Published December 09, 2015
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — The last of 10 Americans detained while trying to take 33 children out of Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake was freed Monday when a judge convicted her but sentenced her to time already served in jail.
Laura Silsby, the organizer of the ill-fated effort to take the children to an orphanage being set up in the neighboring Dominican Republic, returned to her cell briefly to retrieve belongings before quickly heading to the Port-au-Prince airport.
"I'm praising God," Silsby told The Associated Press as she waited for a flight out of Haiti. She declined to answer further questions before clearing immigration and heading through a gate to catch a plane to Florida. The flight she was supposed to be on landed in Miami on Monday night, but waiting journalists couldn't locate her.
In Idaho, Mel Coulter, the father of missionary Charisa Coulter, who was released in March, said Monday night that friends and relatives were excited about Silsby's release and looking forward to a celebration Tuesday at the Boise airport.
"The 10th of 10 is coming home and we'll rejoice when we see her tomorrow," he said.
The judge's decision "may not have been exactly what we were looking for," Coulter said of the conviction, but he added, "We're very thankful."
"We knew the motives and the intent of the 10 people who went down to Haiti and there was absolutely no intent for wrongdoing," he said. "It was simply a mission of mercy."
Coulter said he and his daughter, as well as Silsby's father, John Sander of Twin Falls, Idaho, flew to Haiti on May 2, with Charisa Coulter and Sander remaining "to help Laura and give her the moral support she really needed." The three were returning to Idaho together, Coulter said.
The Idaho businesswoman had been in custody since Jan. 29. She was originally charged with kidnapping and criminal association, but those charges were dropped for her and the nine other Americans who were previously released. Silsby was convicted of arranging illegal travel under a 1980 statute restricting movement out of Haiti signed by then-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier.
Prosecutor Jean-Serge Joseph said she was convicted and sentenced to the 3 months and 8 days she spent behind bars. Last week, the prosecution had recommended a six-month sentence and she faced a maximum of three years on the charge.
"She is free," Joseph said.
The 40-year-old Silsby told the court earlier she thought the children were orphans whose homes were destroyed in the earthquake. But she lacked the proper papers to remove them from the country at a time when the government was restricting adoptions to prevent child trafficking in the chaos that followed the disaster.
An AP investigation later revealed all the children had at least one living parent, who had turned their children over to the group in hopes of securing better lives for them.
Silsby and others in the group, mostly members of the same Baptist church in Idaho, insisted they had only come to Haiti to help. They unwittingly helped draw attention to the dark side of the adoption industry in Haiti, where children for many years have been abandoned by their parents or sold into slavery.
In February, a Haitian judge released eight of the Americans after concluding they had not knowingly engaged in any crime. The judge released Coulter, Silsby's friend and former nanny, in March.
Silsby was held the longest because she organized the venture and prosecutors insisted she knew that she did not have the proper authorization to take the children out of Haiti.
She was prosecuted with Jean Sainvil, an Atlanta-based pastor born in Haiti who allegedly helped find the children for the missionaries. The pastor, facing the same charge as Silsby, was not in Haiti and was being tried in absentia. The status of his case was not immediately clear.