8 American missionaries freed by Haiti judge back in US, spend night in Miami airport hotel

By Frank Bajak, AP
Thursday, February 18, 2010

Missionaries freed by Haitian judge back in US

MIAMI — Eight American missionaries were back on U.S. soil Thursday but still faced possible child kidnapping charges in Haiti for trying to take 33 children out of the earthquake ravaged country.

The group’s leader, Laura Silsby, and her former nanny, Charisa Coulter, remained in a Port au Prince jail because a judge said questions still remained about their plans to set up an orphanage in the Dominican Republic.

The group was caught Jan. 29 trying to take the children out of Haiti without adoption certificates. The arrests came as aid officials were urging a halt to short-cut adoptions in the wake of the earthquake.

Silsby originally said the children were orphans or had been abandoned. But The Associated Press determined that at least 20 were handed over willingly by their parents, who said the Baptists promised to educate their kids in the U.S. and let them visit.

The fact that the children were given up willingly helped convince Haitian Judge Bernard Saint-Vil to free the eight without bail on Wednesday. But the group was released with the understanding they will return to Haiti if the judge requests it.

Before their release, Haiti’s No. 2 justice official, Claudy Gassent, said he gave the eight a lecture.

“They know they broke the law,” he said.

The missionaries deny the trafficking charges and have said they were on a do-it-youself “rescue mission” to take child quake victims to a hastily prepared orphanage in the Dominican Republic.

The missionaries arrived at Miami International Airport on a U.S. Air Force C-130 just after midnight, about 12 hours after their release. They spent a night at an airport hotel before some were seen heading to gates for morning domestic Delta flights.

One of those released, Drew Culberth, a 35-year-old Topeka firefighter, was headed to Kansas City.

News of Culberth’s release cheered the spirits of members of his church on Wednesday night, but they remained apprehensive about his trip home and what awaits him afterward. Culberth has been the youth pastor at Bethel Baptist in north Topeka since 2004.

“Is this really over once he’s home?” said Veronica Culberson, a church member and mother of four who works in the church’s youth program. “That’s what I think the apprehension is. We’ll just be happy to have him home.”

Bethel Baptist’s pastor, the Rev. James Keller, said Culberth may need some time with his family once he returns.

“We told our people to not ask any unnecessary questions, give him some time to get his feet on the ground,” Keller said.

Silas Thompson, 19, of Twin Falls, Idaho, emerged from the Miami airport hotel and told reporters it was “great” to be back on U.S. soil. Asked to name the first thing he’ll do when he gets home, Thompson replied: “Hug my mom.”

Earlier, elated relatives expressed relief, including Sean Lankford of Meridian, Idaho, whose wife and daughter were among the eight released. When asked by The Associated Press how he felt late Wednesday, he offered two words: “Damn good.”

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.

A welcome home rally was planned for Allen later Thursday at the Amarillo Civic Center.

Saint-Vil said he did not release Silsby, 47, or Coulter, 24, because they had previously visited Haiti in December with plans to open an orphanage. Silsby quickly pulled together 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.

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.

John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas, and Frank Bajak in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, contributed to this story.

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