Remaining missionaries escaped Haitian gang, now doing 'well,' group says

Hayley Harding
The Detroit News

Millersburg, Ohio — A dozen remaining missionaries who were abducted by a Haitian gang walked as far as 10 miles through the woods and brambles to escape captivity, according to the Ohio-based group that sponsored their trip.

Two hostages were released in November followed by three more in early December. But the remaining missionaries escaped on their own through rough terrain, said Walter Showalter, a spokesman for Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries, which sponsored the trip. He made the revelation during a Monday news conference at the group's headquarters in Millersburg, a town of about 3,000 in rural Ohio.

David Troyer, general director of Christian Aid Ministries, noted Monday that the 17 hostages are doing "reasonably well" after their release from captivity of a Haitian gang.

People hug at the Christian Aid Ministries headquarters in Titanyen, north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. Twelve remaining members of a U.S.-based missionary group who were kidnapped two months ago have been freed, according to the group and Haitian police.

Showalter told reporters that none of the hostages were hurt physically or abused by the kidnappers.

He said he could not say anything specific about the negotiations with the gang, but he did say that some people had provided money to pay a ransom "and allow the negotiation process to continue."

Four of those who escaped last week were members of a family from the west Michigan. Two others in the family were freed earlier.

The Michigan family — which consisted of a mother and five children — were among those taken hostage in Haiti in October by the notorious 400 Mawozo gang. The gang asked for $1 million for each missionary and threatened violence if it was not paid.

The Michiganians taken were identified as Cheryl Noecker, 48, and a son, age 6; daughter, 13; son, 15; daughter, 18; and another daughter who is a young adult. The father, 50-year-old Ray Noecker was also in Haiti but was not abducted as he had stayed behind that day to prepare a sermon.

The family, which lives south of Shelby, are members of the Hart Dunkard Brethren Church. The church is part of an Anabaptist denomination that has similarities with the Amish and Mennonites. The congregation has about 55 members among a dozen families.

Showalter on Monday laid out a timeline of what happened to the group for the first time.

The group, he said, was abducted after trying to avoid a roadblock and they were taken to a house estimated to be about 10 feet by 12 feet. It was not big enough for every member of the group to lay down, Showalter said.

This photo provided by Christian Aid Ministries shows 15 of the 17 missionaries before they left Haiti.

They were allowed to go outside each day and were able to sing and pray together, including speaking through walls to other groups. They would eventually develop an around-the-clock prayer schedule that Showalter said mirrored what people in the United States and other countries were doing.

They were fed breakfast and dinner every day, although the food was often limited, and the youngest captives were provided baby food, Showalter said. On Thanksgiving, he added, they were given a special Haitian stew.

A number of people developed sores after bathing in contaminated water, Showalter  said. They received toilet paper and toothbrushes, but the supply was limited. The freed hostages reported that on some nights, kidnappers ran fans for a portion of the evening to help keep temperatures down.

They were moved frequently, Showalter said, and some locations were better than others. One location had coconuts, he said, which the hostages appreciated for the extra food and water.

The final 12 hostages were able to escape in part by recognizing a feature on a mountain that they had seen previously, which helped guide them, Showalter said. They were able to get around a blockaded door before traveling through the woods. Much of the area they went through was still gang territory, he said, making it difficult to trust anyone they came across. 

Eventually, they reached someone with a phone, which they used to call staff members at Christian Aid Ministries who ultimately were able to reconnect with them.

Showalter, during the Monday briefing, also showed photos and videos of the hostages taken over the past week. Most, he said, have been reunited with their families. Final reunions, he said, will be done by Tuesday evening.

It was not immediately clear if the family from Michigan was already home.

Troyer on Monday thanked those who reached out to Christian Aid Ministries and prayed for the safe release of the hostages. He also thanked the U.S. government "and all others who have assisted in the safe release of our hostages."

He noted that the kidnappers "caused the hostages and their families a lot of suffering," but said a critical tenet of his church's teaching is forgiveness.

"They went to Haiti knowing that their work would involve risks," Troyer said, adding that Christian Aid Ministries regularly visits dangerous parts of the world. "If we only go where it is safe, we'd stay at home in our communities."