MIAMI (AP) — Eight American missionaries freed by a Haitian judge landed in Miami early Thursday, nearly three weeks after the group was charged with kidnapping for trying to take 33 children out of the quake-stricken country.
A U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane carrying the Americans landed at 12:04 a.m. at Miami International Airport, said Lt. Kenneth Scholz of the U.S. Southern Command. The group still hadn't emerged from customs as of early Thursday.
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 without bail because parents of the children had testified they voluntarily gave their children to the missionaries believing the Americans would give them a better life.
"The parents gave their kids away voluntarily," Saint-Vil said in 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 prior to the quake to inquire about obtaining orphans.
Just after dusk in Haiti, the bedraggled, sweat-stained group of eight walked out of the jail escorted by U.S. 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 thereafter as a group of reporters watched.
Silas Thompson, 19, of Twin Falls, Idaho, plopped into the back seat, breathing heavily and beaming with relief. He'd accompanied his father Paul, a pastor, on the mission not knowing that Silsby had not obtained the proper papers, said his U.S.-based lawyer, Caleb Stegall.
The missionaries were charged with child kidnapping for trying to take 33 Haitian children to the Dominican Republic on Jan. 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 No. 2 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-youself "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 The Associated Press determined that at least 20 were handed over willingly by their parents, who said the Baptists had promised to educate them and let their parents visit.
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 Wednesday afternoon authorizing her hospitalization.