Bill Richardson, former New Mexico governor who freed hostages, is dead at 75

WASHINGTON – Bill Richardson, the politician and diplomat who came to be one of the most influential negotiators for Americans held hostage abroad, died Friday at age 75.

Though he had been a congressman, a cabinet secretary and a 2008 presidential candidate, he went always by the moniker "the Governor," from his time as governor of his home state of New Mexico.

Yet the governor carved out perhaps his greatest influence later in life, as an international advocate who worked both inside and outside government channels. His role in freeing hostages and other wrongly detained Americans earned him a nickname from President Bill Clinton: "undersecretary for thugs."

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson outside the Richardson Center for Global Engagement in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

More from USA TODAY: Bill Richardson's endless push to free Americans detained abroad

Richardson, who still lived in New Mexico, died at his summer home in Chatham, Massachusetts.

“Governor Richardson passed away peacefully in his sleep last night,” said Mickey Bergman, vice president of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, which Richardson ran.

“He lived his entire life in the service of others – including both his time in government and his subsequent career helping to free people held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad,” Bergman said. “There was no person that Governor Richardson would not speak with if it held the promise of returning a person to freedom. The world has lost a champion for those held unjustly abroad and I have lost a mentor and a dear friend.”

In recent years, Richardson spent much of his time as a private diplomat representing the growing number of American families seeking to free loved ones who had been unjustly detained in other countries. He filled a whole biography with tales of his high-stakes meetings with tribal leaders and tyrants, writing about brokering deals with Fidel, Saddam, Hugo and "a Kim or two."

Richardson's death was mourned by prisoner advocates and leaders at every level.

Neda Sharghi, chair of the nonprofit Bring Our Families Home Campaign, was one of the many people who sought Richardson's counsel. Her brother, Emad Shargi, who spells his surname differently, is an American businessman who has been held in Iran since 2015, and is the subject of discussions of a possible prisoner swap.

“On behalf of the countless families that Governor Richardson and his Center have helped, I wanted to express our profound feeling of loss at his passing," Sharghi said. “Governor Richardson has been a fierce advocate for human rights and the effort to bring home people unjustly held overseas.”

Australian nurse Maree Worthington, left, waves as she arrives at the Geneva airport accompanied by then Rep. Bill Richardson in this Dec. 9, 1996 file photo. Worthington was released with two other workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross after five weeks in captivity by rebels in southern Sudan.

“Governor Richardson was a mentor of mine and he will be missed by many, including and especially the countless families he helped over the years,” said Jon Franks, who worked with Richardson to secure the release of Americans detained overseas including Trevor Reed, a former Marine who was detained in Russia in 2019.

"Few have served our nation in as many capacities or with as much relentlessness, creativity, and good cheer," President Joe Biden said in a statement. "But perhaps his most lasting legacy will be the work Bill did to free Americans held in some of the most dangerous places on Earth."

Bill Richardson the hostage negotiator

Richardson's identity as a foreign negotiator began by accident. In 1994, he was a U.S. Representative from Santa Fe. He happened to be a Congressional trip to North Korea when a U.S. Army helicopter was shot down after it veered off course in the demilitarized zone that separates North from South Korea. One American died and the other was taken into North Korean custody.

US Representative Bill Richardson of New Mexico (2ndL) stands with others during a silent tribute to US Army Chief Warrant Officer David Hilemon, who died when his OH-58 helicopter was either shot down or made an emergency landing in North Korea 17 December. The ceremony took place at the truce village of Panmunjom 22 December. The US pilot who survived remains in North Korean custody.

“I remember Secretary of State Warren Christopher calling me and saying, ‘Don't leave, please, until you get the two pilots out,’” Richardson said later. He stayed for five days of tense negotiations and eventually won the return of one soldier’s remains and freedom for the other.

His reputation grew thanks to similar exploits in the years that followed. He traveled to Baghdad to secure the release of two Americans who had wandered over the Kuwaiti border. He later described the precarious negotiation with Saddam Hussein: At one point, Richardson inadvertently crossed his legs, creating a cultural offense by showing the bottom of his shoes. Saddam slammed his fist on the table and walked out. Richardson said the decision not to apologize or leave was a show of resolve that salvaged the effort.

Other efforts led to more tragic endings. In 2013, Richardson tried but fell short of bringing back imprisoned missionary Kenneth Bae from North Korea. A few years later, he helped get Otto Warmbier, an Ohio college student, home – but Warmbier, who had become comatose during captivity, died soon after.

Bill Clinton and Bill Richardson

Richardson's reputation as the “undersecretary for thugs” was one that President Bill Clinton helped establish for him, years before Richardson ran against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president.

Richardson had just returned from Sudan, where Sudanese rebels had taken Red Cross workers and a New Mexico constituent hostage. They were held in a reed hut on a $2.5 million ransom. Richardson flew in an old cargo plane to meet the rebel leader, and successfully negotiated a release in exchange for rice, radios, four Jeeps, a health survey and a promise to work on resolving conflict in the area.

Upon Richardson's return, the Washington Post declared, “The once low-profile lawmaker is now called the Clark Kent of Capitol Hill.”

Shortly after the return from Sudan, President Clinton appointed him as Ambassador to the United Nations.

