PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A Haitian judge on Tuesday questioned a group of U.S. Baptist missionaries arrested while trying to leave Haiti with a busload of children they gathered from the disaster zone.
The investigating magistrate queried the five women for several hours and will follow up with the five men today, according to Haiti’s communications minister. No lawyers were present, and the Americans, which include three from Twin Falls, have yet to be charged with crimes.
Minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue says the evidence will be presented to a Haitian district attorney to decide whether to file charges.
The Americans, largely from Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls and Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, say they were only trying to help orphans survive the earthquake. But legal experts say taking children across a border without documents or government permission can be considered child trafficking.
Eastside members arrested include Pastor Paul Thompson, 43, his son Silas Thompson, 19, and Steve McMullen, 56. Church members Matt and Lora Crider and John Requa were also involved with the project, but remained in the Dominican Republic and were not arrested.
At the SOS Children’s Village orphanage where authorities are protecting the 33 children, regional director Patricia Vargas said none who are old enough and willing to talk had said they were orphans: “Up until now we have not encountered any who say they are an orphan.”
Vargas said most of the children are between 3 and 6 years old, and unable to provide phone numbers or any other details about their origins.
The Americans apparently enlisted a clergyman who went knocking on doors asking people if they wanted to give away their children, the director of Haiti’s social welfare agency, Jeanne Bernard Pierre, told The Associated Press.
“One child said to me, ‘When they came knocking on our door asking for children, my mom decided to give me away because we are six children and by giving me away she would have only five kids to care for,”‘ Bernard Pierre said.
About 10 parents have come forward saying their children were taken, but it wasn’t clear if any are related the case involving the Americans, Bernard Pierre said.
Prime Minister Max Bellerive has suggested the Americans could be prosecuted in the United States because Haiti’s shattered court system may not be able to cope with a trial.
“It is clear now that they were trying to cross the border without papers. It is clear now that some of the children have live parents. And it is clear now that they knew what they were doing was wrong,” Bellerive told the AP.
The White House has said the case remains in Haitian hands for now.
Central Valley Baptist Church Assistant Pastor Drew Ham in Idaho called Tuesday for the Americans’ immediate release, saying questioning them without lawyers violates the Haitian Constitution.
Mark Schuckert of Twin Falls, a friend of McMullen, said Tuesday that he thinks the group is being “railroaded” by the government and other groups in the chaos of the disaster. He believes McMullen and the others didn’t have any malicious intent and just didn’t do their homework.
“They probably did what Americans do: kicked in the door, full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes and he got a torpedo,” Schuckert said.
The U.S. government could claim jurisdiction to try the group in the United States, but one expert on international abductions doubts it will happen, since prosecutors are likely to take into account the mitigating circumstances.
“They have obviously made a huge mistake by unilaterally going into Haiti and taking children without the permission and knowledge of the Haitian government. It’s a crime in Haiti and anywhere in the world to take or abduct children even if the underlying intentions were humanitarian or good in nature,” said Christopher Schmidt, an attorney with Bryan Cave LLP in St. Louis.
“Whether or not a prosecutor would choose to prosecute these individuals in this case is an open question. Frankly I have doubts whether a prosecutor would want to go down that path,” he said.
Times-News staff writer Nate Poppino and Associated Press writers Todd Dvorak in Boise and Michael Warren in Mexico City contributed to this story.