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Cops hunt U.S. missionaries’ ex-legal adviser

The former legal adviser to a group of American missionaries jailed in Haiti on child kidnapping charges is now the focus of a manhunt in the Dominican Republic.
Image: Jorge Puello
Working with Interpol, the Dominican National Police said it had conducted several raids Monday in an attempt to locate Jorge Puello, left.Javier Galeano / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The fugitive former legal adviser to a group of Americans detained in Haiti on kidnapping charges said Tuesday he has yet another reason to stay in hiding: He's been indicted in the U.S. in an immigrant smuggling case.

Jorge Puello, who surged into the spotlight by providing food, medicine and legal assistance to the 10 Americans jailed in Haiti, was already being pursued by law enforcement authorities in the Dominican Republic on an Interpol warrant out of El Salvador, where police say he led a ring that lured young women and girls into prostitution. He also had an outstanding warrant for a U.S. parole violation.

Puello — who says he is innocent of all the accusations against him — acknowledged in a phone interview with The Associated Press that he is also named in a 2003 federal indictment out of Vermont that accuses him of smuggling illegal immigrants from Canada into the United States.

The 32-year-old, identified as Jorge Torres in the indictment, was living in Canada at the time and managed to avoid arrest. He says he was working undercover for U.S. authorities at the time. Law enforcement officials said they hadn't yet confirmed the Puello is Torres but the case is open.

"Mr. Torres was a fugitive in Canada and the United States has requested his extradition," said Tristram Coffin, the U.S. Attorney for Vermont. "We've always been interested in him. We remain interested in fugitives when they flee."

Puello, as he has been known most recently, called the AP to discuss his case and said he was in Panama and preparing to return to El Salvador to fight the charges against him there. His whereabouts could not be confirmed.

"The whole world will know I am innocent," he said.

Dominican police, working with Interpol, and U.S. authorities are questioning his acquaintances as they search for him.

"We are on the hunt," said Steve Blando, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service in Washington.

The growing legal troubles for Puello have become a distraction for the detained Americans and those trying to secure their release. The Baptist missionaries were accused to trying to remove 33 children from Haiti without authorization following the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Suspect in trafficking case
Lawyers for the missionaries told the AP that a judge could rule on their request for provisional release as early as Wednesday morning. A lawyer for nine of them, meanwhile, said Puello absconded with most of the fee relatives of the Americans gave the Dominican to pay him.

"He was supposed to give me $40,000 and he gave me $10,000 and he stole $30,000 and he disappeared," said Aviol Fleurant.

Puello said he volunteered to help the missionaries and had never met any of them before they were detained in Haiti.

Sean Lankford, whose wife and daughter are among the detained, has said Puello — who was born in the U.S. but has deep ties to the Dominican Republic — contacted relatives of the Americans by calling their church, Central Valley Baptist in Meridian, Idaho, after they were arrested on Jan. 29. He brought food and medicine to the prisoners and helped them find a Haitian lawyer.

Puello's involvement with the Americans began to unravel when authorities in El Salvador noted his resemblance to suspect in the sex trafficking case. He acknowledged on Monday that he is in fact the suspect but said he was wrongly accused and will fight the charges.

Puello was convicted of theft of U.S. government property in 1999 in Pennsylvania and sentenced to 6 months in prison and 5 years probation, according to court documents. In 2001, a court found he violated the terms of his probation and issued a warrant for his arrest.

Salvatore Adamo, a lawyer who represented him in the Pennsylvania case, still remembers Puello, noting he had an apparent ability to speak several languages. "I thought he was very intelligent, very respectful," he said.

Internet sex ads
Authorities in the Central American country disclosed more details about the case Tuesday. The deputy investigations director of El Salvador's police, Howard Augusto Cotto, said Puello would be detained once he steps foot in El Salvador on charges of leading a trafficking ring dedicated to prostituting Central American and Caribbean girls and women.

Cotto said Salvadoran police discovered the operation after three Nicaraguan girls escaped from a home and sought help at the Nicaraguan embassy. Police found two Dominican women and two more Nicaraguan girls at the home along with a credit card and documents in Puello's name. They have since found advertisements on the Internet allegedly from the ring offering the women's services.

On Monday, Puello told the AP that he and his Salvadoran wife had taken in young women from the Caribbean and Central America who had been abandoned by smugglers.