Freed missionaries leave Haiti, land in Kansas City

Thursday, February 18, 2010 | 5:13 p.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — Four American missionaries freed from a Haitian jail were greeted with cheers and hugs Thursday after their plane landed in Missouri and brought them a step closer to home, following accusations of child trafficking in the quake-stricken country.

Kansas youth pastor Drew Culberth and fellow missionaries Paul Thompson, his son, Silas Thompson, and Steve McMullin, all of Idaho, flew from Miami to Kansas City. From there, they were expected to head to Culberth's hometown of Topeka. The other three were expected to remain in Topeka for an indefinite stay before moving on.

Eager for a private homecoming, the men shook off questions from reporters as they hugged their wives and other relatives. Their attorney, Caleb Stegall, read a prepared statement in which the missionaries thanked those who had prayed for their return.

"We are especially thankful to our wives and mother who have borne this all with steadfastness and grace," the men said in the statement. "We hope and pray that our release will allow everyone to focus again on the dire conditions that remain in Haiti."

The four were among eight U.S. missionaries released Wednesday from the Haiti jail. The eight — and two others who are still detained — were charged with kidnapping for trying to take 33 Haitian children to the Dominican Republic on Jan. 29 without Haitian adoption certificates.

"For those whose cases have not been resolved, we will continue to pray for their safe return," the men's statement said.

The missionary group's leader originally said the children were orphans or had been abandoned. But The Associated Press determined that at least 20 were handed over willingly by their parents.

That helped persuade a Haitian judge to free the eight without bail, releasing them with the understanding that they would return to Haiti if the judge requests it. The other two remained in a Port-au-Prince jail because the judge said questions lingered about their plans to set up an orphanage in the Dominican Republic.

The missionaries, most from Baptist churches in Idaho, have said they were on a humanitarian trip to rescue young earthquake victims by taking them to the orphanage. They deny the trafficking accusations.

Members of Bethel Baptist Church in north Topeka have said they never doubted the motives of Culberth, a 35-year-old firefighter and father of four who has been the church's youth pastor since 2004.

Stegall refused to say whether his clients felt they were misled about the nature of their trip to Haiti. He characterized their release as "unconditional" but said he didn't know if they would be allowed to return to the country, which is still reeling from the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 and left more than a million homeless.

Stegall said he was taking the missionaries to an undisclosed location for a debriefing, which he said would involve talking to the men about their experience.

"Obviously, they need some space to exhale and be with loved ones in private conditions," Stegall said. "They're back. They're in one piece, and they're in their family members' arms, and I think that's a great thing."

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