WASHINGTON — When an ailing Alan Gross had lost faith in recent months that the US government would ever secure his release from a Cuban prison, he frequently used his sporadic access to a phone to call a little-known congressional aide named Tim Rieser.
Rieser, 62, a longtime foreign policy aide to Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, had become a crucial ally to the American captive who had languished in prison for five years and was steadily exhibiting signs of giving up. Rieser twice this year had visited Gross in prison and they spoke on the phone whenever possible.
“He made it clear if he could not get out of there soon he was going to figure out how to end things for himself in his own way,” Rieser said in an interview. “I was far more concerned for his mental condition and to keep hope alive.”
Rieser’s contacts came amid reports that Gross, 65, was growing deeply depressed. His spirits grew even dimmer when his mother died this past June.
Some who met with him reported he was not eating very much and was starting to lash out at his own government for abandoning him. Some were concerned he might kill himself.
The reports sparked Leahy, a longtime advocate for restoring relations with Cuba, to dispatch Rieser to Havana to visit him in prison, most recently in October.
“He had been so isolated,” Rieser said. “He had certainly lost confidence in both governments and his health was not great. He had aged a lot. His career was finished. His mother died.”
Rieser, who first traveled to Cuba with Leahy in the early 1990s, stayed by his phone day and night in case Gross, who the Cubans had finally agreed to give some access to a phone, might call him.
“It took us over a year and a half to get him e-mail access and ultimately phone access,” Rieser said in a phone interview of the efforts made with the Cuban authorities by Gross’s legal team and others.
Some of the calls from Gross, which were sometimes as frequent as several times a week, would last up to an hour.
“It really made a difference for Alan,” Rieser said.
More recently, when the longtime Capitol Hill staffer learned of the secret US-Cuba talks encouraged by the Vatican, he had to be careful about what he revealed to Gross.
“I couldn’t tell him about what I knew about the progress that was being made in the negotiations because I knew the Cubans were likely listening to everything I was saying,” he said.
Jill Zuckman, a spokeswoman for the Gross family, credited Rieser with playing an especially significant role in Gross’s eventual release.
‘I knew the Cubans were likely listening to everything I was saying.’
“Throughout this process he really gave Alan hope that there was someone out there who cared about him and was trying to find a way to bring him home,” she said. “He pushed and pushed and pushed — the White House, the administration, the Hill.”
Rieser, a native of Norwich, Vt., manages the staff of the State Department and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, of which Leahy was most recently chairman.
Rieser is something of legend on Capitol Hill, especially among humanitarian aid groups that rely on State Department funding to help some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.
He has been on countless fact-finding missions for Leahy to conflict zones around the world.
On his Twitter account Thursday, Leahy, who was not available for an interview, called his longtime staffer “an unsung hero.”
After the government plane carrying Gross, his wife, Judith, Leahy, and several other members of Congress took off from Havana for Washington on Wednesday, Gross embraced Leahy and said, “I can’t wait to see Tim so I can thank him, too.”
Rieser was standing on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to greet him. Gross put his arms around his friend.
“There is so much emotion in that embrace,” Zuckman said. “I think it sums up what Tim meant in all of this. I am not sure this would have happened without him.”
“It was a huge relief to see him,” Rieser said of reuniting with Gross, “having last seen him in October in that same small room” in prison and being unsure when, or if, he would be freed.
That Gross’s freedom came along with what he called a “transformative moment” in relations between the two Cold War foes, Rieser said, was “icing on the cake.”