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Judge to Release 8 of the 10 Baptist Volunteers in Haiti

| by Baptist Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE -- A judge in Haiti says eight of the 10 American missions volunteers who have been detained in the country will be freed today.

Judge Bernard Saint-Vil said two volunteers will not be freed. Laura Silsby, the group's leader, and Charisa Coulter are being kept for further investigation on charges leveled against the group for allegedly attempting to transport 33 Haitian children without proper documentation into the Dominican Republic to an orphanage Silsby was founding.

CNN reported earlier in the day that Coulter, who is diabetic, was taken to a field hospital "in a lot of pain." Friends and family members of the detainees had expressed concern about the volunteers' access to health care since their arrest Jan. 29.

Saint-Vil said the eight released volunteers will be allowed to return to the United States without posting bail after their three-week detention. He added that the investigation is continuing and the Americans would have to return to Haiti if they are called back.

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There were no reports about arrangements for the released detainees to travel back to the United States as of late afternoon Feb. 17.

Members of Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas -- where detainee Jim Allen is a member -- have spent the past two Sundays in a focused time of prayer for Allen and the others. Executive pastor Dave Anderson told Baptist Press he has learned to be a "little guarded" in his optimism in light of repeated rumors of the detainees' release, although he said Wednesday's news seems legitimate.

"We're just thrilled to hear that he apparently is on his way home," Anderson said. "It's certainly been something that's been on everybody's mind. We've had two Sunday services where there's really been an emphasis on spending time in prayer for Jim and for these individuals. I'm excited to potentially have next Sunday be a concerted time of rejoicing."

If everything falls in place, Allen could even be at Paramount Baptist for Sunday's service. Anderson said he doesn't know why Silsby and Coulter are being detained and "we certainly wish that they were released as well."

Morris H. Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee, said after receiving the news, "I rejoice that eight of the detainees have been released from prison and ask my fellow Southern Baptists to continue to pray for the timely release of the remaining volunteers." Nine of the volunteers, including Silsby and Coulter, are members of Southern Baptist churches -- two in Idaho and one in Texas.

"This entire situation has been unfortunate for everyone involved -- the Haitian people as well as the volunteers, their families and churches," Chapman said. "Hopefully, it will serve as a reminder that there is no shortcut for proper training and orientation before embarking on short-term ministry trips. I pray this will be a catalyst for more of our cooperating churches to take advantage of disaster relief training offered through our North American Mission Board."

Meanwhile, Jorge Puello, who had stepped forward as a presumed legal adviser in the Dominican Republic on behalf of some of the Americans, reportedly now is being pursued by U.S. Marshals as well as authorities in El Salvador.

Puello called the Associated Press Feb. 16 and said he was in Panama preparing to return to El Salvador to face charges for leading a ring that lured young girls and women into prostitution. He also acknowledged he is named in a 2003 federal indictment in Vermont that accuses him of smuggling illegal immigrants from Canada into the United States, AP said.

Saint-Vil, however, had stated that Puello's legal problems are separate from the child kidnapping charges that were leveled against the 10 Americans.

One of the Americans on Tuesday denied any connection to Puello.

AP said Puello, 32, is identified as Jorge Torres in the Vermont indictment and managed to avoid arrest because he was living in Canada at the time. The United States requested extradition, and Puello fled.

The AP report also noted that Puello was convicted of theft of U.S. government property in 1999 in Pennsylvania and sentenced to six months in prison and five years probation, and in 2001 a court found he violated the terms of his probation and issued a warrant for his arrest.

After the Americans were detained Jan. 29, Puello contacted their relatives by calling their church, Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, AP said. Before he initiated the call, he had never met any of them. In subsequent days, Puello reportedly delivered food and medicine to the prisoners and helped them find a Haitian lawyer, whom he later fired.

Puello was born in the United States but has strong ties to the Dominican Republic, AP said, and authorities in El Salvador noted his resemblance to the suspect in a sex trafficking case in their country after seeing him portrayed as representing the Americans.

Allen, the detainee from Amarillo, Texas, confirmed during an eight-minute phone call with his wife Feb. 16 that he had no contact with Puello.

"I have never heard from that guy, never seen him, never spoke to him, never met him," Allen said. "I don't even know who he is."

Louis Gary Lissade, a former Haitian minister of justice, is representing Allen with help from a team of attorneys in the United States including Liberty Legal Institute, which conveyed information from the phone call in a news release the same day.

Allen's wife Lisa said that during the call he was in good spirits, joked about having lost a few pounds and expressed confidence in Haitian officials to set him free, the news release said.

Liberty Legal Institute, based in Plano, Texas, filed a motion Feb. 10 seeking the release of Allen, a small business owner and construction worker who is a member of Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo.

Kelly Shackelford, Liberty's chief counsel, said Allen "is an upstanding American with a good heart trying to rebuild a country. We believe that when the facts of this case are revealed, our client will be released. We're working hard to make that happen."

Allen reportedly had been invited by a cousin to join the volunteer team and had "joined the team 48 hours before the group's departure." His wife has expressed concern about his well-being in prison since he suffers from a medical condition for which he takes medication, Liberty said.

Silsby and Coulter are members of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, as are group members Carla Thompson and Nicole and Corinna Lankford. Three detainees are from Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho: pastor Paul Thompson, his son Silas and church member Steve McMullen. The other detainees are Allen of Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas, and Drew Culbert, an assistant youth pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Bethel Baptist is the only church not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.