Three weeks ago, Robert Hall appeared in yet another video recorded somewhere in the jungles of the southern Philippines. Wearing a bright orange T-shirt, his bearded face haggard and thin, the 66-year-old* Calgary native was slouched on the ground beside two other hostages: Marites Flor, his beloved Filipina girlfriend; and Kjartan Sekkingstad, a Norwegian.
A fourth captive, fellow Canadian John Ridsdel, had already been executed—beheaded on April 25, as promised, by Abu Sayyaf terrorists after a ransom deadline came and went without payment.
“It appears my government has abandoned me and my family in this endeavour,” Hall said into the camera that May day, his wrists shackled. “We have a hundred people heavily armed around us all the time that dictate to us and talk to us like children. We’ve been humiliated in every way possible.”
The video was a “final” warning from Hall’s Islamist captors: pay up by June 13 ($8 million per hostage), or another person will perish.
“We hope that you can work on our behalf as soon as possible to get us out of here,” Hall continued. “Please, the sooner the better. We’re three-quarters dead right now.” He saved his final words for the friends and relatives who had worked so desperately to free him: “I know you did everything you can, and I truly appreciate it.”
Tragically, whatever efforts unfolded behind the scenes were not enough to rescue Robert Hall, a welder, actor and lifelong dreamer who sold all his Canadian possessions to sail halfway around the world to be with his new girlfriend. As with Ridsdel, his extremist captors followed through with their gruesome threat, murdering him mere minutes after their self-imposed deadline of 3:00 p.m. Monday (1:00 a.m. in Hall’s home province of Alberta). “There is no extension,” an Abu Sayyaf spokesman told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, as the deadline approached. “We have talked this over and over among our leadership and all decided no extension.”
The Associated Press later reported that a severed head was found on a street in Sulu Province, inside a plastic bag.
Although the Philippine government has yet to officially confirm Hall’s murder, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday there are compelling reasons to believe the local media reports. He also expressed his condolences to Hall’s devastated family, praising their “great strength of character” and “resilience” throughout a horrific ordeal that has dragged on for nearly nine months. “This is a grievous loss for them and their country mourns with them,” Trudeau told reporters on Parliament Hill. “Terrorism is a scourge on the world. Too many families have endured the unspeakable grief the Hall family is feeling today because of these senseless acts of hatred.”
The Canadian flag in the Peace Tower was already lowered in solidarity with the victims of Sunday’s mass shooting in Orlando. It now “flies lowered for yet another sad event,” Trudeau said.
Hall and the other three hostages were kidnapped at gunpoint last September from the Holiday Oceanview Resort, a picturesque marina on Samal Island, a short ferry ride from Davao City. The island is a popular port for foreign sailors because it is south of the region’s typhoon belt—and considered relatively safe. On a hilltop overlooking the shore is a Hollywood-style sign: OCEANVIEW. Hall and his sailboat, a pleasure craft dubbed Renova, arrived at the resort in March 2015.
The militants who stormed that same boat six months later, on Sept. 21, were members of Abu Sayyaf, a militant organization supposedly dedicated to establishing an Islamic state, governed by sharia law, in the southern Philippines. Over the years, the group has pledged allegiance to both al-Qaeda and ISIS, but in truth, the organization is more criminal than ideological. Their specialty is for-profit terrorism, namely abduction-for-ransom. (At first, they demanded an outlandish one billion pesos in exchange for each hostage, or the equivalent of $28 million.)
According to longstanding government policy, Canada does not pay ransoms to kidnappers because it would be akin to funding terrorism. It would also encourage further abductions, as more groups would surely attempt to cash in on Canada’s willingness to pay for a citizen’s release. At a meeting of G7 nations in Japan last month, Trudeau was the driving force behind a new directive to “unequivocally reiterate” the group’s resolve “not to pay ransoms to terrorists.”
In his prepared statement, Trudeau repeated that stance, even amid the news of Hall’s brutal murder. “Canada cannot and will not pay ransoms to terrorists,” he said. “We will not turn the maple leaf worn with pride by over three million Canadians abroad into targets.”
But while the government won’t use taxpayers’ money to fund a ransom, there is nothing prohibiting a family from paying a private ransom—if they can afford it. (A growing number of insurance companies also offer kidnapping and ransom coverage to Canadians living in dangerous regions of the world.) After Ridsdel was beheaded in April, his longtime friend, former Liberal interim leader Bob Rae, confirmed that his two daughters worked feverishly, and quietly, to try to secure the hostages’ freedom. “If I may say so, they were heroic in terms of their efforts to figure out ways and means of helping their father,” Rae told Maclean’s. “They did everything they could, and I think it’s important that Canadians know that.”
Whether Hall’s loved ones attempted a ransom is not clear; Trudeau asked the media to respect their privacy and “allow them time to come to terms with their loss.” However, the vice-governor of Sulu Province told the Globe and Mail that Hall’s family did indeed manage to raise money for a ransom—$1.4-million—but that Abu Sayyaf rejected their offer as too low.
The fate of the other two captives, Flor and Sekkingstad, is not clear.
One of six* siblings, Robert Ward Hall was born in Calgary and grew up in the city’s Midnapore district. He has two adult sons. A welder by trade (he used to own a small shop in Spruce Grove, an Edmonton bedroom community), Hall was also an experienced pilot, an amateur actor and a former insurance salesman.
