Family of Utah man held in Congo coup attempt has no proof he's alive

WEST JORDAN, Utah (AP) — A Utah family whose son was implicated in a thwarted coup in Congo said they’re unsure if he's alive as they struggle to get U.S. officials to make contact with him and two other Americans two weeks after their arrest.

Tyler Thompson Jr., 21, flew to Africa in April with his former high school football teammate, Marcel Malanga, 21, for what his family believed was a vacation, with all expenses paid by Marcel's father. But the itinerary might have included more than sightseeing. Other teammates alleged that Marcel had offered up to $100,000 to join him on a “security job” in Congo.

Christian Malanga, who considered himself president of a shadow government in exile, livestreamed his attack in Kinshasa on May 19. It shows his Utah-born son carrying an assault rifle at his side, surrounded by dozens of gun-toting men in military uniforms, as he threatens President Felix Tshisekedi from inside the presidential palace. Tyler could not be seen in the livestream, but other videos circulating on social media show him bound and bloodied as Congolese soldiers take the Americans into custody.

The eccentric coup leader was shot dead after resisting arrest, the Congolese army said. In all, six people were killed and dozens arrested following that attack and another on the president's close ally, Vital Kamerhe, Congolese army spokesperson Brig. Gen. Sylvain Ekenge said.

A U.S. embassy spokesperson in Congo, Monica Shie, said Thursday they had yet to gain access to the American prisoners and did not know when they would appear in court.

As weeks pass without proof of life, Tyler’s parents worry he may have succumbed to illness — he contracted malaria earlier in the trip — or could have brain damage from one of the many blows to his head seen in videos that circulated on social media. They’re rushing to find a credible lawyer in Congo while urging U.S. officials to consider him wrongfully detained.

“We need the people in the embassy to push harder,” Tyler’s stepfather, Jason Higbee, said in an interview with The Associated Press at a family home in the Salt Lake City suburb of West Jordan, Utah.

The family also turned to Utah's elected leaders, including their governor and senators, but a foreign affairs expert said they face long odds since the State Department tends to be conservative in intervening for U.S. citizens accused of such serious crimes. The offices of Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee did not immediately respond to phone messages seeking comment.

Jared Genser, an international human rights lawyer who has represented Americans imprisoned abroad, said Tyler, Marcel and the third American prisoner, Benjamin Reuben Zalman-Polun, are unlikely to return home soon.

“I can’t imagine any scenario in the near term where the U.S. government would be advocating for their release,” Genser said. Unless the narrative changes dramatically, "the U.S. is going to say this isn’t a case we can get involved in.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has condemned the attack and offered to assist Congo in its investigation.

The foiled coup attempt came at a difficult time for Tshisekedi’s ruling party. Days after the attack on Kamerhe’s residence, the national assembly voted him in as speaker, a crucial step to forming a government after the December election.

Tyler’s family maintains he had no knowledge of the elder Malanga's intentions, no plans for political activism, and didn't even plan to enter Congo — they were meant to travel only to South Africa and Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, his stepmother, Miranda Thompson, said.

The Thompsons hope Tyler can be tried as an individual, separate from Marcel or the others.

Marcel’s mother, Brittney Sawyer, said her son is innocent and had simply followed his father. She has not responded to multiple requests for an interview.

Passing around a tissue box Thursday, Tyler’s parents and stepparents cracked smiles as his 6-year-old brother, Miles, ran around the living room in a superhero costume, assuring them that he’s assembling a team of superheroes to bring his brother home.

Rebecca Higbee said she received many happy photos and phone calls from her son earlier in the trip and had no reason to believe it was anything other than a normal vacation. She even read Christian Malanga’s Wikipedia page before they left and said he looked like a "great guy.”

“I honestly thought it was going to be a great growing experience for him," she said. Now, it's “every mom’s nightmare.”

Disco balls, piñatas and tanks of helium from the Thompsons’ party planning business — Tyler and Marcel’s workplace — filled the entryway of the family home.

Tyler had plans to open his own construction company when he returned from Africa, said his father, Tyler Thompson Sr. It's his greatest fear that his son won't get to live out those dreams.

Two weeks without the embassy making contact is concerning, Genser said, but not completely unusual in emerging democracies. The State Department strongly discourages travel to Congo, warning that its ability to provide emergency consular services is “extremely limited.”

The families should be relentless in demanding that the embassy obtain quick access, Genser said, since extended incommunicado detention can shield torture or mistreatment.

“We feel helpless that we can’t talk to him,” Tyler's father said between tears. “There’s no proof that he’s even alive still, so we kind of take the day hour by hour.”


Jessica Donati contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal.