By David Fischer and Frank Bajak, Associated Press Writers
Miami (AP) - Eight American missionaries charged with child kidnapping in Haiti returned to the U.S. aboard a military cargo plane early Thursday after nearly three weeks in a Haitian jail. But two others remained detained in an ordeal sparked by the group's attempt to take 33 children out of the earthquake-stricken country.
About 12 hours after a Haitian judge approved their release, the missionaries arrived on a U.S. Air Force C-130 just after midnight at Miami International Airport. They declined to answer reporters' questions as they briskly walked into a hotel adjoining the airport and got in an elevator.
"They're very tired," said Caleb Stegall, a district attorney in Kansas who has been helping some of the missionaries. "They've had quite an ordeal and they're obviously looking forward to a soft bed, a hot meal and a warm shower."
Elated relatives expressed relief, including Sean Lankford of Meridian, Idaho, whose wife and daughter were among the eight released. When asked by The Associated Press how he felt late Wednesday, he offered two words: "Damn good."
Earlier, Lankford said events had been unpredictable. "There's been a lot of a strange twists and turns in this case," he said.
The group's swift departure from Haiti began Wednesday when Judge Bernard Saint-Vil said eight of the 10 missionaries were free to leave without bail because parents of the children had testified they voluntarily gave their children to the missionaries believing the Americans would give them a better life.
"The parents gave their kids away voluntarily," Saint-Vil said in explaining his decision.
He said, however, that he still wanted to question the group's leader, Laura Silsby, and her former nanny, Charisa Coulter, because they had visited Haiti prior to the quake to inquire about obtaining orphans.
Just after dusk in Haiti, the bedraggled, sweat-stained group of eight walked out of the jail escorted by U.S. diplomats. They waited until they were safely inside a white embassy van before some flashed smiles and gave a thumbs up to reporters. Their plane took off from Port-au-Prince shortly thereafter as a group of reporters watched.
The missionaries were charged with child kidnapping for trying to take 33 Haitian children to the Dominican Republic on Jan. 29 without Haitian adoption certificates.
Their detentions came just as aid officials were urging a halt to short-cut adoptions in the wake of the earthquake. Before their release, Haiti's No. 2 justice official, Claudy Gassent, informed them of the judge's decision but said he also gave them a lecture.
"They know they broke the law," he said.
The missionaries say they were on a do-it-youself "rescue mission" to take child quake victims to a hastily prepared orphanage in the Dominican Republic, denying the trafficking charge.
Silsby originally said they were taking only orphaned and abandoned children, but The Associated Press determined that at least 20 were handed over willingly by their parents, who said the Baptists had promised to educate them and let their parents visit.
Saint-Vil said he did not release Silsby, 47, or Coulter, 24, because of their previous activities in Haiti during a December visit. Silsby hastily enlisted the rest of the group after the quake. Coulter, of Boise, Idaho, is diabetic and the judge signed an order Wednesday afternoon authorizing her hospitalization.
He said he had planned to question both women Thursday but that Coulter's health situation could prompt a delay. She had briefly been taken to a U.S. field hospital on Wednesday for treatment after feeling faint but was then taken back to jail.
Silsby's sister in Idaho, Kim Barton, said learning that her sister could not leave Haiti was difficult.
"At this point I don't have any comment. I don't know any more than you do," Barton said.
Gary Lissade, the Haitian attorney for freed detainee Jim Allen of Amarillo, Texas, said he expected the charges to be dropped against the eight.
"My faith means everything to me, and I knew this moment would come when the truth would set me free," Allen said in a statement issued by the Liberty Legal Institute in Plano, Texas.
AP's Bajak reported from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)