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Relatives fear for man held in Haiti

Paul Waggoner, who went to Haiti after the earthquake there, was escorted to court in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday. Paul Waggoner, who went to Haiti after the earthquake there, was escorted to court in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday. (Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press)
By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / December 17, 2010

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A Nantucket aid worker facing kidnapping charges in Haiti remained in the notorious National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince yesterday as relatives and friends urged US officials to push for his release.

Paul Waggoner, 32, was transferred to the penitentiary yesterday while a judge investigates the case and decides whether to send it to trial, a US Embassy official said. In February, a grieving father accused Waggoner of kidnapping after his 15-month-old son died at a Petionville hospital where Waggoner was volunteering, according to the embassy and news reports. Waggoner’s aid organization has called the charges groundless.

Meanwhile, conflicting portraits of the sandy-haired aid worker with a maverick streak emerged yesterday. Friends say he was so moved by the devastation after the Jan. 12 quake that he left his Nantucket construction business and moved to Haiti to help. However, he also had a criminal record in the United States; he pleaded guilty to assaulting a man in 2007 on Nantucket and served time in jail.

Yesterday, relatives and others said they feared for Waggoner’s safety in the overcrowded and dangerous National Penitentiary, and said his jailing could discourage future volunteers.

“I’m just scared right now. I am absolutely terrified of him going to the National Penitentiary,’’ said his older sister, Randi Lightner of DeFuniak Springs, Fla. “I don’t feel like he would survive it.’’

Yesterday, Senator John F. Kerry’s spokeswoman, Whitney Smith, said staff from the Foreign Relations Committee, which he chairs, had urged the US embassy in Haiti to transfer Waggoner from the penitentiary because conditions are inhumane.

US Embassy spokesman Jon Piechowski said consular officials have met with Waggoner twice and attended his court hearings. “We’re standing by if he has any concerns,’’ he said.

Waggoner, who was raised in Florida and moved to Nantucket nine years ago, cofounded Materials Management Relief Corps after the quake with another independent volunteer, Paul Sebring, and together they provide medical supplies and transport to aid missions. Known as “Little Paul,’’ the slight, wiry Waggoner had disdain for bureaucracy and sported a can-do attitude that many medical workers cherished.

Dennis Rosen, a physician at Children’s Hospital in Boston who lobbied US officials on Waggoner’s behalf yesterday, said “the Pauls’’ delivered tubes, medicine, and even oxygen to people desperate for care.

“There’s a huge amount of need and these people have saved countless lives,’’ he said. “Both are extremely dedicated, available at all hours. It seemed as though they never slept.’’

Rosen had another worry.

“Not only will it impact this absolutely fantastic person, but it can have ripple-down effect on aid workers who might not want to go back if this is not resolved,’’ he said.

According to the Associated Press, Waggoner was working at the private Haitian Community Hospital in Petionville on Feb. 23 when Frantz Philistin sought aid for his son, Keevins.

Waggoner said the boy died at the hospital with fever and gastrointestinal distress. Waggoner’s lawyer produced a death certificate at a hearing Wednesday. Philistin insists the boy is still alive and that Waggoner told him he took the baby.

Waggoner left Haiti for a short time after the accusation — apparently missing a hearing, according to the embassy, but returned soon afterward. His organization said in a statement that Waggoner left because he feared the father and returned in March believing the matter had been resolved.

Philistin spotted Waggoner at a restaurant Sunday and called the police.

Lightner said Waggoner had found a new start in Haiti after an unstable childhood in Florida and trouble with the law on Nantucket.

His father, a roofer, died when he was 9 years old and his mother died of an aneurysm when he was 21. He helped to raise his younger sister, who was 15.

After he pleaded guilty to the assault and battery charge on Nantucket, he served 109 days in jail. It was part of an 18-month suspended sentence and two years’ probation, according to the clerk at Nantucket District Court.

The Inquirer and Mirror newspaper on Nantucket reported yesterday that the charge was filed by a former friend who said Waggoner drugged him, took him to a horse stall, and tied him to a chair with chains and duct tape. Then he allegedly beat him with an ax handle.

The circumstances of the episode could not be independently verified yesterday. Last night, members of Waggoner’s organization acknowledged the Nantucket case but said they were “firmly committed to his innocence in this case.’’

An aid worker in Port-au-Prince who asked not to be identified said Waggoner grew deeply attached to Haiti, where he felt a sense of purpose. He even had tap-taps, the colorful buses in Haiti, tattooed on each shoulder.

“He really fell in love with this place and he wanted to stay,’’ said the aid worker.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com.