(Photo: AP Images / Javier Galeano)
The American team of volunteers on trial for abduction charges related to 33 Haitian children had tried to take dozens of other children across the border, said a Haitian police officer.
A few days before their arrests, the ten volunteers attempted to take 40 children to the Dominican Republic, the officer, who requested not to be identified for fear of reprisals, told CNN on Monday. The officer thwarted the group's plan after he was alerted by a concerned citizen about the bus loaded with Haitian children.
Edwin Coq, the U.S. team’s former lawyer, said the officer testified about the earlier incident before the court last week.
The latest update on the drama involving the ten American Baptist volunteers further complicates the already messy situation.
Just a few days into the court hearing, attorney Coq was fired by Dominican lawyer Jorge Puello, who was hired by a church that counts some of the volunteers as its members. Puello said Coq wanted $60,000 to use as bribe money to free the team members. Coq, however, denies the allegation and said it was his legal fee.
Last Thursday, a judge charged ten U.S. church volunteers with kidnapping and criminal association after they were found on Jan. 29 trying to take 33 Haitian children to the Dominican Republic without permission from the Haitian government.
The group’s leader, Laura Silsby, claims they had permission from the Dominican Republic to take 100 children across the border. Dominican authorities, however, have denied the claim.
Puello on Monday said he had the paperwork from the Dominican government granting permission to the American team. He did not, however, show reporters the documents.
Additionally, at least 20 of the children the U.S. team took had living parents. Many of the parents interviewed said they had willingly given their children to the Americans who promised that the children would be educated at an orphanage in the Dominican Republic and that the parents could visit when they wanted.
The U.S. team has repeatedly said they were only trying to help Haitian children affected by the massive quake that devastated Port-au-Prince. More than 200,000 people died in the quake and over a million were left homeless.
Silsby said the group planned to take the children to a rented coastal resort in the Dominican Republic while a permanent orphanage was being built. Plans to build the orphanage were already underway before the quake, Silsby said, but the disaster prompted them to accelerate the plan.
Five of the detained volunteers were again questioned Monday by an investigating judge. The other five will be questioned Tuesday.
Some of the volunteers have expressed frustration that the U.S. government is not helping them.
"Help us," Carla Thompson told The New York Times from her jail cell. "That’s the message I would give to Mr. Obama and the State Department. Start helping us."
In the United States, several prominent Southern Baptist leaders have called on President Obama to help secure the release of the ten American Baptists. The team members are mostly from two Idaho churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
The Baptist leaders said it is likely that the volunteers had “the noblest of intentions” to help the Haitian quake victims, but acted without proper knowledge of the process to take the children out of Haiti.
“It is our earnest desire and our steadfast prayer that God will use this moment in our nation’s experience to raise greater awareness about the incredible need in Haiti,” the Baptist leaders said. “[W]e assure you that this ordeal will only increase our resolve to provide lawful, generous, and compassionate ministry to the earthquake victims.”
The Southern Baptist leaders who signed the Feb. 5 letter to President Obama are: Morris Chapman, president and chief executive officer of the SBC executive committee; Johnny Hunt, president of the SBC; and Frank Page, immediate past president of the SBC and member of President Obama’s Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.