Baptists’ descent from Idaho to the hell of a Haitian prison

Pe a apărut un nou articol. Nimic pozitiv despre baptiştii ce au vrut să ia nişte copii din Haiti. Mă întreb ce s-au gîndit cînd s-au dus acolo. judecînd după ce zice articolul nu prea au gîndit. Păcat. Mare păcat, se pedepseşte acolo cu închisoare. Şi încă ce închiaosra! Cam diferită de viaţa din US. Ce ziceţi?

 The Idaho Baptists who are in a Haitian prison facing child kidnapping charges were led by a woman with financial and personal problems.

 By Philip Sherwell in Meridian, Idaho
Arrested American missionaries in Haiti : How 'child-kidnapping'  Baptists from Idaho descended to the hell of a Haiti prison

The Idaho Baptists who are in a Haitian prison facing child kidnapping charges were led by Laura Silsby, right Photo: REUTERS

Laura Silsby’s life had been unravelling fast. Her once-flourishing online shopping business was being chased through the courts for unpaid bills and the four-bedroom home where the divorcee lived with her two youngest children was reclaimed by the bank just days before Christmas.

She is scheduled to appear before a judge in the Idaho state capital of Boise on Wednesday in a case brought by a former employee alleging unfair dismissal and unpaid wages. But the mother-of-three is highly unlikely to make that date as she has spent more than a week locked up in squalid mosquito-ridden Haitian prison cell facing much more serious charges – child kidnapping.

Even as her business affairs plunged deeper into turmoil, the church-going 40-year-old had been drawing up plans to build an orphanage for Haitian children and run an adoption programme „for loving Christian parents who would otherwise not be able to afford” the cost.

Over the last year, Mrs Silsby and her live-in nanny Charisa Coulter, 24, made several trips to Haiti and the neighbouring country of Dominican Republic, where she had ambitious plans for an orphanage with resort facilities on a north coast beach.

But after the devastating Jan 12 earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, she went to the pastor of her Central Valley Baptist church and asked for volunteers to join her and her assistant Miss Coulter on a fast-track mission of mercy.

The goal, according to her written submission for funds, was to „rescue Haitian orphans” and „share God’s love with these precious children, helping them heal and find new life in Christ”.

The emotive appeal was flash emailed around the close-knit Baptist community of Idaho, a deeply conservative and religious state. It brought immediate results.

Three other worshippers from Central Valley – including a mother and her 18-year-old daughter – volunteered. So did three members of the Eastside Baptist church 140 miles away in Twin Falls – the pastor Paul Thompson and his son Silas, 18, among them – and two of Mr Thompson’s relatives from Texas and Kansas.

But the journey went so disastrously wrong that this weekend the families of the 10, who just two weeks ago were praying alongside them in church, were instead praying for their release from a Haitian prison where they are being held on child kidnap and criminal association charges. If convicted they face jail terms of up to 15 years.

The ill-fated mission began where suburban sprawl meets fields of potatoes and sugar beet in the shadow of the snow-capped foothills of the Rockies. The contrast with their current location could not be more striking.

The large modern structure of Central Valley Baptist sits on the edge of the unprepossessing town of Meridian, near Boise, in western Idaho. The church has an active international mission programme and worshippers said there was a natural enthusiasm for Mrs Silsby’s initiative.

Last week, the church took on a very different role. Family and friends of the 10 were cloistered here, behind locked doors and drawn blinds, making calls to lawyers and politicians and holding regular prayer sessions.

The saga has become an international cause célèbre, to the frustration of aid groups who complain it has distracted attention from the struggle to care for the hundreds of thousands of Haitians left homeless by the disaster. On a visit to Port-au-Prince, former US president Bill Clinton, a special United Nations envoy, urged the Haitian and American governments to seek a solution to the crisis – and apologised for the sometimes slow delivery of aid.

The 10 were arrested after trying to cross from Haiti into the Dominican Republic with a busload of 33 children, with no paperwork or authorisation to take them out of the country. It soon became clear that most were not orphans at all, but had at least a mother or father who had been persuaded to hand the children over to the Americans on the promise they would enjoy a better life.

Each day, more evidence has seemed to indicate that Mrs Silsby should have been well aware that she was flouting temporal laws in pursuit, by the most generous interpretation, of her spiritual convictions.

How much the others were involved in and aware of the alleged deceptions and subterfuges is unclear. But Edwin Coq, a Haitian lawyer for all 10, insisted that it was only when police stopped the bus near the border that the other nine realised that Mrs Silsby lacked the documents for the children to leave the country.

