13, the U.S. Embassy posted online warnings, saying that a "criminal organization may be planning to kidnap U.S. citizen tourists in the Cusco and Machu Picchu area. Possible targets and methods are not known and the threat is credible at least through the end of February 2013."
To add to their anxiety, the family began tracking Hand's bank account, and saw that $400 had been transferred from one account into another on Jan. 25, but the money was never withdrawn.
About the same time, Fitzgerald said the family started seeing messages on Facebook from friends the couple made in South America, inquiring about the pair's whereabouts.
Jeff Jerge, the owner of The Pedaler Bike Shop in El Sobrante, where Neal worked for more than two years, was "walking on clouds" Tuesday afternoon, elated after hearing from reporters that his employee had been found safe.
Jerge, 55, said that customers have inquired daily, looking for glimmers of hope since Neal and Hand's apparent disappearance. Jerge helped pull together a $4,000 reward for their safe return.
"It's been such a whirlwind," he said. "We've all been so stressed."
Reach Kristin J. Bender at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at Twitter.com/kjbender. Follow Erin Ivie at Twitter.com/erin_ivie. Staff writers Katie Nelson, Robert Rogers and Rick Hurd contributed to this report.