Missionaries freed by Haitian judge land in US
MIAMI (AP) – Eight American missionaries freed by a Haitian judge landed in Miami early Thursday, nearly three weeks after the group was charged with kidnapping for trying to take 33 children out of the quake-stricken country.
A U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane carrying the Americans landed at 12:04 a.m. at Miami International Airport, said Lt. Kenneth Scholz of the U.S. Southern Command. Two other missionaries with the group remained in detention in Haiti for further questioning.
After arriving, seven of the eight went to a hotel adjoining the airport. Ignoring repoters’ questions, the group walked briskly through the hotel lobby and got in an elevator as photographers snapped pictures.
Their swift departure from Haiti began a day earlier when Judge Bernard Saint-Vil said eight of the 10 missionaries were free to leave without bail because parents of the children had testified they voluntarily gave their children to the missionaries believing the Americans would give them a better life.
“The parents gave their kids away voluntarily,” Saint-Vil said in explaining his decision.
He said, however, that he still wanted to question the group’s leader, Laura Silsby, and her former nanny, Charisa Coulter, because they had visited Haiti prior to the quake to inquire about obtaining orphans.
Just after dusk in Haiti, the bedraggled, sweat-stained group of eight walked out of the jail escorted by U.S. diplomats. They waited until they were safely inside a white embassy van before some flashed smiles and gave a thumbs up to reporters. Their plane took off from Port-au-Prince shortly thereafter as a group of reporters watched.
Silas Thompson, 19, of Twin Falls, Idaho, plopped into the back seat, breathing heavily and beaming with relief. He’d accompanied his father Paul, a pastor, on the mission not knowing that Silsby had not obtained the proper papers, said his U.S.-based lawyer, Caleb Stegall.
The missionaries were charged with child kidnapping for trying to take 33 Haitian children to the Dominican Republic on Jan. 29 without Haitian adoption certificates.
Their detentions came just as aid officials were urging a halt to short-cut adoptions in the wake of the earthquake. Before their release, Haiti’s No. 2 justice official, Claudy Gassent, informed them of the judge’s decision but said he also gave them a lecture.
“They know they broke the law,” he said.
The missionaries say they were on a do-it-youself “rescue mission” to take child quake victims to a hastily prepared orphanage in the Dominican Republic, denying the trafficking charge.
Silsby originally said they were taking only orphaned and abandoned children, but The Associated Press determined that at least 20 were handed over willingly by their parents, who said the Baptists had promised to educate them and let their parents visit.
Saint-Vil said he did not release Silsby, 47, or Coulter, 24, because of their previous activities in Haiti during a December visit. Silsby hastily enlisted the rest of the group after the quake. Coulter, of Boise, Idaho, is diabetic and the judge signed an order Wednesday afternoon authorizing her hospitalization.
He said he had planned to question both women Thursday but that Coulter’s health situation could prompt a delay. She had briefly been taken to a U.S. field hospital on Wednesday for treatment after feeling faint but was then taken back to jail.
Stegall, a Kansas district attorney who also represents firefighter Drew Culberth of Topeka, told the AP by phone that his clients’ wives were “enormously relieved” after speaking at length by phone to their husbands before the men left Haiti.
“They’re very tired,” he said. “They’ve had quite an ordeal and they’re obviously looking forward to a soft bed, a hot meal and a warm shower.”
Gary Lissade, the Haitian attorney for freed detainee Jim Allen of Amarillo, Texas, said he expected the charges to be dropped against the eight.
“My faith means everything to me, and I knew this moment would come when the truth would set me free,” Allen said in a statement issued by the Liberty Legal Institute in Plano, Texas.
Silsby’s sister in Idaho, Kim Barton, said learning that her sister could not leave Haiti was difficult.
“At this point I don’t have any comment. I don’t know any more than you do,” Barton said.
Sean Lankford of Meridian, Idaho, whose wife and daughter were among the eight released on Wednesday, said: “There’s been a lot of a strange twists and turns in this case.”
Asked how he felt when reached by the AP on Wednesday night, Lankford offered two words: “Damn good.”
His wife was on the other line, and he politely rang off.