In a closed courtroom in one of the few government buildings still standing here, Laura Silsby and nine other American missionaries were charged Thursday with abducting children from this earthquake-ravaged capital.

When the proceeding was done, the 40-year-old from a mountain valley in Idaho walked out of Le Tribunal de Paix, past a scrum of microphones, cameras and seething Haitians and into a government minivan with a co-defendant. As they waited to return to a fetid cell with mattresses on a concrete floor, they appeared to pray.

Their lawyer, Edwin F. Coq Jr., said they had been charged with child abduction and criminal association and not the more-serious charges of kidnapping and child trafficking in connection with trying to take 33 children into the neighboring Dominican Republic. The charges could carry sentences of up to nine years and up to three years, respectively, Coq said.

SLIDESHOW: Haiti Begins to Recover | HOW TO HELP | FULL COVERAGE

For Silsby it was the latest in a series of wrong turns on a road her parents and others who know her in Idaho say was paved with the best intentions. Yet in her long-stated desire to help orphans, she has left a trail of business and personal debts, as well as unheeded warnings about the intricacies of taking children out of Haiti.

"Laura was the only one who had knowledge of what was going on," Coq said. "The rest said only that they love Haiti. That is why they came to Haiti."

Much about Silsby, who started and ran an online personal-shopping service, remains a mystery, including the current state of her business and personal finances—her house was foreclosed and she was sued by creditors—and whether she believed she was following Haitian law as she gathered children.

Read the full story at the Wall Street Journal