Notorious Haiti gang frees 2 of 17 kidnapped missionaries after weeks

The Detroit News

Two of 17 missionaries kidnapped in Haiti have been released, 37 days after they were taken by a gang, and are safe, “in good spirits and being cared for,” an Ohio-based church organization announced Sunday.

The group, which includes 16 Americans including  a Michigan mother and up to five of her children, was kidnapped east of Haiti's capital on Oct. 16 by the notorious 400 Mawozo gang. The gang demanded $1 million for each missionary.

“We have learned that two of the hostages in Haiti were released. We praise God for this! Only limited information can be provided, but we are able to report that the two hostages who were released are safe, in good spirits, and being cared for,” Christian Aid Ministries said.

The two people freed are not part of the Michigan family, according to a source familiar with the release. 

The charity the Michigan captives worked for, which is based in Ohio, said it cannot provide or confirm the names of those released, the reasons for their release, where they are from or their current location.

“We ask that those who have more specific information about the release and the individuals involved would safeguard that information,” Christian Aid Ministries said.

The group encouraged people to continue to pray for the hostage crisis to end.

“While we rejoice at this release, our hearts are with the 15 people who are still being held,” the group said.

The spokesman for Haiti’s National Police, Gary Desrosiers, confirmed to the Associated Press that two hostages were released on Sunday.

Those kidnapped, which included five children, the youngest of whom was 8 months old when snatched, was grabbed at gunpoint in Ganthier, which is part of Croix-des-Bouquets, a sprawling suburb located east of metropolitan Port-au-Prince. One of the gang's leaders threatened to “put a bullet” in their head if the $17 million ransom wasn’t paid.

The mother and her children are from Michigan's Oceana County, according to their pastor, Ron Marks, who spoke with The Detroit News in October. 

Hart residents attend a prayer vigil for the 17 missionaries kidnapped in Haiti. A local mother and her children were part of the group that was abducted by the 400 Mawozo Gang on October 16.

He did not immediately return calls on Sunday.

The family are members of Hart Dunkard Brethren Church, said Marks, who declined to identify them. The church did not sponsor the trip to Haiti, but Marks told The News last month that members regularly go on mission trips with other groups.

The local missionaries went to Haiti in early October. The youngest child is younger than age 10, he said.

The husband was teaching lessons in the Bible, church members said in October, while the mom was supporting his work. Their visit, which was their first to the country, was supposed to be about two months long.

Friends of the couple describe them as selfless, the kind of people who would offer a soothing word or who would show up every day to help someone build a house. In their past missionary work, they went to Kenya.

Jeremiah Johnson, a minister at the church who worked during an African mission with the husband, said he had spoken to him "a couple of times."

"I think he has good days where he feels the grace of God is carrying him and he feels hopeful," Johnson said.

He said he and a few others in the congregation learned of the release late Saturday. Church members are hopeful it means the family will be home soon, although it isn't clear if some family is among those released.

"They're weary but they are still praying for us and trying to stay up in their spirits," Johnson said.

Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, called the release "a step in the right direction" but said "we must not rest until everyone in custody is released."

"The U.S. government needs a whole-of-government approach to address this problem, and I remain hopeful that this situation will be resolved with all hostages being released safely,” Portman said in a statement.

The ministry has been issuing updates on the hostages. 

“We are still waiting and praying for the group of 17 to be released, if God so wills,” Christian Aid Ministries said on its website Nov. 10.

“We request continued prayer for the kidnappers, that God would soften their hearts and that they would experience His love and goodness. As you pray, remember the millions of Haitians who are suffering through a time of serious upheaval and unrest. ..." 

Federal Bureau of Investigation agents had flown to Haiti the day after the kidnapping. They were joined by other other agents, who spent more than three weeks helping the families and Christian Aid Ministries with the gang’s ransom requests.

Even while the group was held in captivity, other kidnappings continue to occur in Haiti, where the surge in gang violence also is fueling a shortage in diesel and gasoline. Around the same time of the kidnappings, gangs began blocking fuel tankers from accessing the country’s two fuel distribution terminals. The shortage is affecting everything from banks to schools and hospitals, to the country’s potable water supply.

On Nov. 12, the leader of the gang federation that had been blocking fuel distribution announced a temporary truce, while demanding the resignation of interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry. That same day, American Airlines, which operated three daily flights to Port-au-Prince out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, announced it was cutting back to one daily flight out of Miami. The airline cited reduced demand.

Freelance writer John Barnes contributed to this story.