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Haiti frees one U.S. missionary; group leader still in custody

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

(Photo)
US missionary Laura Silsby, 40, of Meridian, Idaho, arrested on child kidnapping charges, is escorted by police officers upon her arrival to the courthouse in Port-au-Prince, Monday, March 8, 2010. The Idaho missionary was detained with nine other Americans on Jan. 29 while trying to take 33 children out of Haiti without the proper documents.
(AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- One of two Baptist missionaries still held on kidnapping charges in Haiti was released Monday, but the U.S. group's leader remained in custody.

Charisa Coulter, 24, was taken from her jail cell to the airport by U.S. Embassy staff more than a month after she and nine other Americans were arrested for trying to take 33 children out of Haiti after the earthquake.

Coulter, wearing a red tank top and sunglasses, declined comment as she quickly got into a sport utility vehicle that took her to the airport.

The leader of the Idaho-based missionary group, Laura Silsby, 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 said as she left the courthouse where a judge held a closed hearing Monday.

Silsby, 40, 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, of Boise, Idaho, is a diabetic and had medical difficulties during her confinement. She was treated at least once, on Feb. 1, by American doctors after collapsing with what she said was either severe dehydration or the flu.

After a court 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 Dominican consul in Haiti, Carlos Castillo, has said previously that he warned Silsby she lacked the required papers to leave the country with the children and risked being arrested at the border for child trafficking.

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 said 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.

Silsby herself repeated Monday that "I came from very far, and I came here to help the children."

The 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 eight of the Americans on Feb. 17 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.


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