US aid worker jailed in Haiti kidnapping case

U.S. citizen Paul Waggoner is escorted by police to court in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Wednesday Dec. 15, 2010. Waggoner, who helped found medical aid group Materials Management Relief Corps in post-quake Haiti, was arrested Sunday and is being held while authorities investigate allegations he kidnapped a 15-month-year-old infant. Waggoner said the baby he is accused of taking died at a hospital with fever and gastrointestinal distress in February. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery) (Dieu Nalio Chery - AP)


The Associated Press
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 6:20 PM

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — An American who sold his construction business and traveled to Haiti to help earthquake victims was in jail Thursday as authorities investigated allegations he kidnapped an infant.

Paul Waggoner, co-founder of a group that provides medical supplies and transportation for aid missions, was expected to be transferred to the overcrowded and dangerous national penitentiary. He could spend the next few months there on accusations that he and his fellow volunteers say are fabricated.

Waggoner and members of his organization, Materials Management Relief Corps, said the 15-month-old boy he is accused of taking actually died at a hospital with fever and gastrointestinal distress in February.

But the child’s father, Frantz Philistin, insists the boy is still alive.

At a hearing Wednesday, Waggoner’s lawyer showed a death certificate saying the child died months ago – a document the child’s father said was not authentic.

The judge decided to open a three-month investigation into the allegations, and Haitian law allows defendants to be imprisoned without charge during investigations.

“They don’t tell you anything. They just leave you in the dark,” Waggoner told The Associated Press on Wednesday as he was taken back to jail.

The case could have broader implications for international groups working in Haiti, discouraging volunteers who provide some of the few basic services Haitians receive in a country struggling to rebuild from the Jan. 12 earthquake.

The Waggoner case is complicated by a broken justice system where corruption is rampant and more than 80 percent of inmates have not yet been sentenced. Many await trial for years.

Both sides agree on one fact: Philistin brought his baby boy, Keevins, on Feb. 23 to the private Haitian Community Hospital in Petionville where Waggoner was working as a volunteer.

The baby was in bad shape, desperately needing oxygen and suffering from days of fever, said Paul Sebring, a former medical technician in Tempe, Arizona, who founded the group with Waggoner. While doctors were tending to Keevins, a 4.7-magnitude aftershock hit and much of the hospital staff fled into the night.

Sebring said that Waggoner was merely helping to move supplies and direct patients and was not involved in any treatment. “Paul never treated or touched the child. He had nothing to do with the case,” he said.

The aid workers say Philistin was told his son had died but would not take his body home because he did not have money for a funeral. Sebring said the father returned at least five times. Waggoner accompanied him, trying to keep him calm.

After two days, the American aid workers say, the body was incinerated. When the father returned again and found that the body was no longer there, he became enraged.

“They came to me and say, ‘Your baby is dead.’ I said, ‘Don’t lie to me.’ I tried to close his eyes, and they opened again. I closed them again and they opened,” he told AP. “I want to find my baby. I know my baby is alive.”

He said that Waggoner told him he had taken the child, which the Americans deny.

Philistin filed a lawsuit against the hospital in March. Waggoner left the country fearing retribution from the father, but returned soon after. The aid group says it has been focusing efforts on treating victims of Haiti’s surging cholera epidemic, which has killed more than 2,400 people.

Philistin spotted Waggoner and Sebring and several friends at a restaurant on Sunday and called police. The Americans were arrested, though all but Waggoner were released.

The American’s friends said they are afraid about what may happen to him if he is confined with other prisoners notorious National Penitentiary in central Port-au-Prince, an overcrowded horror where cholera has been rampant and deadly jailbreak attempts are common.

Waggoner has had previous legal trouble: He pleaded guilty in July 2008 to assault and battery in Massachusetts and was sentenced to 109 days in jail, according to the Nantucket District Court. Sebring said the charge resulted from a fight at a work site.

The aid group and Waggoner’s family are trying to keep have him moved to a private cell or elsewhere in Port-au-Prince.

“However, the ultimate goal is to ensure Paul’s right to a fair hearing and speedy investigation in order to prove the accusations are groundless and Paul is set free,” the group said in a statement.

The American said Wednesday that he suspects Haitian officials are keeping him in prison to extort money from him.

His lawyer, Edwin Coq, was fired by a group of 10 U.S. Baptist missionaries accused of kidnapping in Haiti earlier this year. They alleged Coq was trying to bribe a judge. Sebring said Waggoner is looking to change legal counsel.

“I would have liked to be out today,” Waggoner said. “I would have liked for this not to have happened in the first place.”


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