9th US missionary freed in Haiti, returns home

Liz De La Torre

From The Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – A U.S. missionary held for more than a month in Haiti on kidnapping charges flew back to the United States after being released from prison, while the leader of her Baptist group remained in custody.

Charisa Coulter and Laura Silsby were the last two missionaries still in custody of 10 that were arrested for trying to take 33 children out of Haiti after the earthquake. The other eight were released Feb. 17.

Coulter, 24, was freed Monday and whisked from her jail cell to the airport by U.S. Embassy staff.

Wearing a red tank top and sunglasses, she declined comment as she quickly got into an SUV that took her to the Haitian airport, where she caught a flight back to the United States.

Coulter’s father said his daughter arrived in Miami late Monday and went straight to a hotel.

Mel Coulter said her release brought a mix of joy and sorrow, because the leader of the Idaho-based missionary group, Silsby, was left spending the night alone in a Haitian jail.

“It is good news, but it’s tempered,” Coulter said. “We’re really happy to have our daughter back on American soil. But Laura is still there. So this is really only completing part of the journey for the two of them. My daughter has left her best friend behind.”

He did not say when his daughter would head to her home in Boise, Idaho.

Silsby, 40, said she was glad about Coulter’s release.

“I’m very happy that she left today, and for her freedom, and expect mine to come soon,” Silsby told The Associated Press as she left the courthouse where a judge held a closed hearing Monday. She was returned to her cell in a police station near Port-au-Prince airport.

Defense lawyer Louis Ricardo Chachoute said Coulter was released because there was no evidence to support the charges of kidnapping and criminal association. He predicted Silsby would be released soon as well.

“There are no prosecution witnesses to substantiate anything,” Chachoute said.

Coulter is a diabetic and had medical difficulties during her confinement. She was treated at least once, on Feb. 1, by American doctors after collapsing from what she said was either severe dehydration or the flu.

After the hearing Monday for Silsby, Judge Bernard Saint-Vil said he heard evidence from a police officer who said he stopped Silsby from loading a bus with children near the Dominican Republic consulate in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 26. That was three days before her group was arrested while trying to cross into the Dominican Republic with 33 children.

“I found inconsistencies in some of Laura’s statements,” Saint-Vil told reporters, saying he planned to visit the Dominican consulate to resolve them.

The Americans’ arrest came as Haitian authorities were trying to crack down on unauthorized adoptions to prevent child trafficking in the chaos following the catastrophic Jan. 12 earthquake.

Silsby initially said the children were orphaned in the quake that the government estimates has killed more than 230,000 people. But the AP found the children had been given away by still-living parents.

Chachoute said the Americans only came to Haiti to help the country. “Firstly, there was no criminal conspiracy; secondly, there was no child snatching,” he said.

The Baptist group planned to take the children to the neighboring Dominican Republic to an orphanage that Silsby was creating in a former hotel.

The judge released the first eight Americans after concluding parents voluntarily gave up their children in the belief that the Baptist group would give them a better life. But he decided he still had additional questions for Silsby and Coulter.