PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (BP)–Two Americans remain detained in a Haiti prison following the release of eight people from their volunteer group, which largely was from two Southern Baptist churches in Idaho.
Laura Silsby, 40, and Charisa Coulter, 24, members of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, remain in custody on charges of child kidnapping and criminal association.
Judge Bernard Saint-Vil said he still wanted to question the two because they had visited Haiti in December, prior to the earthquake, to inquire about obtaining orphans, according to the Associated Press.
The judge planned to question both women Feb. 18, but complications in Coulter’s health status threatened to stall the process. A diabetic, Coulter was taken to a U.S. field hospital Wednesday for treatment because she felt faint. After a brief stay, she was returned to jail.
“Laura means the world to us and not a minute goes by that she is not in our thoughts. We are desperately afraid for her safety and we constantly pray for her return,” Silsby’s family said in a letter delivered to The Idaho Statesman Feb. 15.
“We want the world to know that Laura is a good, caring and loving human being. We know that her deepest desire is to help — never to harm — the children whose lives were turned upside down by the earthquake in Haiti.”
Silsby was the leader of the group of 10 volunteers, and Coulter has been identified as Silsby’s assistant.
The Statesman ran a lengthy feature story on Silsby Feb. 14, reporting that acquaintances described her as intelligent, confident and persuasive.
“These qualities led people to work for her company for weeks, even months, without pay,” The Statesman said. “Fellow church members dropped everything on short notice to help her rescue orphans in Haiti, where the group of 10 was intercepted Jan. 29 at the Dominican Republic border and taken to jail.”
Silsby is described by the newspaper as the daughter of a former minister in the Wesleyan Holiness Church who finished high school at age 15 and wanted to attend college and start a career. By age 20, she had given birth to a son, and her first marriage was annulled.
In 1991, she married Terry Silsby and had a son, 15, and a daughter, 5. In 2004, she filed for divorce, and the two remain in a custody battle, The Statesman said.
After several years at Hewlett-Packard in Boise, Silsby started an Internet venture called eFunz.com, which later became PersonalShopper.com. She managed to assemble a top-notch technology staff, The Statesman said, and a former employee said she was “very capable.”
But over the years, Silsby was unable to pay her employees consistently, and 16 claims for unpaid wages have been filed with the Idaho Department of Labor. Former employees told the newspaper they believed Silsby had strung them along when she knew she wouldn’t soon have the money to pay them.
In 2006, despite the payroll problems, Silsby won an international businesswoman of the year award for her “visionary leadership, impressive accomplishments and strong commitment to helping others.”
Those who knew Silsby through church conveyed positive opinions of her. Darlene Wheeler of Boise told The Statesman she became acquainted with Silsby years ago at a church in Treasure Valley.
“She’s someone with a great big heart and works for good,” Wheeler said. “She’s always reached out and helped people. She’s very loving and caring. I’ve seen her help women in need, women in abusive situations.”
Carolyn Groom, a member of Central Valley Baptist Church, told The Statesman she was set to go with Silsby on the trip to Haiti but backed out at the last minute because her husband voiced concerns over the instability of the Haitian government.
“She felt pretty confident she could get this orphanage going,” Groom said, adding that Silsby’s Facebook posts indicated she was meeting with officials in Haiti to obtain the proper paperwork.
“Even if she’s made some bad decisions, she’s a very nice, good lady,” Groom said. “I love who she is and what she stands for.”
The Dallas Morning News quoted Terry Michaelson, an attorney for Central Valley Baptist Church, who said he had given Silsby $7,000 to help pay for the first month’s rent for the orphanage she planned to set up in the Dominican Republic.
“Laura had this dream to help, and when the earthquake occurred she recruited some fellow church folks,” Michaelson said. “The church had absolutely no reason to believe that her activities were anything other than purely altruistic, and we just hope for her and Charisa to come home soon.”
Silsby founded New Life Children’s Refuge, a nonprofit registered in Idaho last November. The three initial board members were Silsby, her sister Kim Barton and Coulter, The Statesman reported. The charitable organization’s stated purpose is “to provide a loving Christian environment for abandoned and unwanted children.”
The Associated Press reported that the Dominican consul in Haiti, Carlos Castillo, said he warned Silsby before the 33 children were bused to the border that she lacked the required papers and risked being arrested for child trafficking.
Child trafficking, Silsby said shortly after she was arrested, “is exactly what we are trying to combat. In this chaos the government is in right now, we were just trying to do the right thing.”
Silsby said the children “really didn’t have any paperwork.”
“This is, again, probably a misunderstanding on my part, but I did not really understand that that would really need to be required,” she told CNN.
Several people, including officials, had told Silsby it was permissible for a Haitian pastor to sign that he was entrusting the children to the volunteer group, she said, and the Dominican Republic had approved their entry.
Coulter, while on a stretcher suffering from health problems, was optimistic upon her arrest.
“I’m really praying that we’ll be able to take these kids out and we’ll be able to provide a safe and loving home for these kids who have nothing and that all charges will be dropped and that they will see our hearts,” Coulter said.
Compiled by Baptist Press staff writer Erin Roach.