Missionaries released from Haiti describe jail, say they’re worried about quake-ravaged nation

By John Hanna, AP
Friday, February 19, 2010

Missionaries worry about Haitians, describe jail

TOPEKA, Kan. — American missionaries who faced allegations of child trafficking in Haiti but were freed from jail described their trip to the earthquake-ravaged country as a simple humanitarian effort that left them even more concerned about the Haitian people.

“It seemed like everyone in the group (was) legitimately really concerned about the children and helping them, to the point that it was almost amazing to me that they were so concerned about helping them,” missionary Jim Allen of Amarillo, Texas, told Oprah Winfrey on Friday’s episode of her talk show.

Allen was among eight American missionaries freed Wednesday after three weeks in custody in Haiti. Two were left behind in jail. Four of the eight are now in Kansas. Three are home in Idaho, while Allen is back in Texas.

The group denies the child trafficking accusations, arguing the trip was a do-it-youself “rescue mission” for young victims of the massive Jan. 12 earthquake.

“We’re four guys — well, we’re a group of 10 people — that are convinced that it’s better to get up off the couch and go and help people than just sit on a couch and do nothing,” missionary Paul Thompson, of Twin Falls, Idaho, said during a segment taped from Topeka and aired Friday on NBC’s “Today” show.

Allen, who appeared with his wife, Lisa, on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” said the missionaries slept on a concrete floor in jail and received one hot meal a day. Still, he said, the group was treated well.

He said when it rained, water would drip through little holes in the ceiling.

“What I was thinking of at the time is that there are millions, it seemed like, people on the street that were getting poured on,” Allen told Winfrey. “They were sleeping on the ground.”

Thompson said he doesn’t want the missionaries’ detention to take the focus away from Haiti and its recovery from the quake.

“The need is incredible,” he said.

After flying Thursday from Miami to Kansas City, Mo., Thompson traveled to Topeka, the hometown of one of the other missionaries, youth pastor Drew Culberth. With them was Thompson’s son, Silas, and Steve McMullin, also from Twin Falls, Idaho. They had a private celebration at Culberth’s church, Bethel Baptist, after a briefing with their attorney.

In a portion of the “Today” segment posted online by KSHB-TV, the NBC affiliate in Kansas City, Culberth described his reunion with his wife and children as “amazing.”

“Very indescribable, the emotions that took place when I first saw them and got to hold them again,” Culberth said.

The 10 missionaries were charged with kidnapping for trying to take 33 Haitian children to the Dominican Republic on Jan. 29 without Haitian adoption certificates. Allen told Winfrey the missionaries planned to take the children to a temporary orphanage in the Dominican Republic.

He said he thought his construction skills could be useful in Haiti and that he was shocked to be jailed.

“I felt like as soon as the story was told and the facts come out that we had done nothing wrong that I would be coming home,” Allen said. “I just didn’t know when it would happen.”

The missionary group’s leader 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.

That helped persuade a Haitian judge to free the eight without bail, releasing them with the understanding that they will return to Haiti if the judge requests it. They could still face charges.

The judge said Friday that he is investigating whether the other two missionaries, Laura Silsby and Charisa Coulter, who visited Haiti in December, went to orphanages to seek children before the earthquake.

In Kuna, Idaho, Kim Barton, the sister of Laura Silsby, issued a statement on behalf of the family that read: “We are certainly hopeful that any further questions for Laura and Charisa can be answered in a quick manner and they will be released also, as soon as possible. As a family, we are very anxious for their return.”

During the “Today” interview, Caleb Stegall, a Kansas attorney representing the four missionaries currently in Topeka, declined to say whether his clients felt they were misled about the nature of their trip. He said they wouldn’t discuss details of the case because Silbsy and Coulter still were detained.

Stegall said his clients had been released “without conditions.” On Thursday, he said he didn’t know if they would be allowed to return to the country, which is reeling from the earthquake that killed more than 200,000 and left more than a million homeless.

Stegall said Friday that the three Idaho missionaries will be home by Monday but declined to discuss their plans further.

“They intend to speak further about it but are resting this weekend,” he said.

Rousseau reported from Chicago. Associated Press Writer Todd Dvorak in Boise, Idaho, also contributed to this report.

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