Broward businessman held hostage in China back home

A Coral Springs executive is back home in South Florida Friday after being held hostage by his employees in a Beijing plant for nearly a week during a pay dispute.

He arrived back in Broward on Friday morning and was welcomed by his family, telling reporters he was relieved to be back after a "nightmare."

Charles “Chip” Starnes was released after his company, Specialty Medical Supplies, agreed to pay nearly 150 employees an undisclosed sum, according to co-owner Leslie Capella.

Starnes was trapped in his office at the plant for six days after workers began blocking the exits on June 21.

“Right now, I’m still literally in shock,” Starnes told the Miami Herald while boarding his connecting flight from Newark to Fort Lauderdale Thursday night. “I’m jet-lagged. I’ve been going 100 miles per hour and I haven’t stopped.”

Wife Cecily Starnes, along with their three children and his parents, planned to greet her husband with a cake, balloons and posters upon his arrival in Fort Lauderdale before taking him to their Parkland home.

“I just can’t wait to see him, hug him, tell him we love him, get home and maybe give him some fresh clothes,” she said.

Cecily Starnes last spoke with her husband late Wednesday as he was being driven to his hotel from the factory in Huairou district on the outskirts of Beijing.

“He kept saying, ‘Oh my God, I’m so scared, I’m scared,’ ” she said, adding that her husband said he feared for his safety after receiving threats.

Starnes and his lawyers changed cars twice on the way to the hotel to avoid being followed, and his lawyers announced a news conference at the plant to create a diversion while they took him to the airport, she said.

Starnes told the Herald that it wasn’t the workers who had threatened him.

Starnes had no food and hardly any water for a day after his detainment, Capella said.

He then received three meals a day, including KFC and Chinese food.

Starnes later texted that he lost nine pounds during the ordeal.

Around the fourth night, he got a cot to sleep on.

“He’s a big man, so you can imagine that a Chinese cot would not be the most comfortable,” said Capella.

Workers deprived him of sleep by shining bright lights and banging on windows.

It’s not an unusual method for Chinese workers to employ when making demands for pay and benefits. Typically, police don’t intervene, allowing instead a labor official to negotiate.

That’s what happened in Starnes’ case, although the U.S. Embassy did make sure he received drops for an eye infection, his wife said.

Starnes arrived in Beijing to lay off 30 people as the company shut down its plastics division, with plans to move it to Mumbai, India.

When employees saw equipment being packed for shipment to India, many thought the entire factory was being shut. According to the Associated Press, they also alleged the company owed them unpaid salary.

In order to get Starnes released, the company agreed to a compensation deal with workers, even though it did not owe any wages, Capella said. He declined to discuss the terms of the agreement or the amount paid out.

“There was a miscommunication about the shutdown of one division, so the other workers became nervous,” he said.

Starnes has traveled to the factory several times a year for a decade, and no one expected his business trip to go awry.

“We were totally shocked. There were no signs of trouble,” said Capella, who added that this is the company’s only Chinese plant. They co-own Coral Springs-based Caribbean Medical Brokers Inc., which does business as Specialty Medical Supplies.

Capella said Starnes is “like a brother to me,” and he spoke with him regularly during the ordeal, sometimes staying on the phone the whole night.

Although the labor negotiator said all of the Chinese employees would be terminated, Starnes said he would hire some back, despite the fact that they held him hostage.

Capella said the controversy has not affected business at home, although Cecily Starnes said it affected the company financially.

The Chinese workers’ actions may have stemmed from growing job uncertainty amid China’s slowing economic growth and fears that some foreign-owned factories will leave as labor costs increase.

“It certainly makes us more suspect and more leery of what can happen there,” Capella said.

“We knew those things were happening, but until something happens personally, you don’t realize what it’s like.”

This report was supplemented with information from The Associated Press.

Read more Broward stories from the Miami Herald

During Florida Superson July 3-6 at the Miami Beach Convention Center, Richard Horvitz (right) took a photo of an excited friend (left) with Bill Farmer (middle) who is the voice of Goofy and Pluto.

    Celebs enjoy Florida Supercon as much as fans

    The ninth annual Florida Supercon was definitely the place to be, if interested in reminiscing, people watching or embracing ‘your’ inner geekness.

Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue’s hazardous materials team responds to a gas leak at Croissant Park, 245 West Park Drive, Thursday morning.

    Underground gas leak temporarily closes Croissant Park early Thursday

    An underground gas leak led to the temporary closure of a Fort Lauderdale pool and park Thursday morning.


    Livestream: Opposition leaders discuss Venezuela’s crisis, future

    Beset by growing popular discontent and an economy in ruins, Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution faces one of the toughest times in its 15-year history, raising doubts about whether its socialist leader, President Nicolás Maduro, will be able to complete the remaining five years of his six-year term. That uncertainty, whose outcome could have a dramatic impact on the rest of Latin America, will be the focus of a forum on Friday co-hosted by el Nuevo Herald and the Association of Venezuelan Journalists Abroad (APEVEX).

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category