Topeka youth pastor detained in Haiti on abduction charges returns to Kansas

Drew Culberth and his daughter at the Kansas City airport.

? Four American missionaries freed from a Haitian jail were greeted with cheers and hugs Thursday after their plane landed in Missouri and brought them closer to home following accusations of child trafficking in the quake-stricken country.

They traveled on to Topeka, the hometown of one of the missionaries, youth pastor Drew Culberth, for a private celebration with members of Culberth’s extended family in the basement of his church.

The other three missionaries are from Twin Falls, Idaho, but were expected to remain in Topeka for an indefinite stay. The attorney for the four men, Caleb Stegall, also said they planned to appear today on NBC’s “Today” show.

Culberth and the other missionaries left Bethel Baptist Church in north Topeka after about two hours without speaking to reporters.

“They are very, very happy, and yes, they’ve been having a joyous reunion,” Stegall said Thursday evening.

Bethel Baptist’s pastor, the Rev. James Keller, said church members kept their emotions at bay until Culberth and the others were in the U.S. Keller said the church will give Culberth as much time off as he needs before he resumes duties as youth pastor.

Culberth and fellow missionaries Paul Thompson, his son, Silas Thompson, and Steve McMullin flew from Miami to Kansas City.

Eager for a private homecoming, the men shook off questions from reporters at Kansas City International Airport as they hugged their wives and other relatives. Stegall read a prepared statement in which the missionaries thanked those who had prayed for their return.

“We are especially thankful to our wives and mother who have borne this all with steadfastness and grace,” the men said in the statement. “We hope and pray that our release will allow everyone to focus again on the dire conditions that remain in Haiti.”

The four were among eight U.S. missionaries released Wednesday from the Haiti jail. The eight — and two others who are still detained — were charged with kidnapping for trying to take 33 Haitian children to the Dominican Republic on Jan. 29 without Haitian adoption certificates.

The missionary group’s leader originally said the children were orphans or had been abandoned. But The Associated Press determined that at least 20 were handed over willingly by their parents. That helped persuade a Haitian judge to free the eight without bail, releasing them with the understanding that they would return to Haiti if the judge requests it. The other two remained in a Port-au-Prince jail because the judge said questions lingered about their plans to set up an orphanage in the Dominican Republic.

The missionaries, most from Baptist churches in Idaho, said they were on a humanitarian trip to rescue earthquake victims. They deny the trafficking accusations.

Bethel Baptist Church members have said they never doubted the motives of Culberth, a 35-year-old firefighter and father of four who has been the church’s youth pastor since 2004.

Stegall refused to say whether his clients felt they were misled about the nature of their trip to Haiti. He characterized their release as “unconditional” but said he didn’t know if they would be allowed to return to the country.