BOISE — The leader of an American group detained while trying to take 33 children out of Haiti after the January earthquake returned Tuesday to Idaho, deferring questions about her conviction for arranging illegal travel.
Laura Silsby was freed Monday after she was convicted by a judge for arranging illegal travel and sentenced to time already served in jail. She was welcomed at the Boise airport by a cheering crowd that included her sister, mother and members of her Idaho church.
Silsby cried while hugging family members, raised her hands in the air as her pastor led the group in prayer, and sang a hymn with members of her church congregation.
“It feels incredible,” Silsby said. “I just give praise to my God and I thank him for bringing me home.”
The 40-year-old Idaho businesswoman organized the ill-fated effort to take the children to an orphanage being set up in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Silsby declined to answer questions from reporters about the past three months.
“I’ll talk about that maybe at a later time. Today is a day of celebration and joy,” she said. “I’ve longed for this for a long time, so later we’ll talk about other things.”
Silsby said her faith had gotten her through the ordeal.
“God has been there with me every single second,” she said. “He has given me strength and peace throughout every moment of this trial.”
Silsby was whisked out of airport by family members and followed by her friend and nanny Charisa Coulter, another member of the group that was jailed. Coulter was released in March.
Silsby had been in custody since Jan. 29. She was originally charged with kidnapping and criminal association, but those charges were dropped for her and the nine other Americans who also have been released.
After the missionaries were arrested, Silsby told the court she thought the children were orphans whose homes were destroyed in the earthquake. However, she lacked the proper papers to remove them from the country at a time when the government was restricting adoptions to prevent child trafficking.
An investigation by The Associated Press later revealed all the children had at least one living parent who had turned their children over to the group in hopes of securing better lives for them.
Silsby and other members of the church group insisted they had only come to Haiti to help.
Silsby was convicted Monday of arranging illegal travel under a 1980 statute restricting movement from Haiti signed by then-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier.
At least four members of the group that had been detained in Haiti greeted Silsby at the airport.
“It’s good to have her home,” said Paul Thompson, a Twin Falls pastor who was jailed along with his son.
Coulter and her father, along with Silsby’s father John Sander, traveled to Haiti on May 2 to give Silsby moral support.
“Our first concern is for her welfare and the welfare of her family,” said Clint Henry, who is Silsby’s pastor at Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian.
The crowd that gathered in the airport terminal was jubilant for the most part.
A former employee of Silsby’s now-defunct business Personal Shopper Inc. held a large sign that read: “Laura Where’s My Paycheck?” The company closed in late March and is the subject of a host of lawsuits and unpaid wage claims.
Bryan Jack said he was hired by the business in 2007, starting as an analyst then taking over its customer care department. Jack said Silsby owes him $5,000 under a civil judgment handed down April 29.
“I think that it’s important the public knows she owes people money,” said Jack, holding his sign above the crowd of church and family members who huddled around Silsby at the airport.