Tyler Jacob, a Minnesota man who was detained by Russian forces as he tried to leave embattled Ukraine, recounted his ordeal Tuesday as he met with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who helped secure his release.
"Thank you very much for all of the hard work you both put in," Jacob said to Klobuchar and one of the senator’s staff members, Clara Haycraft, as he sat alongside them to speak to the media in Klobuchar’s Minneapolis office. "I definitely don't believe I would be here if it wasn't for you guys vouching for me. Because they thought I was a spy."
Jacob, a 28-year-old from Winona, met a woman from Ukraine and moved there last November. By January they'd married and were living in southern Ukraine, where she ran a school and Jacob taught English.
There were hints war might be coming, but they didn't know when.
"We kind of discussed before I moved (that) something was going on," Jacob said. "But she said there was nothing special, it's just day-to-day, like, nothing out of the ordinary. So when I moved there, I didn't expect anything."
It turned out to be a whirlwind of love, a new language, marriage, war and imprisonment in Russian custody — all in the span of a five months.
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When the war started in late February, Jacob said he didn't know what to do, or where to go. He spoke with other foreigners in Ukraine. They heard about a bus that would take them to a train, that would in turn take them to safety in Turkey. One afternoon, they got notice the bus was leaving in an hour.
"We had a total of 50 minutes to grab everything and make that trip," he said.
He called his mother and his father to let them know what was happening, and then hopped on the bus.
But at a checkpoint in Russian-controlled Crimea, he ran into trouble. They checked the passports of everyone on board, but he was pulled off the bus twice for questions and scans. Around 11:30 at night, they said there were problems, took him off the bus again and sat him down in a room.
"I just sat there and waited, doing nothing until six o'clock in the morning," he recounted Tuesday. "And then at that point, they're like, 'Well, it's morning. ... You need to go and sleep.' So they took me to a detention center."
They told him he wasn't a criminal and left his door open, but the next morning he was taken to court where he was sentenced to 10 days in prison.
Jacob said he was more upset than fearful; he'd seen several other foreigners let go without any trouble. But he recounted that a few days later, Russian officials found a resume on his laptop — a resume he was using as a template. The document had government experience listed on it. Russian authorities began to suspect he might be a spy. That's when Jacob began to get scared.
"And the guy's like ... 'Keep lying to me about this (and) we're gonna keep you here for a lot longer.' And at that point, I was like, 'Cool,' " Jacob recalled — now able to laugh a little at the memory. "Then the following morning, he comes and picks me up at 10. And he's like, 'hey, everything's fine.'"
By that point, Klobuchar's office had started working on his case at the request of his mother, Tina Hauser.
"I got involved in this, of course, when Tina called our office and said that her son, she hadn't heard from him, from Tyler, for several days, and that she knew something was wrong," Klobuchar said.
Her office had been working with the State Department, U.S. embassies and Jacob's family to secure his freedom. She said Tuesday that they feared his imprisonment might become part of a larger international entanglement.
"We were trying to find some kind of a middle ground between calling attention to it, but then not making it some kind of cause celebre for them wanting to keep you in custody," she said to Jacob as he sat next to her.
Within days, Jacob was on a plane back to the United States. He flew into La Crosse, Wis., and drove to Winona, where he surprised his mother by knocking on her door, which he filmed and sent to CNN.
His mother wept Tuesday as Klobuchar told them about the ups and downs of trying to get Jacob back to the U.S.
"It's been a huge relief. It's been a joy every day, talking to him and seeing him and spending time with him. It's the biggest gift I could have ever asked for," Tina Hauser said.
Her son said he's been keeping an ear on what's happening in Ukraine, but he said it's felt too raw to watch the images of the war.
"When they start showing videos and stuff on the TV, I walk away," Jacob said. His wife, who's now safe in a NATO country, keeps him updated. "Her parents are still there. And she communicates with them on a daily basis."
Jacob said he's hoping to find a job and move to Florida, where his wife and her son can join him.