PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Eight American missionaries were freed from a Haitian jail and left for Miami Wednesday, nearly three weeks after being arrested trying to take 33 children out of the earthquake-stricken country.
Reporters watched the U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane carrying the group take off from the capital's U.S. military-controlled airport, whose main terminal in shambles.
The Baptists, most from Idaho, had been sequestered in a tent on the tarmac protected by Air Force troops after U.S. diplomats escorted them out of the nearby police station where they'd been held in muggy, grimy cells.
The group's swift departure began earlier Wednesday 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.
Hours later, just after dusk, the bedraggled, sweat-stained group of eight walked out of the Haitian 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.
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 and, 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.
He said he had planned to question both women Thursday but that Coulter's health situation could prompt a delay. She had briefly been taken to a U.S. field hospital on Wednesday for treatment after feeling faint but was then taken back to jail.
Stegall, a Kansas district attorney who also represents firefighter Drew Culberth of Topeka, told the AP by phone that his clients' wives were "enormously relieved" after speaking at length by phone to their husbands before the men left Haiti.
"They're very tired," he said. "They've had quite an ordeal and they're obviously looking forward to a soft bed, a hot meal and a warm shower."
Gary Lissade, the Haitian attorney for freed detainee Jim Allen of Amarillo, Texas, said he expected the charges to be dropped against the eight.
"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.
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 several strange developments involving their legal team.
First, one of their Haitian lawyers was fired for allegedly seeking $60,000 to try to bribe their way out of jail.
But the legal adviser from the Dominican Republic who advised relatives of the group the fire that lawyer turned out to himself be a fugitive from justice.
Jorge Puello, who had called up Silsby's Meridian, Idaho, church offering his services after the missionaries' arrest and initially served as their legal adviser and spokesman turned out to be wanted on people-smuggling charges in the United States and El Salvador.
U.S. marshals say they are hunting for Puello, who is wanted on an Interpol warrant out of El Salvador, where police say he led a ring that lured young women and girls into prostitution.
One of the Americans' Haitian lawyers, Aviol Fleurant, told the AP that Puello absconded with $30,000 in legal fees the American had raised for him.
"There's been a lot of a strange twists and turns in this case," said Sean Lankford of Meridian, Idaho, whose wife and daughter were among the eight released on Wednesday.
Asked how he felt when reached by the AP on Wednesday night, Lankford offered two words: "Damn good."
His wife was on the other line, and he politely rang off.