Haiti judge to free some detained US missionaries

Wednesday, February 17, 2010 - 12:42pm

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – A Haitian judge said some of the 10 U.S. missionaries arrested on charges of child kidnapping would be released Wednesday, nearly three weeks after they were caught trying to take a group of children out of the quake-stricken country.

Judge Bernard Saint-Vil would not specify how many people would be released, but said they would be allowed to return home without posting bail if they agreed to return to Haiti for any more questions in the pending investigation.

"They will not have to post bail," the judge said. "But they will have to come back at the request of the court."

Saint-Vil said he would await the prosecutor's opinion before announcing the names of those to be released.

"We expected that," said Gary Lissade, the attorney for American Jim Allen. It was unclear what would happen to any of the Americans the judge decides to hold.

Earlier Wednesday, one of the Americans, who is diabetic, was taken to a field hospital. The condition of Charisa Coulter of Boise, Idaho, was not immediately known.

And a lawyer for nine of the defendants, Aviol Fleurant, complained that Haitian police were restricting his visits to the Americans. "The lawyers are only being allowed in for three or five minutes," he said.

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.

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 — willingly — by their parents, who said the hoped the Baptists would give them a better life.

The group also has 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 — 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.

The 32-year-old, identified as Jorge Torres in the indictment, was living in Canada at the time and managed to avoid arrest. He says he is innocent of the accusations, claiming he was working undercover for U.S. authorities at the time. Law enforcement officials said they hadn't yet confirmed the Puello is Torres but the case is open.

Puello, as he has been known most recently, called the AP to discuss his case and 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.

"The whole world will know I am innocent," he said.

The Haitian attorney, Fleurant, also has accused Puello of absconding with most the fee relatives of the Americans gave the Dominican to pay him.

"He was supposed to give me $40,000 and he gave me $10,000 and he stole $30,000 and he disappeared," said Aviol Fleurant.

Puello said he volunteered to help the missionaries and had never met any of them before they were detained in Haiti.

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.

Puello was convicted of theft of U.S. government property in 1999 in Pennsylvania and sentenced to 6 months in prison and 5 years probation, according to court documents. In 2001, a court found he violated the terms of his probation and issued a warrant for his arrest.

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