Haiti judge frees 8 missionaries, keeps 2

A Haiti judge decided today to continue detaining two American missionaries, while releasing the other eight in the group held since Jan. 29 on accusations of kidnapping 33 children.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
Nicole Lankford (r.), one of the 10 Americans who were arrested while trying to bus children out of Haiti without proper documents, smiles as she leaves a police station in Port-au-Prince Wednesday. Eight American missionaries left a Haitian jail on Wednesday after a judge signed an order freeing them.

A Haitian judge decided today to continue detaining two American missionaries, while freeing the other eight in the group held since Jan. 29 on accusations they kidnapped 33 children in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.

“I am extremely disturbed that two of the missionaries are being left behind,” says Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition, which has been lobbying the Haitian government on the missionaries’ behalf. “They operated as a group, they worked as a group – it almost seems punitive or some kind of a payback to hold two and release the eight.”

Charisa Coulter and Laura Silsby, the financially troubled leader of the group, are being kept for further investigation, Judge Bernard Sainvil said. It was unclear if they still faced charges of child abduction and criminal conspiracy, which can carry prison terms of up to 15 years.

“Eight of my clients will be set free,” lawyer Aviol Fleurant told AFP. “The judge wants to question two of my clients because they were in Haiti before the earthquake.”

The missionaries, who mostly hailed from two Baptist churches in Idaho, were brought Feb. 4 before a judge who found sufficient evidence to charge them with abduction and criminal conspiracy.

The eight freed today will be allowed to return to the US immediately but are required to return for any legal proceedings if required, the BBC reports.

The stated purpose of the New Life Children's Refuge group's “Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission” was to “rescue Haitian orphans” in the wake of the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated the impoverished Caribbean nation. But it turned out that most of the 33 children had families and many of their parents had willingly given the children to the missionaries.

In a bizarre twist to the case, it was revealed that a man who briefly served as the group's legal adviser is wanted on people smuggling charges in the US and El Salvador. Jorge Puello has since disappeared, telling the Associated Press today that he was in Panama, and the group's Haitian attorney has accused him of absconding with most of the legal fees.

"He was supposed to give me $40,000 and he gave me $10,000 and he stole $30,000 and he disappeared," Aviol Fleurant, the Haitian attorney, told the AP.

The group also has been embarrassed by reports that Ms. Silsby recently defaulted on a $358,000 home and had outstanding complaints from employees over unpaid wages, state liens on a company bank account, and lawsuits in small claims court, the New York Times reported.

“I think that if it was publicly known to all involved that Ms. Silsby had some of these issues in her past, I do not think she would have been the spokesperson and leader of the group,” says the Christian Defense Coalition’s Rev. Mahoney, who has had regular contact with the missionaries’ families in Idaho.

“The issue is not that these were kidnappers," Mahoney added by telephone Wednesday, "but that they did not have the proper paperwork. Do you put someone in jail and threaten them with 15 years’ prison because they don’t have proper paperwork?”

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