SHE was a young woman with a gift for empathy and a smile for everyone but when the town of Prescott first lost Kayla Mueller it went about its business, unaware of the terrible secret.
For 18 months most people in tâ€‹he picturesque town in Arizonaâ€™s Bradshaw mountains assumed their friend and neighbour was away studying or doing â€‹voluntary work.
They did not know she was was a hostage in Syria, or that US forces had attempted to rescue her, or that her harrowing fate was going to put the town in headlines.
â€‹Ever since she was a teenager Mueller, 26, had marched and campaigned to raise awareness about suffering in troubled lands far from Prescottâ€™s pine forests and granite mountains.
Only last week â€‹residents learned that in August 2013 she had fallen into the â€‹hands of Islamic State (Isis), a fate previously known only to her family, close confidantes and senior officials.
â€‹When it made the news public, â€‹the terror group said Mueller was killed in a recent Jordanian air strike on one of its Syrian strongholds.
For Prescott, a thunderclap revelation, but not without hope. Maybe Isis was lying. Maybe â€‹Mueller was alive. Maybe prayers and vigils could save her, and bring her home.
â€œThey held hope out because you always do until you have confirmation of bad news,â€ said one neighbour, who declined to be named, citing the Mueller familyâ€™s request for privacy.
On Tuesday, the town learned it had lost â€‹her forever. The White House and the Muellers â€‹issued statements saying they had received information confirming her death.
â€œItâ€™s a tough day. Weâ€™re still taking it in,â€ Linda Ballard, who knows the family, told the Guardian.
Muellerâ€™s parents, Carl and Marsha Mueller, and her brother Eric, said in their statement: â€œOur hearts are breaking for our only daughter, but we will continue on in peace, dignity, and love for her.â€ Sheriffâ€™s deputies blocked off the only road leading to their home.
President Barack Obama told Buzzfeed â€‹he was heartbroken and that the US policy of not paying a ransom was â€œas tough as anything I doâ€. He said the administration tried to save her. â€œI deployed an entire operation â€“ at significant risk â€“ to rescue not only her but the other individuals who had been held, and probably missed them by a day or two, precisely because we had that commitment.â€
It appeared to be a reference to a commando raid on an oil refinery in northern Syria last year. US officials have questioned Isisâ€™s claim that Jordanian air strikes killed Mueller.
People in Prescott who had spent the past few days praying for her deliverance gathered at â€‹a tree-lined town square, a short drive from her home, to mourn and pay tribute.
A phalanx of television cameras transformed the spot, which usually hosts craft fairs and picnickers, into a stage for an emotional press conference.
â€œShe did ordinary things in extraordinary measure,â€ said Kathleen Day, the head of United Christian Ministry at Northern Arizona University where Mueller had studied. A letter written in captivity showed how Mueller retained her spirit and desire to connect, even teaching her guards origami, said Day. â€œWe took delight in that. Kayla remained Kayla.â€
Lori Lyon, a maternal aunt, said her niece did more than many people can imagine doing in a lifetime. â€œAt a young age, she knew her calling.â€ Kayla touched the worldâ€™s heart, she said, her voice cracking. â€œThe world grieves with us. The world mourns with us.â€ Lyon broke away from the cameras, unable to say more.
Mueller was seized by Isis fighters in August 2013 as she left a hospital run by the Spanish branch of MÃ©decins Sans FrontiÃ¨res in Aleppo. In her letter, which her family said was written in the spring of 2014, Mueller said she had been â€œtreated with the utmost respect â€‹and kindnessâ€, adding that she was being kept in a safe location, â€œcompletely unharmed â€‹and healthyâ€.
Mueller had a remarkable ability to always find a silver lining, said her friend Eryn Street. â€œKayla had such great empathy. Itâ€™s hard to find that in this world. Itâ€™s really rare.â€ Street, tears streaming, said she was not sure she could live in a world without Mueller. â€œBut I do know that weâ€™re all living in a better world because of her.â€
Prescott, a windy, dusty town known mainly for Wyatt Earp and other figures from the old west, was slowly absorbing its loss, said Catherine Sebold, the townâ€™s communications and public affairs manager.
â€œThis is a tight-knit community. Like any small town everybody is very protective of each other. A lot of people didnâ€™t know about it, they had no idea she was over there. Everybody is very shocked and very upset with the terrorists. To have a small town thrust into the international headlines, itâ€™s just crazy that this is happening here.â€
Prescott would honour Mueller according to the familyâ€™s wishes, Sebold added. – The Guardian