NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A legal adviser to some of the 10 American missions volunteers detained in Haiti may be a suspect in an El Salvador child prostitution ring, but the Haitian judge overseeing the volunteers’ case said the development may have no bearing on their fate.
Jorge Puello, who apparently volunteered his services to the jailed Baptists, was identified by his mother Feb. 13 as a fugitive sought by Salvadoran police, the Miami Herald reported. Puello’s common-law wife, Ana Orellana, was convicted in the case in 2009 but her husband managed to flee the country before trial.
Puello’s legal problems, however, are separate from the Americans’ case, said Bernard Saint-Vil, the presiding judge, on Feb. 13.
“At this point, the two cases have nothing to do with each other,” Bernard Saint-Vil, the investigating magistrate, said in a telephone interview with The Wall Street Journal. “I have no indication that Mr. Puello knew the missionaries before their arrests. Unless we find something suggesting the opposite, we would have no reason to merge the two cases.”
The magistrate also said he would consider a defense lawyer’s petition for the Americans’ release once the government prosecutor on the case has replied to the motion.
The volunteers were arrested Jan. 29 at the Haiti border as they tried to take 33 Haitian children into the Dominican Republic, allegedly without adequate paperwork from the Haitian government. Soon after, several group members apparently hired Puello, who told them he was a lawyer from the Dominican Republic. He has been working as a spokesman for the group, hiring and firing Haitian attorneys and getting food delivered to the volunteers.
The Dominican Republic College of Attorneys, however, does not list Puello as a registered lawyer, news services report, and authorities in several countries are investigating his connection to the child-prostitution ring in El Salvador. Court records in the United States show an outstanding warrant for Puello on 1999 charges of carrying a false identification. His mother told the Miami newspaper her son had served prison time in the United States.
Attorneys for five of the jailed volunteers told reporters Puello himself never represented their clients. Puello has disappeared and one attorney he hired to represent nine of the volunteers told the Associated Press he had received only a small part of the fee he was promised. Aviol Fleurant, however, refused to directly accuse Puello of stealing the rest.
In a Feb. 12 telephone interview, Puello declined to comment on the El Salvador case, telling the Associated Press he would be busy in court. Reporters, however, were unable to locate him in court and he did not return later phone calls. The website for Puello Consulting was taken down Feb. 12. Puello told The New York Times he had no connection to trafficking and said he had never been to El Salvador.
The volunteers were working with New Life Children’s Refuge, a nonprofit organization founded in November 2009 by Laura Silsby, who led the team. Most of the volunteers are members of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, and East Side Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho. One volunteer is a member of Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas; another is from Bethel Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Mark Kelly. Websites for the four churches with members detained in Haiti may be found at: Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho — http://www.centralvalleybaptist.net; East Side Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho — http://www.esbctwinfalls.com; Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas — http://www.paramount.org; Bethel Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. — http://www.bbctopeka.org.