Relatives of a group of jailed U.S. missionaries thought a man who volunteered legal assistance — but who may be wanted for human trafficking in El Salvador — was a good Samaritan, a family member said.
Jorge Puello was not known to the missionaries' church group before their arrest for trying to take 33 children out of Haiti, and members failed to check his background, Sean Lankford, the relative who dealt most closely with him, said Saturday.
Lawyers for the missionaries said Puello, who had been a high-profile advocate for the jailed Baptists, deceived their clients and that his legal predicament should have no bearing on whether the missionaries are released provisionally, as a judge has recommended.
"The Puello case has no relation to this one," said Aviol Fleurant, who was hired last week to represent nine of the 10 Americans. "If Puello is wanted in El Salvador, that's another case."
Lankford, whose wife and daughter are among the detained, told The Associated Press that Puello first contacted relatives of the Americans by calling their church, Central Valley Baptist in Meridian, Idaho, after they were arrested on Jan. 29.
They thought Puello, who is Jewish and from the Dominican Republic, was a good Samaritan and had no reason to doubt his intentions, said Lankford.
"He helped us find the lawyer we have now. He helped us gather evidence. Before him, we really were having a hard time finding anyone at all" to represent the missionaries in neighboring Haiti, said Lankford.
Puello never asked for money for himself but "was going to help us to pay the other attorneys. He was the guy who was going to hand money to lawyers," Lankford added in a phone interview Saturday.
"He even took a small plane into Haiti at one point and he didn't want to be reimbursed at all," Lankford said.
He would not say how much relatives paid Puello. He said it was his understanding that Puello had no relation to any of the missionaries before they were arrested.
The Americans said they were on a humanitarian mission, rescuing desperate victims of Haiti's catastrophic Jan. 12 earthquake. They had leased a hotel in the Dominican beach resort of Cabarate where they were setting up an orphanage.
The deputy investigations director of El Salvador's police, Howard Augusto Cotto, told reporters Friday that he was seeking fingerprints for Puello to determine whether he is the 32-year-old Salvadoran named in an Interpol arrest warrant for allegedly running a sex trafficking ring that lured women and girls from the Caribbean and Central America into prostitution with bogus offers of modeling jobs.
A photo of the wanted man, Jorge Torres Orellana, bears a striking resemblance to Puello, who on Wednesday visited the Haitian judge hearing the Americans' case in his chambers in Port-au-Prince.
Cotto told the AP "the possibility is high" that Torres and Puello are the same man.
The Haitian judge, Bernard Saint-Vil, told the AP Thursday he was recommending the Americans be provisionally released. He said he expected to issue a final ruling next week. He said it was too early to say whether they would be able to leave quake-shattered Haiti while the case was further investigated.
Puello readily answered calls from the AP until The New York Times reported Thursday night that he might be the wanted sex trafficker. He has since Friday afternoon refused to answer phone calls. The Times quoted Puello as denying any connection to trafficking and saying he had never been to El Salvador.
The paper also quoted Saint-Vil as saying the Puello situation could delay his decision on whether to release the Americans, most of whom are from an Idaho church group. Saint-Vil could not be located for comment. He did not respond to repeated telephone messages.
On Saturday, the Dominican police chief, Rafael Guzman, issued a statement saying Puello had no criminal record there but was under investigation. He is in apparent violation of Dominican law for failing to obtain a license, said Jose Parra, vice president of the Dominican Lawyers Association.
The attorney for the 10th American, Jim Allen of Amarillo, Texas, said relatives of the jailed missionaries erred by appearing to entrust Puello blindly.
"The families, unfortunately, did not check his background, did not do due diligence," said the lawyer, Gary Lissade.
Fleurant, meanwhile, said he had only received a small part of the fee he was promised by the Americans for defending them against child kidnapping charges filed on Feb. 4.
Neither he nor Lankford would name his promised fee, and Fleurant refused to directly accuse Puello of absconding with the bulk of it.
"I don't want complications for my clients, because I love them," he said. "I feel that I am (also) a victim."
Associated Press writers Dionisio Soldevila and Marcos Aleman in San Salvador, El Salvador, contributed to this report.
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