BOISE (AP) — In the days after the Haiti earthquake, Laura Silsby, now under arrest in Haiti with nine other missionaries, made a series of calls around the country to mobilize a trip to rescue orphaned children from the disaster.
She enlisted members of her Baptist church and told them she had all the necessary paperwork. She even found a Kentucky couple, Richard and Malinda Pickett, who had been trying to adopt three siblings from Haiti and told them she could get the children out.
The Picketts say they politely declined, figuring the youngsters were safe and would soon be evacuated to their new home.
“My wife told her that under no conditions should she try to move the kids — that would just interfere with our plans. But she called two more times, and the last time she called, on the 25th, she said she was getting on a flight and would like to pick up our kids,” Richard Pickett said. “My wife, for the third time, told her no way — stay away from them.”
She still tried to take the children in Haiti and when the orphanage told her the children had been moved, Silsby went on to ask for any other kids she could have, Richard Pickett said. She paid a worker to take her to other orphanages in the region and translate for her.
“She asked for kids at each of the orphanages, and at the end of the day when no one would give her any, she cried,” Richard Pickett said. “Why would you cry after you see these kids are being taken care of?”
A few days later, Silsby and nine other Americans were charged in Haiti with kidnapping for trying to take 33 children out of the country without proper documentation. The 10 defendants remain in jail in Haiti.
The Haitian and U.S. governments are investigating Silsby and her group, trying to determine why they were rounding up children, many of whom were not orphans. Silsby and her supporters say they just wanted to save youngsters from the chaos, disease and uncertainty of quake-ravaged Haiti.
Others, like the Picketts, aren’t convinced.
A closer look at Silsby shows that the adoption fiasco followed a certain pattern seen in her life. The 40-year-old businesswoman and mother of three has been known to make big promises and big plans that often give way to questionable behavior and legal action.
Court records show she has a habit of failing to pay employees, creditors and taxes. In the last year alone saw her home go into foreclosure and watched a number of legal proceedings against her and her business wend their way through Idaho’s courts.
All of this happened as she became highly passionate about helping kids in the Dominican Republic, according to those who know her.
“She had explained that she felt absolutely driven in her heart to open an orphanage in the Dominican Republic,” said Nancy Batteen, owner of a children’s second-hand clothing store in Boise where Silsby shopped.
Silsby showed her knack for achievement early, earning a high school diploma at 15, according to an old news release from her company. She went on to study business administration and accounting at Washington State University, graduating summa cum laude in 1991.
She took a job with Hewlett Packard in Boise, working for six years in financing and Internet marketing positions.
In 2000, Silsby and a man named James Hammons patented a method for creating and operating a personalized Internet store. She used the method to found a company that would do business under the name Avenue Me. The goal, Silsby told associates, was to create an online personalized shopping experience for those too busy to dig through several stores or websites.
She hired Boise multimedia marketing company Wirestone to build her website, but soon stopped paying the bills, said Mark Salow, a former Wirestone manager. Wirestone ultimately sued after Silsby fell tens of thousands of dollars behind in paying for the work, Salow said.
“She was always telling us, ‘We had this great meeting, and you’ll be paid soon,’” Salow said. “There was always some investor that was going to come in and save the day.”
Those promises didn’t sway a judge, who ruled in Wirestone’s favor. The business seized computers and office furniture from Avenue Me to settle the debt in a pennies-on-the-dollar deal.
In 2004, Silsby filed for divorce from her husband, Terry Silsby. The divorce became final in 2007, but the two sides are still fighting in court.
In 2008, she bought a newly built five-bedroom home on a half-acre lot in Meridian — which the bank foreclosed on last December.
At the same time, several employees of her company — now called Personal Shopper after a trademark dispute — were filing claims against Silsby over unpaid wages. One former employee, Robin Oliver, said she was hired for $110,000 a year and sued after Silsby fell five paychecks behind.
Oliver said Silsby kept telling her that new investors had agreed to fund the company, but the cash never showed up. Oliver’s attorney said Silsby claimed at various times that potential investors included NBC, a private equity firm and a high-powered public relations expert.
Silsby contended that Oliver drastically cut her own hours and was working ineffectively and had to be fired. Silsby also noted that although she had faced a series of other wage claims, all those cases had been settled. Oliver’s lawsuit is set to go to trial Feb. 22.
“For many employees who chose to work for start-up companies, getting an immediate paycheck can, and often does, take a back seat to other priorities: Seeing the company succeed, getting in on the ground floor, getting paid more later in the form of stock options and bonuses, to name just a few,” Silsby wrote in court documents.
It is not clear if her money problems were related in any way to the adoption effort in Haiti, but the financial aspects of the trip will clearly be scrutinized during the investigation.
The Picketts said they were immediately suspicious of Silsby. The Kentucky couple didn’t need her help — the government had already given them permission to go pick up the children. But Silsby persisted, they said.
She showed up at the Compassion for All orphanage in Haiti, asking to collect the Picketts’ three adopted children and claiming to be Malinda Pickett’s friend, according to Richard Pickett.
That orphanage and others turned her down.
The Picketts’ adopted children are now with the couple in Bowling Green, Ky. Richard Pickett said he was recently interviewed by an agent with the Department of Homeland Security who is helping investigate the Silsby case.
The Haiti effort was not Silsby’s first attempt to help children overseas. She worked with a local teacher to create a nonprofit group called Kids Changing Lives With the Gift of Smile. Through the organization, school teachers encouraged their students to raise money for Operation Smile, which performs surgery on children to correct cleft palates and other facial deformities. Operation Smile spokesman Scott Vooss said Silsby and schoolchildren have raised nearly $40,000 so far — enough to cover about 166 operations.
“I absolutely don’t question their motives, but who knows?” Batteen said. “There’s no question in my mind that they weren’t trying to traffic children. Anybody that knows them knows that.”
Silsby’s sister, gift shop owner Kim Barton, declined to comment on Silsby’s charitable work or her business. But she gave The Associated Press a written statement on behalf of Silsby’s family and friends.
“We want the world to know that Laura is a good, caring, and loving human being,” it said. “We know that her deepest desire is to help — never to harm — the children whose lives were turned upside down by the earthquake in Haiti.”