8 Americans accused of trying to take kids out of Haiti return to US; 2 others remain in jail

By Maria Sudekum Fisher, AP
Thursday, February 18, 2010

8 missionaries freed in Haiti, return to US

BOISE, Idaho — Corinna Lankford’s ordeal in Haiti ended in burst of camera flashes and cheers at Boise’s airport early Friday — then things quieted as her family engulfed her.

“Mommy, can we go home now,” David, the youngest of her six children, asked as the others cried and took turns hugging their mother.

“Yes, we can go home,” Lankford said, and the family walked toward the airport doors.

She was one of eight American missionaries accused of child trafficking in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake that were freed this week after three weeks in custody. Two women were left behind in a Port-au-Prince jail. They have repeatedly denied the charges.

Lankford, her 18-year-old daughter Nicole, and Carla Thompson arrived home in Idaho to a greeting of nearly 200 people holding balloons and signs, cheering and singing hymns.

Their five colleagues arrived Thursday to welcomes in Kansas City and Amarillo, Texas.

All expressed hope that the group’s leader, Laura Silsby, and her former nanny, Charisa Coulter, would soon be released.

Clint Henry, the pastor of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, said at the airport that the group’s joy at the homecoming was tempered by concern for the two left behind.

“It’s an emotional moment — I’m overwhelmed. But we felt everyone’s prayers. Our God is a mighty God, He brought us home,” Thompson said.

Lankford said she has no regrets about the trip.

“I think God’s still in control and I think it’s going to go just like God planned it to go,” she said. “We just need to keep praying for Laura and Charisa that they’ll come to the states.”

Silsby and Coulter arrived at a Port-au-Prince courthouse on Thursday to be questioned by a judge about their plans to set up an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. But the judge rescheduled the appearance for Friday after an interpreter failed to show up.

“Everything is going well,” Silsby told reporters. “I don’t know the exact day we are going to be free.”

The judge said he did not release the two Boise residents because they had previously visited Haiti in December and planned even before the quake to open an orphanage. After the quake, Silsby rushed to pull together the rest of the group.

The group was caught Jan. 29 trying to take 33 children out of Haiti without adoption certificates. The arrests came as aid officials urged 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 voluntarily helped persuade Haitian Judge Bernard Saint-Vil to free the eight without bail on Wednesday. They were released with the understanding they will return to Haiti if the judge requests it.

The judge didn’t dismiss child trafficking charges against the eight Americans. But Stegall said he believes the group’s ordeal is behind them.

“I’ve been in regular contact with our Haitian legal team,” he said. “They assure me that charges are or will soon be dismissed.”

Haiti’s No. 2 justice official, Claudy Gassent, said he talked to the Americans before their release and felt they understood they had made a mistake.

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

The group denies the child trafficking charges, arguing the trip was a do-it-youself “rescue mission” to take child quake victims to a hastily prepared orphanage in the Dominican Republic.

The eight freed missionaries returned to the U.S. just after midnight Wednesday, flying aboard a U.S. Air Force C-130 that landed at Miami International Airport.

The four who landed in Kansas City, declined to speak to reporters, but their attorney, Caleb Stegall, read a statement.

“We hope and pray that our release will allow everyone to focus again on the dire conditions that remain in Haiti. People are still suffering and lack basic necessities,” the statement said, adding: “For those whose cases have not been resolved, we will continue to pray for their safe return.”

They also attended a small homecoming at a church in Topeka, Kan. The group included Drew Culberth, a 35-year-old Topeka firefighter and father of four; Culberth’s brother-in-law, Paul Thompson; Thompson’s son Silas Thompson, 19; and Steve McMullin.

The eighth member of the group, Jim Allen, arrived in Amarillo where he was cheered as he entered the city’s civic center. Flanked by about 20 relatives as he stood on a small stage with his wife, Allen told those gathered that he went to Haiti on 48 hours notice believing his construction welding expertise would be needed.

“The reason I went was for the relief,” he said. “And they still need your help.”

Allen said he left Haiti with just the clothes he was wearing and was glad to be home. He is scheduled to appear Friday on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

“I want to thank a lot of people,” he said. “I want to thank my God.”

AP writers Maria Sudekum Fisher in Kansas City, John Hanna in Topeka, Kan., Don Ryan in Boise, Frank Bajak in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Betsy Blaney in Amarillo, Texas, contributed to this story.

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