Laura McQuillan: My partner Jason's kidnapping and our week from hell in Rio video

LAURA MCQUILLAN/STUFF

Jason Lee, who was kidnapped by police in Rio, explains why he and his partner left the country.

SATURDAY

"I'm getting scammed by some f***ing cops so I'm in a bit of…", said a three-second WhatsApp voice message from my partner, Jason Lee, before it cut out.

"-- for them, from the ATM, so I won't be --", came the next.

Laura McQuillan and Jason Lee in Toronto on Saturday.
SUPPLIED

Laura McQuillan and Jason Lee in Toronto on Saturday.

"-- the cops are in front of me and I'm following them to an ATM", the third said.

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* Laura McQuillan: All eyes on Olympic security as Rio de Janeiro marks one month to go

This is how our lives in Rio de Janeiro fell apart a week ago, in a series of events so strange that we ourselves can't quite believe what's happened.

View of the Olympic rings placed at Madureira Park in Rio de Janeiro.
BUDA MENDES/GETTY IMAGES

View of the Olympic rings placed at Madureira Park in Rio de Janeiro.

Last Saturday, Jay rented a car to drive to a jiu jitsu competition a few hours north of Rio de Janeiro city. He was gutted after losing his first fight, which knocked him out of the tournament. But I'm pretty sure he's forgotten all about that now.

He'd told me he should be home by 5.30pm. It was our friend Aaron's birthday party that afternoon, and I didn't want us to be too late.

If you've paid any attention to the news since then, you'll already know what happened next: Jay was pulled over by police on two motorbikes, and told he'd have to pay them R$2000, or be arrested for driving without his passport (which we now know is not a real law).

Laura McQuillan and Jason Lee.
SUPPLIED

Laura McQuillan and Jason Lee.

The choice was pretty simple: Rio de Janeiro's police are as infamous for their brutality as they are for their corruption. In Jay's mind, if he gave them cash, he'd get out of there shaken, but unharmed.

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He was escorted to a police base, made to leave his car, get in a police officer's personal car, and was driven to two ATMs to get out the cash, before being dropped back at the police station and sent on his way, with a warning that he could never tell anyone.

He kept his wits about him throughout the saga, sending me a dropped pin on a map from their base, and messaging me one of the motorbikes' number plates.

Military personnel stand guard outside the 2016 Rio Olympics Village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
DAMIR SAGOLJ/REUTERS

Military personnel stand guard outside the 2016 Rio Olympics Village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

I don't know what the correct protocol is for a girlfriend whose boyfriend has been kidnapped by armed cops, in a foreign country where few people speak English. So I just did what a journalist would do.

After Jay's first messages came through, I made a frantic call to the New Zealand Embassy to ask what to do, but the line cut out. I tried getting into Jay's iCloud account to track his movements, but couldn't get through his two-step verification. So I waited at home, shaking with worry. Jay finally got home about 7pm. He was so shaken, he could barely speak.

Jay was really reluctant to make a police complaint entirely because of the reputation police have in Brazil. In hindsight, we're 50/50 on whether that would have been the better option. On the one hand, we wouldn't have been forced to flee the country. But on the other, laying a complaint was the right thing to do.

As with many aspects in our relationship, I nagged Jay until he agreed to do it. He was swung by the suggestion that a proper investigation might save someone else the same experience, or even save a life.

An aerial view shows Christ the Redeemer atop the Corcovado mountain in Rio de Janeiro.
RICARDO MORAES/REUTERS

An aerial view shows Christ the Redeemer atop the Corcovado mountain in Rio de Janeiro.

The Tourist Police - a division of Rio's Polícia Civil - somewhat reluctantly took his complaint over the course of three hours that night.

"There are some Military Police officers involved in militias, you know? We're scared of those police officers as well," one officer warned. (The following day, the El Pais newspaper reported 219 police have been arrested for involvement in the city's murderous militias since 2008).

Another officer promised there was no way the Polícia Militar could get our address.

SUNDAY

At 2.30am, with Jay's police complaint in hand, and full of hope of recovering the stolen money, we headed home.

Hours later, we discussed about whether Jay should say anything about it on social media. As the overwhelming response shows, police kidnapping a gringo two weeks before the Olympics is a really big deal.

We were inundated with messages from journalists, and from Brazilians - including dozens who relayed their own eerily similar experiences. The New Zealand ambassador got in touch. A friend called, suggesting Jay change his appearance and his daily routine to avoid the Polícia Militar.

I promised Jay the story would be the next day's fish and chip wrapping, but I couldn't have been more wrong.

MONDAY

Jay was worried to leave the house, and we argued over whether I could please go to the supermarket and buy him some chips (in my defence, I'd already been to the supermarket that morning, and he hadn't wanted any chips then).

Our intercom rang at 2.30pm. We immediately looked at each other in panic. Jay answered - and there was a Polícia Militar officer at the other end.

He asked to come up. Jay said he'd come down. I said no one was going anywhere. We locked the doors and closed the curtains.

Jay quickly called the ambassador, who in turn called the Tourist Police. They rushed over to intercept the other officers.

The Polícia Militar cops wanted a copy of Jay's police complaint. The Tourist Police refused to give it to them. We've been told they were internal investigators from the Polícia Militar, but not why they showed up unannounced at a victim's home seeking a police document - or who gave them our address.

More Polícia Militar showed up at our building just before midnight. They were refused access by our doorman, but they handed over a homemade-looking document that confirmed they got our address from the Tourist Police. It seems neither department has figured out their bungle just yet - and I won't reveal the punchline to this sorry mistake today.

It was at this point, after the second visit, that we knew we had to get out. We packed our bags and slept about two hours.

TUESDAY

In Brazil, police jurisdiction ends at each state's border. We left Rio de Janeiro state in the early morning, and during our journey, we read about the arrests of two police officers over Jay's kidnapping.

Jay caught the next flight out of the country to Canada, and I followed on Wednesday morning. We'd already planned to shift here after the Paralympics end in September, and were lucky to have our work permits in hand.

I'm a journalist for Stuff.co.nz, and I was extremely lucky to have support from Fairfax Media to assist with us leaving the country. Their help was invaluable.

NOW

In all honesty, the story doesn't end so abruptly as I've told it, but for various reasons, we're not able to share all the details just yet. Let's just say, it's easily the weirdest thing that will ever happen to me in my lifetime.

To a Kiwi who's never been to Rio, it might be hard to wrap your head around. To expats and Brazilians, much less so: to them, the biggest surprise is that Jay laid a complaint. He's offered his full cooperation with the investigations, and prosecutors have given a positive response to his request to give further evidence via video conference.

As hard as it's been for Jay to leave his jiu jitsu academy (he says: "My life is ruined"), and for us to leave our friends, we know we did the right thing.

If he wasn't a foreigner, if I wasn't a journalist, and if the Olympics weren't on Rio's doorstep, we doubt the case would have been handled with the urgency and seriousness that it has. Obviously, we're grateful for their investigations, but this entire debacle is emblematic of wider corruption in Brazil's public agencies - and that's the problem that needs solving.

We are truly thankful to Cariocas - the people of Rio - for sharing their city with us, and for their and other Brazilians' messages of support and solidarity. Cariocas have lived in fear of their own police for decades, and they'd much rather have reliable public services than stadiums. If the leaders of Rio and Brazil want a real, lasting Olympic legacy for the city, they know what they need to do.

 - Sunday Star Times

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