Oil’s been pumping through Plake’s veins since the day he was born.
He grew up in Baytown, home to the largest refinery in the country, owned by ExxonMobil. His grandfather was an offshore legend, and his father rolled up his sleeves on some of the toughest jobs in the business in the North Sea. So it was pretty much expected that after Plake graduated from Ross S. Sterling High School, he would enter the family trade.
He worked offshore from ages 19 to 25, in seas all around the globe, off the coasts of India, South America and Malaysia. He worked for four years in Nigeria. One day in 1995, his back went out, and he had to come ashore.
By that point Plake had married 19-year-old Collette, whom he’d met in a local bar one night while he was home on leave. Collette, who the following year would give birth to their first daughter, Alyssa, was relieved to see her husband sidelined with a bad back. She missed him terribly on those long three-month stints and, much like a policeman’s wife, lived in constant fear of that phone call at 3 in the morning.
Unlike many offshore oilmen who get itchy and long for the sea every time they touch land, Plake was OK with finding a new life. He had always been good with all things mechanical, earning him the nickname “MacGyver” among his friends, and enrolled in Baytown’s Lee College, where he earned a degree in electronics. Plake next went to a specialty trade school in Watertown, Massachusetts, called the Ritop School for Mobile Electronics, where he learned to wire radios in exotic cars like Ferraris and Bentleys. With all his training, it didn’t take Plake long to get a job in Deer Park, Texas, and start a new chapter.
But it wasn’t easy. After 9/11, the economy seized up, and no one was spending money on luxury car radios. Plake bounced around for a while, eventually taking a job in Addison. But when the company hired too many radio installers, there wasn’t enough work to go around, and Plake’s paycheck once again nosedived. To support his family, which now included a second daughter, Jadyn, he delivered pizzas for Domino’s, working for tips.
Late in 2006, the idea of again going offshore took hold of Plake. He was one week away from having his new home in McKinney put up for auction because he couldn’t pay the mortgage, was working two jobs, never saw his wife and kids, and still couldn’t make ends meet. He needed money, and fast.
“He came home one day,” Collette says, “and said to me, ‘Honey, I have no choice; I don’t want to go back, but I have to.’ He was crying for the first time in years.”
(While giving interviews for this story, Plake and his wife were careful never to mention the name of the company he worked for, as per a legal agreement. The Houston Press, the Observer’s sister paper, confirmed through news accounts and public records that Plake was working for an international oil field contractor, which was doing contract work for Chevron. The oil field contractor did not return phone calls seeking comment.)
When Plake set off in March 2007 for the Cheyenne, both he and Collette went in with open eyes; they knew about the many assaults and kidnappings in the region where Plake was headed. For decades, as they understood it, corrupt Nigerian government officials had been pocketing more than their share of the country’s oil revenues instead of investing them in developing the nation and helping their people.
According to University of Houston associate professor of history Kairn Klieman, who teaches classes about Africa including “Africa and the Oil Industry,” the Nigerian government took control of the country’s oil revenues following a civil war in the late 1960s. The government then purposefully left the Niger Delta region massively underdeveloped—no roads, electricity, clean water or jobs—hoping this would stave off any further attempts at revolution. Instead, people living there have suffered terribly, and vigilantism has become a way of life.
“Because the government was so greedy for oil revenues,” Klieman says, “they let the oil companies work without following any kind of environmental regulations. So the land, the water, the air is all devastated, and the people there can’t even live in the normal, old-fashioned way, which was to grow food. It’s not even possible to live in the 19th-century model there anymore.”
Nigeria ranks as the 121st most corrupt country in the world and is ranked No. 22 in Africa, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International, a global corruption watchdog group. The country’s score of 2.7 out of 10 in 2008 was an improvement over its score of 2.2 in 2007, the year Plake was taken hostage. By comparison, Somalia, which has made headlines this year for acts of piracy off its shores, was ranked as the 180th most corrupt country in the world in 2008 and came in at No. 47 in Africa.
According to Oyibos Online, a Web site that tracks security incidents in Nigeria, 62 foreigners have been kidnapped so far this year. In 2008, 81 were taken. In 2007, the year Plake was captured, 172 people were abducted. That’s not to mention the hundreds of maritime assaults, hijackings and pipeline bombings over the same time span.
“You’ve heard of ‘blood diamonds’?” Plake says. “In Nigeria they call it ‘blood oil’ because of all the deaths and kidnappings over it. They’ll steal and kill their own brother because they’re such a depressed people. Life is cheap.”
Tribes and insurgency groups take hostages who work for the very oil companies that the government relies on to extract and move the country’s vast reserves. Their stated political goal is to stop the country’s ability to export oil and thus end the corruption, as well as to pressure the government to develop the region.
But nothing is ever so cut-and-dried. Motivations range from obtaining basic necessities to pure greed. Much of the environmental devastation is the result of insurgents blowing up pipelines to make their point and then attacking crews sent in to repair the damage. Many times the men will “bunker,” or tap into, a pipeline to steal the oil—which they sell on the black market to pay for weapons and provisions—leaving a busted pipe spitting oil into the ground.
A central problem, Klieman says, is that the oil companies simply factor the cost of ransoms and hostage-rescue missions into the price of doing business, making the insurgents’ efforts effectively moot.
Moot, that is, to everyone except the men who are taken hostage and their families.