Eight American missionaries freed by a Haitian judge landed in Miami, Florida, today, nearly three weeks after the group was charged with kidnapping for trying to take 33 children out of the quake-stricken country.
A US Air Force C-130 cargo plane carrying the Americans landed at Miami International Airport at 5am Irish time, said Lt Kenneth Scholz of the US Southern Command.
The group’s swift departure from Haiti began a day earlier when Judge Bernard Saint-Vil said eight of the 10 missionaries were free to leave because parents had said they voluntarily gave their children to the missionaries, believing the Americans would give them a better life.
“The parents gave their kids away voluntarily,” Judge Saint-Vil said, explaining his decision.
He said, however, that he still wanted to question the group’s leader Laura Silsby and her former nanny Charisa Coulter because they had visited Haiti before the quake to inquire about obtaining orphans.
Last night, the bedraggled, sweat-stained group of eight walked out of the Haitian jail escorted by US diplomats. They waited until they were safely inside a white embassy van before some flashed smiles and gave a thumbs up to reporters. Their plane took off from Port-au-Prince shortly afterwards.
Silas Thompson, 19, of Twin Falls, Idaho, plopped into the back seat, breathing heavily and beaming with relief. He had accompanied his father Paul, a pastor, on the mission not knowing that Silsby had not obtained the proper papers, said his US-based lawyer, Caleb Stegall.
The missionaries were charged with child kidnapping for trying to take 33 Haitian children to the Dominican Republic on January 29 without Haitian adoption certificates.
Their detentions came just as aid officials were urging a halt to short-cut adoptions in the wake of the earthquake. Before their release, Haiti’s number two justice official, Claudy Gassent, informed them of the judge’s decision but said he also gave them a lecture.
“They know they broke the law,” he said.
The missionaries say they were on a do-it-yourself “rescue mission” to take child quake victims to a hastily-prepared orphanage in the Dominican Republic, denying the trafficking charge.
Silsby originally said they were taking only orphaned and abandoned children, but at least 20 were handed over willingly by their parents, who said the Baptists had promised to educate them and let their parents visit.
Judge Saint-Vil said he did not release Silsby, 47, or Coulter, 24, because of their previous activities in Haiti during a December visit.
Silsby hastily enlisted the rest of the group after the quake. Coulter, of Boise, Idaho, is diabetic and the judge signed an order yesterday authorising hospital treatment.