Haiti Judge Says 8 of 10 Missionaries To Be Freed

Published February 17, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) -- A Haitian judge said Wednesday he is freeing eight of 10 U.S. Baptists charged with child kidnapping after parents testified they voluntarily handed their children over to the missionaries.

Judge Bernard Saint-Vil told The Associated Press that the eight were free to leave Wednesday without bail or other conditions.

"The parents of the kids made statements proving that they can be released," he told AP, explaining that the parents had given up their children voluntarily.

The missionaries, most from two Baptist churches in Idaho, are accused of trying to take 33 Haitian children to the Dominican Republic on Jan. 29 without proper documents. It came just as aid officials were urging a halt to short-cut adoptions in the wake of the earthquake.

They say they were on a humanitarian mission to rescue child quake victims by taking them to a hastily prepared orphanage in the Dominican Republic and have denied accusations of trafficking.

Group leader Laura Silsby originally said they were taking only orphaned and abandoned children, but reporters found that several of the children were handed over to the group by their parents, who said the hoped the Baptists would give them a better life.

Saint-Vil said he still wants to question Silsby and her nanny, Charisa Coulter, about their visit to Haiti in December before the earthquake, but he asked for Coulter to be hospitalized because of her diabetes.

Earlier Wednesday, Coulter of Boise, Idaho, briefly received treatment but was then taken back to jail.

The eight others were expected to be released shortly after his order, but it was not clear if they would leave Haiti on Wednesday or Thursday.

"We are very pleased that Paul, Silas, Drew, and Steve have been released by the Haitian court," said Caleb Stegall, a Kansas district attorney who has been helping some of the defendants. "Their families are relieved and anxious to have them safely home, and we are turning all of our energies towards bringing them back as safely and quickly as possible,"

Gary Lissade, the attorney for American Jim Allen, said he expected the charges to be dropped against the eight.

Aviol Fleurant, a lawyer for nine of the defendants, said he had not yet arranged transportation for them.

The group early had been embarrassed by revelations that a man who briefly served as their legal adviser and spokesman in the Dominican Republic is wanted on people-smuggling charges in the United States and El Salvador.

U.S. Marshals say they are hunting for Jorge Puello, who was already being pursued by authorities in the Dominican Republic on an Interpol warrant out of El Salvador, where police say he led a ring that lured young women and girls into prostitution. He also had an outstanding warrant for a U.S. parole violation.

Puello said he volunteered to help the missionaries after they were jailed and said he never met any of them before they were detained.

Puello - who surged into the spotlight by providing food, medicine and legal assistance to the jailed Americans - acknowledged in a phone interview with The Associated Press Tuesday that he is named in a 2003 federal indictment out of Vermont that accuses him of smuggling illegal immigrants from Canada into the United States.

He said he is innocent of the accusations.

Puello said he was in Panama and preparing to return to El Salvador to fight the charges against him there. His whereabouts could not be confirmed.

Puello's involvement with the Americans began to unravel when authorities in El Salvador noted his resemblance to the suspect in the sex trafficking case. He acknowledged on Monday that he is in fact the suspect but said he was wrongly accused and will fight the charges.

Written by <P class="ap-story-p">By FRANK BAJAK, Associated Press Writer</P>

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