TOPEKA, Kansas – American missionaries who faced allegations of child trafficking in Haiti but were freed from jail described their trip to the earthquake-ravaged country as a simple humanitarian effort that left them even more concerned about the Haitian people.
"It seemed like everyone in the group (was) legitimately really concerned about the children and helping them, to the point that it was almost amazing to me that they were so concerned about helping them," missionary Jim Allen told Oprah Winfrey on Friday's episode of her talk show.
Allen was among eight American missionaries freed Wednesday after three weeks in custody in Haiti. Two were left behind in jail. Four of the eight are now in Kansas. Three are home in Idaho, while Allen is back in Texas.
The group denies the child trafficking accusations, arguing the trip was a do-it-youself "rescue mission" for young victims of the massive Jan. 12 earthquake.
"We're four guys — well, we're a group of 10 people — that are convinced that it's better to get up off the couch and go and help people than just sit on a couch and do nothing," missionary Paul Thompson said during a segment taped from Topeka and aired Friday on NBC's "Today" show.
Allen, who appeared with his wife, Lisa, on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," described conditions at the jail, saying the missionaries slept on a concrete floor and received one hot meal a day. Still, he said, the group was treated well.
He said when it rained, water would drip through little holes in the ceiling.
"What I was thinking of at the time is that there are millions, it seemed like, people on the street that were getting poured on," Allen told Winfrey. "They were sleeping on the ground."
Thompson said he doesn't want the missionaries' detention to take the focus away from Haiti and its recovery.
"The need is incredible," he said.
The 10 missionaries were charged with kidnapping for trying to take 33 Haitian children to the Dominican Republic on Jan. 29 without Haitian adoption certificates. Allen told Winfrey the missionaries planned to take the children to a temporary orphanage in the Dominican Republic.
He said he thought his construction skills could be useful in Haiti and that he was shocked to be jailed.
"I felt like as soon as the story was told and the facts come out that we had done nothing wrong that I would be coming home," Allen said. "I just didn't know when it would happen."
The missionary group's leader originally said the children were orphans or had been abandoned. But The Associated Press determined that at least 20 were handed over willingly by their parents.
That helped persuade a Haitian judge to free the eight without bail, releasing them with the understanding that they will return to Haiti if the judge requests it. They could still face charges. The judge said Friday that he is investigating whether the other two missionaries, who visited Haiti in December, went to orphanages to seek children before the earthquake.
On Thursday, Caleb Stegall, a Kansas attorney representing the four missionaries currently in Topeka, refused to say whether his clients felt they were misled about the nature of their trip.
He characterized their release as "unconditional" but said he didn't know if they would be allowed to return to the country, which is reeling from the earthquake that killed more than 200,000 and left more than a million homeless.
Stegall said the three Idaho missionaries will be home by Monday but declined to discuss their plans further.