A company named Global Heat Transfer hired him about 15 years ago to beef up its manufacturing business, mostly providing radiators and cooling systems for the oil sector. Hall excelled at carrying out tricky machinery designs, co-workers remember. “Anything I saw him put his hands to, he was the best at what he did,” says Shane Hinks, a fan of Hall’s stainless steel work.
Hall was a lanky, soft-spoken and eccentric man in oil-patch welding—a world of big cars, macho talk and chain smoking. He drove to work in a used Dodge Caravan, and he’d spend lunch hours with a book, newspaper or sometimes a travel guide for the next adventure he was dreaming up. He didn’t smoke, but would come outside with the other guys to chat. He didn’t exactly fit in, but he fit in. “He wasn’t the typical bigotty oilpatch guy. If you seen him in his everyday life, he didn’t live that lifestyle,” says Hinks. When Hall attended Christmas parties, he’d have a seat at everybody’s table, Hinks says. “He was like Norm from Cheers, that guy everyone knows.”
Hinks hails from Port aux Basques, Nfld., which made him somebody Hall particularly wanted to know. He’d often ask Hinks what seaside culture and people were like, and wax on about his dreams to sail around the world and visit many such serene coastal villages—far removed from the hustle of a shop job in a stressful city. “He wasn’t fast-paced. He was quiet, a small-town, small-group sort of guy,” Hinks says. On the side, he bought and sold property; a decal on his vehicle read: “Pay cash for your home.” The more money he could save, the sooner Hall could get to his golden years on the ocean blue.
He had a dry sense of humour. Around Halloween, Hall would drive his old Caravan around with a fake severed arm hanging out the window. The prop would become a fixture on his sailboat, too.
Around 2011, Hall left Edmonton to semi-retire along the water in Campbell River, B.C., a city of 32,000 on Vancouver Island’s east coast. He became a part-time welding instructor at the city’s North Island College, and picked up gigs acting in short indie films, including one by a precocious teen director. Michael Stevantoni cast Hall as a flinty senior detective in an 18-minute cop thriller. “I’m a 14-year-old kid and I’m scared to hell about doing this, but he treated me like a professional director,” says Stevantoni, now 20 and at film school in Los Angeles.
Hall even had an agent, and his acting CV lists other special skills, from horseback riding to fencing.
While living in Campbell River, Hall would sometimes drive back to Edmonton for occasional jobs at Global Heat Transfer. Once, colleague Roy Nand made an offhand comment about how good the seafood must be on Vancouver Island. (A Fijian, Nand missed that fare.) On the next trip, Hall returned to Alberta with two coolers full of crabs for Nand and his uncle. “And these weren’t small crabs, either,” he remembers. “If you tell him something even jokingly, if he has the ways to get it for you, he’ll do it.”
In early 2014, Hall saw a perfect opportunity to fulfill his dream. Naomi Tabata, a fellow college instructor, was selling Renova, her 36-foot Cape Dory offshore cruiser. Tabata and her husband John Fremont had spent the better part of three years roving the Pacific islands on it. They priced their beloved vessel low, thinking any buyer would have to travel far to buy it (it’s the type of ocean-ready craft you dock in San Diego or Florida, not in the Georgia Strait). Hall picked up his dream boat for about $70,000, and prepared to cross the ocean with it that fall. “It’s a small boat for doing that kind of trip, but it’s a perfect boat if you’re going single-handed, if you’re on your own,” Tabata says.
When Hall came by the welding shop in mid-2014 for one last job, having sold all his properties and bought Renova, a few coworkers kibitzed about dangers on the open water. “He told me he was going to go through where they did the nuclear testing,” recalls Dwayne Dalgleish. “Joking around, I said, ‘you’re getting close to the pirate waters.’ I told him be careful and all that. He just laughed it off. He was just going to go travel and enjoy his retirement.”
Tabata believed his ultimate destination would be Thailand. In fact, he had already scouted out his target destination—and his desire to be there: Marites Flor. He’d been corresponding through calls and online video chats with the Filipina office clerk, and in August 2014, he traveled to her home country to meet her. He toured the region and was introduced to most of Flor’s family, including her teenage son. Her Facebook friends remarked at how radiantly happy she looked, in those photos with Hall’s arm draped around her.
Back in Canada the following month, Hall prepared for his slow return on Renova. “I love you with all my heart and life,” he wrote to her, according to one of her posts on Facebook. In December 2014, after reaching Hawaii, Hall sent another message: “I shall be finding you a very special ring as my commitment to you forever, and you are my greatest gift, for Christmas and eternity.”
When he finally made it back to Philippines in spring 2015, Flor and Hall went sailing and snorkelling together, and she’d watch him on soccer fields. In March, she brought her boyfriend along to her son’s school graduation. Pinned to Hall’s short-sleeve dress shirt was a badge marked “parent.” She joined her beau last April on a 1,000-kilometre yacht journey to the island of Palau.
When the trip finished, Hall steered his sailboat into the Oceanview marina.
After the September kidnapping, word trickled out around the Edmonton welding shop that a Robert Hall had been taken hostage in the Philippines. But initial new stories showed a man with a more oval face, short cropped hair and less of it grey. “We all laughed about it and said: ‘That’s not him, that’s not him,’ ” Hinks says. Then, the kidnappers released the first of numerous videos. It was indeed their quiet friend, the one they weren’t sure they’d ever see again.
CORRECTION, June 14, 2016: This story originally claimed that Robert Hall was 50 years old, and that he was one of four siblings. In fact, Hall was 66 years old and he was one of six siblings. Maclean’s regrets the errors.