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Jailed missionary left trail of legal troubles

The Idaho woman who led a Baptist group on a mission to Haiti that resulted in all 10 members of her team being charged with kidnapping also faces legal troubles back home.
Image: Laura Silsby
Laura Silsby, 40, center, and Charisa Coulter, 24, left, both of Meridian, Idaho, are escorted out of the court building in Port-au-Prince on Thursday.Rodrigo Abd / AP
/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

The leader of a group of American missionaries charged Thursday with kidnapping for trying to take 33 children out of earthquake-ravaged Haiti faces legal troubles in her home state of Idaho as well.

Laura Silsby, 40, is the subject of several lawsuits accusing her and her Boise-based company, PersonalShopper.com, of failing to pay her employees. She also has a history of failing to pay debts, and the $358,000 house at which she founded her nonprofit religious group, New Life Children's Refuge, was foreclosed upon in December, according to a report in her hometown newspaper, the Idaho Statesman.

The Boise newspaper said Silsby has been named in at least eight civil lawsuits and 14 unpaid wage claims. 

On Thursday, she and nine other Americans appeared in a Haitian court, following their arrest on Jan. 29 for allegedly trying to cross into the Dominican Republic with a busload of Haitian children they said were orphaned by the quake. A prosecutor forwarded their case to a judge to determine their fate.

Silsby said at the hearing: "We simply wanted to help the children. We petition the court not only for our freedom but also for our ability to continue to help."

A longtime Idaho businesswoman, Silsby founded PersonalShopper.com, an Internet gift-shopping service site, in 1999. As its CEO, she was named businesswoman of the year in 2006 by eWomenNetwork, which lauded her for founding a company "based on a conviction that busy working mothers, like herself, needed a time-saving personal shopping service that would help simplify their hectic lives." 

The Idaho Department of Labor confirmed that 14 claims for nonpayment of wages were filed against Personal Shopper Inc. in 2008 and 2009. The company’s former marketing director also filed a civil lawsuit against Silsby and the company in October for unpaid wages, wrongful termination and fraud, the newspaper said.

Silsby is due in Idaho court next week in the case and a jury trial is scheduled for Feb. 22.

Court records show that Silsby also is due in court in March to answer to another civil lawsuit filed by Beer & Cain, a Boise law firm. The lawsuit says Silsby has failed to pay more than $4,500 for services rendered.

An e-mail circulated Wednesday at PersonalShopper.com urged employees not to speak to the press or post any information on Web sites. "Given the aggressive nature of the press and the fabrications already being invented, we need to make sure nothing in writing is published that can be misconstrued in any way," the e-mail said, according to the Statesman.

Mission gone wrong
Silsby and her nanny, Charisa Coulter, 23, who are both members of the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, founded New Life Children Refuge, a nonprofit that Silsby incorporated in Idaho in November.

The religious charity’s mission was to build an orphanage for Dominican and Haitian children.

"The folks in the church embraced their vision, and it became a shared vision," Coulter's father, Mel, told the Statesman. "The church made it part of their mission's program."

Before the Jan. 12 earthquake devastated Haiti, the charity had planned to buy land and build an orphanage, school and church in Magante on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, BBC News reported.

But after the disaster, the mission's aim became to "rescue Haitian orphans abandoned on the streets, makeshift hospitals or from collapsed orphanages in Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas, and bring them to New Life Children's Refuge in Cabarete, Dominican Republic," the charity stated in an online document.