President Clinton, left, embraces Bill Richardson, then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, at a White House Rose Garden ceremony June 18, 1998. Clinton announced that Richardson was going to become the new Secretary of Energy.

“President Clinton used to say Bill knew all the thugs,” Richardson’s wife, Barbara, told USA TODAY in an interview earlier this year. “He had a knack for it. And I think he liked the adventure of it. And it just sort of grew from there.”

From the post at the United Nations, Richardson went on to serve as energy secretary and two terms as governor of New Mexico, and to make a short-lived run at the presidency.

The two politicians later formed a deep rift, though, which Richardson said was a result of his decision not to endorse Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries. He threw his support, instead, to Barack Obama. Richardson later wrote about how his decision had complicated their relationship.

The Clintons, in a statement Saturday, said they were deeply saddened by Richardson's death.

"His innate diplomatic skills made him a success at the U.N., and his roots in the West, and his experience, helped him succeed as Secretary of Energy," they said. "Whether in an official or unofficial capacity, he was a masterful and persistent negotiator who helped make our world more secure."

More: Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson: 5 things you may not know about his life and legacy

'The governor': Bill Richardson and New Mexico

Even at age 75, Bill Richardson's staff and many others referred to him as "the Governor," a title he had not held in more than a decade.

“New Mexico, our country, and, frankly, the entire world lost a champion today," New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement Saturday. "Bill Richardson was a titan among us, fighting for the little guy, world peace, and everything in between. He was a visionary who saw the potential of our great state before so many others did."

Richardson was the nation’s only Hispanic governor during his two terms, according to the Associated Press. As governor, Richardson signed legislation in 2009 that repealed the death penalty, raised teacher salaries and the state minimum wage, and implemented renewable energy requirements.

U.S. Rep. Gabe Vasquez, D-NM, called Richardson "a titan in New Mexico and abroad” on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

"I mourn the passing of this New Mexico legend, one of the most powerful Hispanics in politics that this nation has seen," Vasquez said. "Today, we reflect on his decades of service and for always proudly representing New Mexico."

Richardson continued to live in New Mexico, driving an aging Jeep Wrangler to a modest office in downtown Santa Fe where he ran the Richardson Center's efforts, talking by phone to contacts across the globe.

Bill Richardson's role in freeing Brittney Griner

Richardson contributed to efforts to broker a deal for the release of Brittney Griner, the WNBA star who spent 10 months in a Russian prison after she was detained for allegedly possessing cannabis oil in her luggage. Griner was eventually exchanged for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. The exchange illuminated the shadowy but central role Richardson could play in such deals.

Only the U.S. president can authorize such high-profile prisoner swaps, but after Griner’s release in December 2022, her family issued a public “special thank you" to Richardson.

Griner's agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, previously told USA TODAY, referring to Richardson and his director and second-in-command at the Richardson Center, Mickey Bergman, "We did not make any major moves without consulting them." Griner's wife or representatives "spoke with Mickey on almost a daily basis."

In late 2021, Richardson made headlines again for his role in freeing American journalist Danny Fenster in Myanmar.

Fenster, 38, became a global figure while he spent six months in a Myanmar prison after he was detained over claims he violated the country's immigration and terrorism laws. Richardson was familiar with Myanmar, previously known as Burma, through past work with former leader Aung San Suu Kyi dating to the 1990s.

Richardson and Bergman later described secret negotiations they said they had with Myanmar's new miliatary leader. When Richardson returned home without Fenster, he took a barrage of public and private criticism for giving the junta credibility.

Danny Fenster, center, hugs his mother Rose Fenster as former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson, right, looks on at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. Fenster was sentenced last week to 11 years of hard labor. He was handed over Monday to Richardson, who helped negotiate the release. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

But not long after, Richardson flew to Myanmar again, in a deal he said he had privately arranged, and picked up Fenster. "I knew I had an opportunity, and we got him out," Richardson later told USA TODAY.

Bill Richardson Nobel Peace Prize nominations

Richardson was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last month for his efforts in freeing hostages and other wrongly detained Americans. He told The Hill that he was “ honored by this nomination of a prestigious award, knowing it’s a long shot.”

He had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on several other occasions, such as in 2019 for his work in North Korea seeking the release of hostages there. But his latest nomination was notable since it was backed by four senators, the Hill reported.

"Proud to be one of the four Senators who advocated for this nomination," Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-NM, posted on Facebook last month. "Our former governor has spent his post-political career dedicated to the safe return of political prisoners and hostages around the world and I am enormously grateful for his service."

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson holds a conference call at the Richardson Center for Global Engagement in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Over the years, Richardson found success as well as controversy in the role he carved out as an international negotiator, a space he sometimes described as being a friend of the U.S. administration, but not part of the administration.

Outside government channels, that could mean working Richardson's contacts: a revolving cast of former diplomats, intelligence and law enforcement officials. U.S. officials who worked closely with Richardson generally declined to comment on his efforts.

Richardson, in an interview with USA TODAY earlier this year, said he would collaborate with American officials, but would also press on alone when needed.

“We try to coordinate with the U.S. government when it's helpful, but we don't work for the government,” Richardson said. “We consult with them. Our responsibility is to the families.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bill Richardson, former New Mexico governor and UN ambassador, has died