Haitian gang seeks $1M ransom per hostage in kidnapping that includes Michigan family

A Haitian gang that has taken responsibility for kidnapping a group of missionaries, which include members of a family from west Michigan and an infant child, is demanding a $17 million ransom for the group's release, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday morning.

Some of the 17 captured missionaries are members of the Hart Dunkard Brethren Church in Oceana County, the church's minister confirmed Monday. They are all of the same family. At least one more family member is in Haiti but was not among the group that was abducted Saturday.

It is unclear how old the Michigan captives are. Christian Aid Ministry, the Ohio nonprofit that organized the trip, said the kidnapped missionaries' ages range from 8 months to 48 years.

More:Five of kidnapped missionaries in Haiti are from Michigan, including 4 children, pastor says

The 400 Mawozo gang want $1 million for each of the 17 captured missionaries.

The demand for money came quickly after the kidnapping, said Rob Saale, a retired FBI agent and former director of the federal government's Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, which coordinates recovery efforts for U.S. hostages held abroad.

That may be a good sign for the hostages, who Saale said likely were targeted because they are from North America — 16 are American and one is Canadian — and can potentially draw a substantial ransom demand. The gang does not appear to be motivated by an ideological dispute with the missionaries or the U.S. government, he said.

"This is a business deal to them," Saale said. "They are looking to get as much money as they can out of this in as short a time as possible, I suspect. And I believe that they probably would settle for a lot less than $17 million."

The U.S. government likely will take a leading role in freeing the captured missionaries because Haiti's local resources are stretched thin by a series of crises that hit the country this summer, said Ryan Fayhee, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and former Department of Justice official. President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July, a major earthquake struck in August and crime has spiked in the following months.

"Frankly, I would be shocked if they had not deployed FBI resources on the ground in Haiti just because of the challenges of that country at this time," he said.

Fayhee sometimes represents the families of kidnapped Americans, including that of Detroit area former corporate security officer Paul Whelan, who has been in custody in Russia since December 2018 and is serving a 16-year sentence of hard labor after a conviction on espionage charges a year ago that he's vehemently denied. 

It is U.S. policy not to pay ransom demands for hostages, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki reiterated at a Tuesday press briefing.

"That remains our policy and — I can't get into too many details operationally here — that's never been in the interest of bringing people home who are held for ransom," Psaki said. "What I can reiterate is that the FBI is a part of a coordinated U.S. government effort to get the U.S. citizens involved to safety. Also the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince is coordinating with local authorities and providing assistance to the families to resolve the situation."

Psaki said the White House won't get into details because "our objective is to bring them home," adding that it's typically not advantageous to get into more details publicly during that process.

The government's policy not to pay ransoms does not prohibit a church, family or other group to pay the kidnappers' demand or negotiate a lower ransom, Saale said, as long as the kidnappers are not a terrorist group.

Criminal kidnappings are routinely resolved through ransom payments, he said. 

"There have been many cases where a kidnapping has been resolved through a ransom and then later on down the road, the perpetrators of that kidnapping have been arrested and brought to justice in a U.S. court," he said.

The Haiti kidnapping is "very unusual," Fayhee said. Typically, groups will take one or two people at a time in highly orchestrated plots, not large groups that include young children. 

"If it's one middle aged man in Afghanistan, obviously you worry about safety. But that's a lot easier to manage than a group of 17 people in Haiti," he said. "Thankfully, this has less to do with terrorist ideology, so you don't have to deal with that, but you know when they realize the U.S. doesn't pay ransoms, it can get pretty dangerous. It's a worry."

That raises the concerns about the group's safety, but might also lead to a faster release, Saale said.

"It's going to be no small endeavor to take care of this group, making sure they're fed and everything else," he said. "If you have a dead hostage, you're not getting any money at the end of the day, so it's in their best interest to keep the hostages in good physical condition."

Psaki pointed out that the U.S. government has had a level-four travel advisory against travel to Haiti since August due to the risk of kidnapping, crime, civil unrest and COVID-19.

The missionaries from Oceana County left in early October, Hart Dunkard Brethren Minister Ron Marks said Monday.

The 400 Mawozo gang has escalated its kidnapping recently and is apparently behind a series of kidnappings of large groups, the New York Times reported. It also is blamed for kidnapping police officers, businessmen, priests and nuns and for killing a famous sculptor. 

"Kidnapping is widespread and victims regularly include U.S. citizens. We know these groups target U.S. citizens who they assume have the resources and finances to pay ransoms, even if that's not the case," Psaki said. "That is also something that remains a concern for us."

The missionaries were captured as they left an orphanage outside of Port-au-Prince. During their trip, the missionaries were working with school children, distributing Bibles and Christian literature, providing medicine to health clinics, working with Haitian pastors and distributing food, Christian Aid Ministries said. They also had been involved in rebuilding homes lost in the earthquake.

Christian Aid Ministries describes itself as a channel for Mennonite, Amish and other conservative Anabaptist groups to do humanitarian and missionary work.

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