PORT-AU-PRINCE (BP)–The Haitian judge overseeing the case of 10 U.S. Baptist volunteers accused of kidnapping 33 children says he will recommend that they be released, although his order apparently will be provisional and the group — all still in jail — won’t be allowed to leave the country just yet.
The Associated Press and The New York Times both reported Thursday that Judge Bernard Saint-Vil will recommend to the prosecutor that the 10 volunteers be released but be required to remain in the country while the investigation continues and until a final decision is made in their case. The prosecutor can then agree or object to the recommendation, although in Haiti’s judicial system the same judge still makes the final ruling.
“After listening to the families, I see the possibility that they can all be released,” Saint-Vil told the Associated Press. “I am recommending that all 10 Americans be released.”
It is not known when a ruling on the actual charges will be made.
The news of the provisional release followed an 18-hour period of conflicting news about the Baptists, with various reports Wednesday night and Thursday morning saying the Baptists would be released, no strings attached. By Thursday afternoon, though, the release appeared to be provisional.
The 10 volunteers are members of five Baptist churches, including Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas, which dedicated its Sunday morning service to praying for the release of member Jim Allen. Paramount Baptist church members were given red, white and blue ribbons Sunday to wear in remembrance of Allen.
“The service definitely was emotional,” Paramount executive pastor Dave Anderson told Baptist Press. “Our senior pastor led us in a specific time of prayer at the beginning of the service. I think it is something that has touched everybody in some way, even for those who don’t really know Jim.”
The five men and five women were arrested Jan. 29 and accused of trying to kidnap the children across the border, although the volunteers said they were simply taking the kids to safety in the Dominican Republican and that the children, ages 2 to 12, either were orphans or the parents had granted permission. The volunteers denied there was any wrongdoing, and, in fact, some parents told the judge that they indeed had agreed to allow their children be taken to the Dominican Republic.
The controversy surrounded whether the volunteers had the proper paperwork to cross the border with the children.
Allen’s wife, Lisa, recorded a video message that was shown to the church Sunday and since has been posted on the Web. She said her husband didn’t decide to go on the trip until 48 hours prior to the airplanes leaving and that they had to rush around town to get his shots. He was invited to be part of the trip by his cousin, Idaho pastor Paul Thompson, another group member. The trip was such a last-minute decision that most of the staff at Paramount Baptist, which has between 1,200 to 1,300 people in attendance on Sunday mornings, did not know Allen was even in Haiti until he and the others were arrested.
Anderson said he has been praying for not only the safety of Allen and the others but “that God would show Himself through this situation” and that God would “use Jim to show His love to some people that may not have ever experienced that.”
A source told Reuters Wednesday that the judge would recommend the volunteers be released because “one thing an investigating judge seeks in a criminal investigation is criminal intentions on the part of the people involved and there is nothing that shows that criminal intention on the part of the Americans.”
Nine of the 10 are members of Southern Baptist churches. Group leader Laura Silsby is a member of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, as are group members Charisa Coulter, Carla Thompson and Nicole and Corinna Lankford. Three detainees are from Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho: Thompson, his son Silas and church member Steve McMullen. The other detainees are Allen and Drew Culberth, an assistant youth pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Bethel Baptist is the only church not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.