— An American who said he shuttered his construction business to help victims of the Haiti earthquake is now jailed in Port-au-Prince on charges he kidnapped a child, a colleague in Haiti said.
Paul Waggoner, 32, of Nantucket, Mass., was sent to the notorious National Penitentiary in the Haitian capital on Thursday while a court commissioner reviews his case, said Paul Sebring, co-founder with Waggoner of the Materials Management Relief Corps. Under Haitian law, which allows a suspect to be jailed during the investigation, Waggoner could spend several months locked up inside the overcrowded institution, where cholera has been rampant.
"We're worried," said Sebring during a telephone interview in Haiti on Thursday. "Not only his safety at risk, but so is his health. It's been hell."
Waggoner's arrest apparently is based on the word of the child's father, who refuses to believe that his 15-month-old son died and that his remains were cremated. Instead, he believes that Waggoner abducted the child.
The fact that Waggoner has a criminal record in Massachusetts isn't helping his cause.
Waggoner was arrested on Sunday on allegations he kidnapped the boy in February from the Haitian Community Hospital in Petionville, where Waggoner was volunteering, Sebring said.
At a court hearing Wednesday, Waggoner's lawyer showed a signed certificate to prove the child's death. But the child's father, Frantz Philistin, insisted the boy was still alive, and his lawyer said he doubted the document was authentic, The Associated Press reported.
Both sides agree that Philistin brought his ill boy, Keevins, to the Petionville hospital on Feb. 23.
The baby was suffering from fever and dehydration, said Sebring, a former medical technician from Arizona.
Sebring said while doctors were tending to Keevins, an aftershock struck and the medical staff fled the medical center.
Sebring said that Waggoner was helping move supplies and direct patients, but was not involved in treating patients. "Paul never treated or touched the child. He had nothing to do with the case," Sebring said.
Philistin was told his son had died but would not take his child's body home, saying he did not have money for a funeral, Sebring said. He said that the father returned to the hospital at least five times, and Waggoner accompanied him and tried to keep him calm.
After a few days, the body was cremated, Sebring said. When the father returned again and found that the body was no longer there, he became enraged.
"They came to me and say, 'Your baby is dead.' I said, 'Don't lie to me.' I tried to close his eyes, and they opened again. I closed them again and they opened," Philistin told The AP. "I want to find my baby. I know my baby is alive."
Philistin accused Waggoner of wanting to adopt or sell the baby, Sebring said.
Philistin filed a lawsuit against the hospital in March. Waggoner left the country fearing retribution from Philistin, but he returned soon after to continue his volunteer work, The AP reported.
Father and Waggoner encountered each other on Sunday.
Waggoner was inside a Haitian restaurant when the father walked in, Sebring said. The father left and returned with officers, hauling Waggoner to the police station, Sebring said.
Then, a Haitian judge decided to open a three-month investigation into the accusations.
"They don't tell you anything. They just leave you in the dark," Waggoner told the AP on Wednesday as he was taken back to jail.
'Giving up everything'
Waggoner and Sebring created the Materials Management Relief Corps earlier this year to provide medical supplies and transportation for aid workers on the island nation, Sebring said.
Men's Journal profiled Waggoner and Sebring in a recent feature on freelance humanitarian workers in Haiti, calling the aid workers "Haiti's Cowboys EMTs."
"There’s no chain of command for us," Sebring was quoted as saying in the October article. "If we see something that needs to be done, we just do whatever it takes to get it done."
Sebring said he will also do whatever it takes to get his buddy out of jail.
"We have been here for almost year busting our asses, giving up everything to help the people of Haiti, and all the we're getting is abuse by having Paul illegally imprisoned," Sebring said.
Sebring said he contacted the U.S. Embassy in Haiti to help secure Waggoner's release.
"We know he is innocent and we're doing everything we can to free Paul," said Nanci Murdock, a volunteer for Waggoner's group in Montreal. She said she's been busy taking calls from reporters and trying to find Waggoner a new lawyer.
His former lawyer, Edwin Coq, was fired by a group of U.S. Baptist missionaries accused of kidnapping in Haiti earlier this year. They claim Coq was trying to bribe a judge. Coq has denied the charges.
State Department officials said they were aware of the situation.
"American consular officers have maintained regular contact with Mr. Waggoner and his family since his detention," said Nicole Thompson, a State Department spokeswoman. "They have made two consular visits and attended court hearings. We will continue to monitor this situation closely."
In Haiti, more than 80 percent of inmates have yet to be sentenced. Many await trial for several years.
Sebring said he's hoping for assistance from the U.S. government but fears that Waggoner's past legal troubles will hurt his case.
Waggoner was charged with kidnapping and assault in 2007, according to The Inquirer and Mirror in Nantucket. He is accused of holding a man captive in a horse stall, tying him up with chains and duct tape and beating him with the blunt end of an ax, the Nantucket newspaper reported.
He pleaded guilty in July 2008 and was sentenced to 109 days in jail, according to the Nantucket District Court.
Now, he faces another round of criminal proceedings.
Waggoner told The AP that he suspected Haitian officials were keeping him in prison to extort money from him.
"I would have liked to be out today. I would have liked for this not to have happened in the first place," he said.