Christine Levinson had endured nearly four years of despair since her husband, Robert, disappeared in Iran. Every glimmer of hope in the U.S. government's search for him had faded away, every optimistic lead had ended with disappointment. Privately, some believed he was probably dead.
Then, in November 2010, the mother of seven, who had never given up hope, received an email from an unknown address. A file was attached.
But it would not open.
Frantically, she forwarded it to some computer-savvy friends, people close to the family recalled. Can you open this, she asked? What is it?
Finally, the file opened. Her friends held the phone to the computer. And though she could not see his face, she immediately recognized the voice.
"My beautiful, my loving, my loyal wife, Christine," Robert Levinson began.
It was a video, the proof of life that the family had sought for so long.
The video, which the Coral Springs, Florida family released on its website Friday, represented the most significant clue in a mystery that has confounded investigators from the start. But it did not end the family's vigil, or answer the most important questions: Who was holding Levinson? And why?
On the tape, Robert Levinson, the once burly, gregarious retired FBI agent, looked haggard. His voice wavered. But he was alive.
"I have been treated well. But I need the help of the United States government to answer the requests of the group that has held me for three-and-a-half years," Levinson said. "And please help me get home."
He was a hostage.
It was the first breakthrough in the case since Levinson, a private detective, traveled to the Iranian island of Kish in March 2007. His family said he was there investigating cigarette smuggling for a corporate client. He spent one night in a hotel, meeting a fugitive named Dawud Salahuddin, a man wanted for the murder of an Iranian diplomat in the United States in 1980.
Levinson checked out of his hotel and vanished.
Everything after that has been a mystery. The video, however, contained some tantalizing clues, and the government's experts have studied each one.
The faint music in the background, it was determined, was Pashto wedding music from a region in Pakistan and Afghanistan, just over Iran's eastern border.
The email address traced back to an Internet cafe in Pakistan, according to several officials who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke to The Associated Press only on condition of anonymity to discuss the case.
And then there were Levinson's words. He said a "group" held him, not a government. And he said he had been held "here" for that time, suggesting he had not been moved. But his words appeared scripted. It could all be misdirection.
The video ignited the most hopeful round of diplomacy in his case to date.
"I knew it was Bob right away" on the video, Christine Levinson told "Early Show on Saturday Morning" co-anchor Russ Mitchell. "As soon as I saw him and he spoke, I knew it was Bob. I was dismayed by the fact that he had lost so much weight and was looking so sad, but, at the same time, determined to come home to us. And I was happy at the same time that he was alive."
It was, she told Mitchell, "very tough" keeping the video private for a year. "We want this case resolved and, of course, we want it done now," she said, "but we have no control over how quickly we can get it done, and that's why we're trying to get it out now."
She says she's satisfied with U.S. government efforts to find and free her husband. "The FBI has an open case," she noted to Mitchell, "and I believe they are doing everything they can to try to find him. Southwest Asia is a very difficult area."
"The whole goal of putting this video out. And the plea," she pointed out, is to establish contact with Robert Levinson's captors. "We have tried to contact them, but we have be unsuccessful in receiving any kind of reply from them, so I continue to press for a reply, and I think this is the best way to make sure that they get in touch with us."
Former New York Times reporter David Rohde, who was held hostage by the Taliban for 7 months while covering the war in Afghanistan, told Mitchell that, "To be frank, it's virtually impossible" for the Levinson family to establish a dialogue with Robert's captors. " ... In my case," he said, "the initial demands for my release were a crazy amount of money and (the release of) prisoners. I was able to escape, so I was very lucky, but I just feel absolutely terrible for them. The family doesn't know what to do. Do you keep it private? Do you go public? And I think releasing this video is really a desperate effort by them to try to create momentum in this very sad case."
Robert Levinson's health, Rohde says, is "very important" to those holding him. "I was treated very well. He's lost weight. I lost some weight. But they will keep you alive, because they see you as this sort of valuable commodity they are trying to sell. So, I think there's an excellent chance he's alive even though the tape is a year old and there should be tremendous efforts to help him and his family."
Rohde advised Levinson's kin to, "Be patient. They do consider him very valuable. I do think he's still alive but just try to get through each day. In the end there isn't that much they control in terms of having this case end, and I'm sure he is just trying to get through each day, and he feels terrible for what the family is going through, as well. And they just need to -- it's hard to say but, stay at it, and be positive. There can be a resolution in these cases, and someday he will come home."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in March that Levinson was alive and called on Iran to help find him. More privately, U.S. officials met with members of the Iranian government to discuss the case.
Momentum seemed to be building toward Levinson's release.
But some things didn't add up. Most significantly, the note accompanying the video demanded the release of prisoners. But officials said the United States wasn't holding those prisoners. They concluded that some of them might not even be real people.
U.S. officials and Levinson's family and friends were convinced that someone was trying to tell them something, but they didn't know who or what. Whoever had Levinson, they figured, wanted to instill a sense of urgency.
"I am not in very good health," Levinson, who is now 63, said in the video. "I am running very quickly out of diabetes medicine."
Then, early this year, the family received another email, this one containing photos showing Levinson in an orange prison jumpsuit like those worn by detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison. He had a long beard and disheveled hair. He was even thinner.
In each photo, he wore a different sign hung around his neck. One read, "Why you can not help me."
This time, officials traced the email back to Afghanistan. They still had no idea where Levinson was.
Perhaps the clues meant he was being held in Balochistan -- a rugged, arid region that spans parts of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Maybe he was in the lawless tribal region along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. These areas are home to terrorists, militant groups and criminal organizations.
None of these groups has a clear motive for picking up Levinson. But an American hostage, particularly a former FBI agent, would be considered a valuable commodity to any of them.
Or maybe, some U.S. officials said, the Iranian government routed the video through Pakistan as a way to blame Levinson's disappearance on someone else, like the anti-Iran terrorist group Jundallah.
But it was all just theory.
As weeks became months, officials became less optimistic about the talks between the U.S. and Iran.
On Friday, Christine Levinson and her son, David, broke out of the diplomatic process that had been unsuccessful for so long. On their family website, they posted a video message to the kidnappers.
"Please tell us your demands so we can work together to bring my father home safely," David Levinson said.
They released the hostage video to the world and asked whoever sent it to contact them again.
"We are not part of any government and we are not experts on the region," David Levinson said. "No one can help us but you. Please help us."
It was a desperate plea, one made as relations between the Iranian and U.S. governments have grown steadily worse.