Mrs Silsby’s own motives for pursuing her Haitian orphanage project are also unclear, although the timing suggests she may have been attempting to redeem something from the disarray of her life. She had reportedly also spoken of her desire to build an orphanage near Boise.

She had set up in 1999 and the company boomed as internet shopping mushroomed. In 2006, she received a prestigious award as international online businesswoman, but over the last two years she has been dogged by civil lawsuits and claims for unpaid wages and the company offices stood empty last week, uncollected mail piling on the carpet.

Her 16-year marriage to Terry Silsby, a real estate agent, ended in 2007. He has declined comment but is believed to have been looking after their young daughter and teenage son since his ex-wife embarked on her mission. Mrs Silsby also has an adult son.

In 2008, just before the property market crash, she paid $358,000 for a large mustard-coloured home in the new Shepherd’s Creek development in Meridian. Then last November, she registered the New Life Children’s Refuge (NLCR), her planned charity, at the address.

But just before Christmas, the family packed up and left overnight, departing so abruptly that they left a 15-ft [holiday] tree in one of the windows. A „For Sale” board declares that the property is being sold in foreclosure proceedings.

There were few regrets from other residents, neighbour Chris Wentzel told The Sunday Telegraph. „They were not popular at all,” she said. „They didn’t look after the property and they had a vicious pit bull that used to get out. The police were called a few times.

„She had that nice house and a convertible blue Lexis sports car so we figured she was making good money. It was a real shock when she just bailed out like that and now we hear about all these financial problems.

„And I was just amazed to see she was down in Haiti, saying she was trying to save orphans. She never struck me as the do-gooder type.”

Mrs Silsby has her fans in the Boise area. At the Other Mothers children’s clothing re-sale store, owner Nancy Batteen arranged for garments and stuffed toys to be collected for her project. „She came across as completely genuine, honest and committed to helping the kids in Haiti,” she said.

Others however view her actions cynically. And the extraordinary account of Richard Pickett, a web designer from Kentucky , and his wife Malinda certainly raises questions about Mrs Silsby’s intentions.

The Picketts were in the final stages of adopting three Haitian children when, with the paperwork approved, the quake struck. Twelve days later, Mr Pickett travelled to Haiti to collect the children. While he was away, his wife received three calls from Mrs Silsby, of whom the couple had no prior knowledge, offering to pick up the children herself when she arrived in Haiti.

„My wife was very clear with each time that under absolutely no circumstances was she to try and do that,” Mr Pickett told The Sunday Telegraph. „In fact, I was already with the kids in a refugee centre by then. But we have since heard from the orphanage that she turned up, claiming to be our friend and asking for the children.”

He believes Mrs Silsby had obtained their name from an agency involved in adoptions from Haiti. And orphanage workers have said that she „cried in frustration” when she was rebuffed by her requests for children from other establishments. It was then, it appears, that she lead the group to the village where parents say they were encouraged to hand over the children.

Mrs Silsby was initially keen to give interviews from behind bars as she insisted that her team was doing God’s work. She said that they thought they had permission to take the children out of the country and believed they were orphans, but had no plans to put them up for adoption in case Haitian relatives wanted to visit them at the motel she was leasing in the Dominican Republic.

Each of those assertions has apparently been comprehensively undermined by statements from her translators, some of the children’s parents, Dominican officials and the brochures and mission statement she herself wrote. And as the week went on, Mrs Silsby stopped talking and the group instead sang hymns and prayed loudly when journalists shouted questions at them.

On Thursday, they turned up for their first court appearance, with packed bags, hopeful of release. Instead, they were charged and sent back to jail. It was a traumatic experience – angry Haitians banged on the windows of the police van, shouted abuse and hurled stones – that none could have imagined in their worst nightmares when they left the US.

And on Friday evening, after their lawyer failed to secure their early release, the group were separated. The five men were taken to the sordid surroundings of the national penitentiary – from which all the prisoners escaped after the quake – while the women were moved to a jail on the other side of town.

Back in Meridian, the suffering of family and friends deepened. At the simple clapboard home of Carla Thompson, 53, a mother-of-two (who is not related to the Twin Falls pastor), a fellow churchgoer was looking after the house.

„Carla was just so excited about the chance to go and do some good and we were excited for her. If we could have, we’d all have gone to help those little babies,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. „So how they are being portrayed now is just so painful for us.”