Trump administration officials have told the family of Bob Levinson – a retired FBI agent held prisoner in Iran for more than a decade – that he has died in Iranian custody, family members said Wednesday.
Levinson disappeared 13 years ago from the island of Kish, off Iran's southern coast. Exactly what Levinson was doing in Kish remains a matter of dispute, with some reports suggesting he was working for the CIA to recruit an Iranian spy and others disputing that.
In a statement, the Levinson family made no mention of that controversy – only of their agony in learning of his death.
“We recently received information from U.S. officials that has led both them and us to conclude that our wonderful husband and father died while in Iranian custody,” the family's statement said.
“We don't know when or how he died, only that it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” they said. "It is impossible to describe our pain ... If not for the cruel, heartless actions of the Iranian regime, Robert Levinson would be alive and home with us today. It has been 13 years waiting for answers."
Trump seemed to cast doubt on Levinson's death Wednesday during a briefing on the US coronavirus response.
"I'm not looking good," Trump said, but he added: "I don't accept that he's dead ... They haven't told us that he's dead."
The Trump administration has been pressuring Iran and other foreign governments to release American hostages as the coronavirus pandemic marches across the globe – fearing that these U.S. citizens are extremely vulnerable to the disease as they languish in foreign prisons.
Levinson’s case has been a deeply contentious flashpoint between the U.S. and Iran for years. He was the longest-held hostage in American history, although Iranian officials refused to confirm his whereabouts – saying they had no information about him.
A proof-of-life video emerged in 2011, followed by photos of Levinson wearing an orange jumpsuit of the kind typically associated with prisons or hostages. But Iran insisted it was not holding him.
In 2013, the Associated Press reported that Levinson was on a mission for the CIA to recruit a potential Iranian mole. But the FBI said he was working as a private investigator, likely probing a cigarette-smuggling ring. And the White House disputed the story, calling it "highly irresponsible."
Then-White House spokesman Jay Carney said at the time that Levinson "was not a U.S. government employee" when he went into Iran in 2007.
Christine Levinson, his wife, told USA TODAY that she did not know why her husband traveled to Iran. He never spoke to her about the work he did for the government, she said in an interview last year.
The Levinsons had seven children, and the youngest was just 4-months-old when he disappeared.
"Bob's missed it all," Christine Levinson told USA TODAY last year. "High school years, college years. He's missed walking two daughters down the aisle ... We still have hope that he will somehow make it."
That hope has now been dashed.
"Bob Levinson should have spent his last moments surrounded by his family and all the love we feel for him," the family statement said. "Instead, he died alone, in captivity thousands of miles away, in unbelievable suffering. His body has not yet been returned to us for a proper burial. We don't even know when, or even if, his body would be returned to us. This is the very definition of cruelty."
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bob Levinson, US hostage held by Iran, is likely dead, family says.