Kayla Mueller’s parents search for her remains and answers in her death

The Muellers never received any of Kayla's things and still have no idea where her body was buried after her death.
Updated: Sep. 1, 2022 at 6:00 AM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) — With the ISIS terrorist who kidnapped Kayla Mueller recently sentenced to life in prison, her parents remain focused on solving the mysteries surrounding her death. “I’m glad we received justice, but for us as parents we’ll never have what we lost,” Kayla’s mother, Marsha Mueller said, following the sentencing of a terrorist, for the kidnapping and murder of four Americans, including Kayla.

In August, El Shafee Elsheikh became the highest-ranking ISIS fighter ever to be convicted in a U.S. courtroom. The Muellers followed every step of the trial. “This trial was important. It needs to be remembered and written about and part of our history. These people need to understand that we won’t stop. If you do this to an American, we’ll put you on trial,” Carl Mueller said from their home in Prescott.

Some details of Kayla’s 18 months of torture as a hostage were too much for her father to listen to. At the same time, other hostages testified about Kayla’s kindness, even in captivity. “She continued to help people. In one of her letters, she wrote that she learned ‘one can be free even in prison,’” her father said.

The Muellers supported Kayla’s humanitarian aid missions around the world after she graduated from Northern Arizona University in 2009. Their feelings changed in 2013 while Kayla was working with Syrian refugees in Turkey. Her father asked her to come home as ISIS expanded and grew more violent. Months later, Kayla was kidnapped while leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo, where she’d gone with a friend to help install communications equipment. Over the 18 months Kayla was held hostage, the Muellers emailed several times with the ISIS terrorists holding her in Syria. They demanded a ransom of several million Euros for her release. “We’d forward [the ISIS emails] to the FBI, and they wrote the response. But they never negotiated. All they were doing was stalling for time,” Carl Mueller said.

“They kept telling us that ISIS wouldn’t harm a woman, and that they were doing everything they could. And who else would you believe but the government,” Marsha Mueller recalled. They say they were also told by the FBI and the Barack Obama White House not to raise the ransom money themselves. At the same time, other government officials would follow up the threats, noting: no one has ever actually faced prosecution for paying a family member’s ransom.

The Muellers believe the government’s response during the Obama administration was too slow and uncoordinated. “The blew it and they know it,” Carl Mueller said, referring to White House officials.

U.S. commandos raided a compound but were too late. Kayla and the other hostages had already been moved. ISIS announced Kayla’s death on Twitter, blaming a Jordanian airstrike. The terrorists sent her parents a few photos as evidence of her death, along with an unusually-worded email. “They referred to Kayla as their sister, and talked about how they prepared her for burial. They said she was always writing, and had papers with her. They said most got burned up, but they’d try to send us her things,” Marsha said.

The Muellers do not believe Kayla was killed in a coalition airstrike. They never received any of her things and still have no idea where her body was buried. They are determined to solve the mysteries surrounding her death and the location of her remains. They’re following several leads with the help of several former military and FBI officials. “We keep getting little bits of information. It’s incredible, the network we’ve built,” Marsha Mueller said.

The Muellers say a retired colonel is on the ground in Syria, with a team, searching for Kayla’s remains. Stateside, the family has been working quietly for years with a former FBI agent, Ali Soufan. He spent his career working on high-profile terror cases, from the U.S.S. Cole bombing to the Sept. 11 attacks. “He won’t give up until he finds her,” Marsha said.

The pandemic set their search back two years, but they still hope to get answers. “In one of her letters, she told us she was doing what she could and still had a lot of fight left in her. That’s how I am. I have a lot of fight in me, too, to bring her home,” Marsha Mueller said.

In the meantime, the Muellers continue to hear from other young humanitarians, following a path similar to Kayla’s. “I hope her story inspires young people and I hope they learn from what happened and be careful,” Carl Mueller said.