PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Eight American missionaries were freed from a Haitian jail and left for Miami Wednesday, nearly three weeks after being charged with kidnapping for trying to take 33 children out of the earthquake-stricken country.
Reporters watched as the U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane carrying the group took off from the tarmac. Officials from the U.S. Embassy and State Department, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, confirmed that the Americans were on the plane.
The group’s rapid departure from Haiti began earlier Wednesday when Judge Bernard Saint-Vil said eight of the 10 missionaries were free to leave without bail after parents of the children testified they voluntarily handed their children over to the missionaries.
“The parents of the kids made statements proving that they can be released,” he said, adding that he still wanted to question the group’s leader and her nanny.
Hours later, just after dusk, the bedraggled and sweaty-looking group walked out of the Haitian jail escorted by U.S. diplomats just. They waited until they were safely inside a white van before flashing smiles and giving a thumbs up to reporters.
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. Their detentions came just as aid officials were urging a halt to short-cut adoptions in the wake of the earthquake.
The missionaries 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 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.
“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 toward bringing them back as safely and quickly as possible,”
Gary Lissade, the attorney for freed detainee Jim Allen, said he expected the charges to be dropped against the eight.
A legal group issued a statement on behalf of Allen, who is from Amarillo, Texas.
“My faith means everything to me, and I knew this moment would come when the truth would set me free,” Allen said in a statement issued by the Liberty Legal Institute in Plano, Texas. “For those whose cases have not been resolved, we will continue to pray for their safe return.”
Members of Bethell Baptist Church in north Topeka, Kansas, were elated that their youth pastor, Drew Culberth, had been freed, although a few of them worried what would happen afterward.
“Oh, goodness, I’m going to cry so hard,” said Emily Phillips, a 16-year-old participating in the church’s regular weekly program for children Wednesday night. “I want to tackle him, but I know that probably won’t be the best response.”
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 earlier 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 AP on 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.