8 Americans freed in adoption scandal and return to US, 2 others remain in Haitian jail

By Frank Bajak, AP
Thursday, February 18, 2010

Missionaries freed in Haiti, return to US

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — American missionaries accused of child trafficking in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake returned home Thursday and urged the safe release of the two women left behind in a Port-au-Prince jail.

Four of the eight freed Americans landed Thursday at Kansas City International airport to cheers and hugs. They declined to speak to reporters, but their attorney, Caleb Stegall, read a statement in which they said they were thankful to be home.

“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.”

The group’s leader, Laura Silsby, and her former nanny, Charisa Coulter, remained in jail in Haiti. Both 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.”

Saint-Vil said he did not release Silsby, 47, or Coulter, 24, both of Boise, Idaho, because the two 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.

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.

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.

From Miami, one member of the group, Jim Allen, headed home to Amarillo, Texas, 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.”

Hiram Sasser of the Liberty Legal Institute in Plano, Texas, which helped secure Allen’s release, briefly described the conditions under which the missionaries were held. He said the men were held separately from the women.

“Jim had a hot meal a day, a roof over his head,” Sasser said. “I’m sure he’d tell you he had it a lot better than a lot of people who are suffering in Haiti. “

The four who returned home on the flight to Kansas City planned to travel to Topeka, Kan. They 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.

Stegall said the Thompsons and McMullin, all from Twin Falls, Idaho, are expected to join Culberth in Topeka for an indefinite stay.

AP writers John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas, Frank Bajak in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Betsy Blaney in Amarillo, Texas, contributed to this story.

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