Prosecutors ask Miami judge to detain Haiti orphanage founder accused of sexual abuse

Miami Herald [Miami FL]

February 9, 2024

By Jacqueline Charles and Jay Weaver

Federal prosecutors have filed an appeal with a Miami judge seeking to overturn a Denver court’s decision that allowed an American man accused of sexually abusing boys at a Haitian orphanage to be sent to a halfway house until trial.

Earlier this month, Magistrate Judge Scott Varholak in Colorado denied a request by federal prosecutors to detain Michael Karl Geilenfeld, 71, after he was indicted on Jan. 18 by a grand jury in Miami.

Geilenfeld, who was arrested in Denver, is accused of traveling from Miami to Haiti 14 times between November 2006 and December 2010 to engage in “illicit sexual conduct with another person under 18.” If convicted Geilenfeld faces a maximum sentence of 30 years.

Rather than order Geilenfeld to remain behind bars Varholak ordered him to be sent to a halfway house and outfitted with a GPS monitoring device. Varholak held off on having Geilenfeld released from a Denver federal prison until a federal judge in Florida could rule on the matter after prosecutors said they would appeal.

In the appeal, prosecutors argue that Geilenfeld poses a flight risk. He has no ties to South Florida and is a danger to the community given the serious nature of the allegations, they said.

Prosecutors also argue that Geilenfeld has substantial financial resources, some of which he’s transferred overseas, and has spent most of his life with connections to foreign countries, specifically Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Geilenfeld, the founder of an orphanage in Haiti, has held “himself out as a missionary while using his position and privilege to sexually abuse young boys and cover up his crimes,” prosecutors wrote in court papers. Between the mid-1980s through 2014, Geilenfeld operated multiple orphanages in Haiti, including the St. Joseph’s Home for Boys, which he founded in 1985. He also opened a home in the Dominican Republic after fleeing there to escape sexual abuse allegations in Haiti, where he had been jailed and still has a court case pending.

In a petition seeking his release, Geilenfeld’s lawyer, Robert Oberkoetter, accused prosecutors of shopping for a more favorable jurisdiction. The government, Oberkoetter said, has had Geilenfeld’s travel documents since 2012 when his client was investigated by a federal grand jury in Charlotte, North Carolina. Though he was not indicted at that time, prosecutors said “Geilenfeld’s counsel erroneously advised the court that a grand jury in North Carolina issued a no bill after being presented with an indictment against” him.

“Further detention should be lifted and trial should take place in Colorado,” he said in the petition, arguing that his client doesn’t have the money to defend himself in Florida. Oberkoetter did not respond to a Miami Herald email request seeking comment about his client.

Allegations of sexual abuse have followed Geilenfeld for more than a decade. After a children’s rights advocate, Paul Kendrick, and Haitian journalist Cyrus Sibert launched a campaign to have him arrested, Geilenfeld and a Raleigh, North Carolina, nonprofit group that supported his St. Joseph’s Home for Boys orphanage sued for defamation in federal court. They initially won a judgment against Kendrick, who lives in Maine, but that was later vacated due to a lack of jurisdiction.

A second lawsuit was filed in state court in Maine by Geilenfeld and the nonprofit, Hearts with Haiti. Kendrick settled and his homeowner’s insurance policies paid the charity $3.5 million. Geilenfeld, he said, signed a document with the court dismissing all charges against him with no financial remuneration.

Following Geilenfeld’s arrest last month, the non-profit’s executive director, Emily Everett, told McClatchy’s sister newspaper, The News & Observer, that the charity “severed all ties with Mr. Geilenfeld years ago.”

“Mr. Geilenfeld was never an employee, volunteer nor member of the Hearts with Haiti Board of Directors,” she said in an email to the newspaper. “Hearts with Haiti has no knowledge regarding the guilt or innocence of Michael Geilenfeld concerning these federal charges.”

The original St. Joseph’s Home for Boys, which Geilenfeld founded in 1985, was closed by the Haitian government in 2014 following his arrest over sexual abuse allegations. Hearts with Haiti, Everett said, continues to support the St. Joseph Family, an organization that provides education and housing to “children and adults with disabilities and economically disadvantaged children” in Jacmel, Haiti.

Federal prosecutors, who have issued an appeal in Haitian-Creole, French, Spanish and English for victims to come forward, said about 20 different people have reported being sexually abused by Geilenfeld over the years. FBI and Homeland Security Investigations agents have spoken to individuals who were not part of the civil defamation suit, prosecutor wrote in court papers.

Prosecutors have highlighted allegations by four victims who say they were forced to engage in sexual acts with Geilenfeld while they stayed at
the Haiti orphanage. They were between the ages of 9 and 13 years old at the time. Prosecutors also pointed out that in May 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Protection stopped Geilenfeld after he tried to fly to the Dominican Republic, where he lived after fleeing sexual abuse allegations in Haiti.

During the stop, an officer found in Geilenfeld’s possession 11 copies of a three-page photo array of victims/witnesses involved in the sexual abuse allegation. Prosecutors said they believe the purpose of the photos was to aid Geilenfeld in intimidating or bribing witnesses and victims.

In a September 2022 deposition, Geilenfeld stated that all of his efforts were to “get back to the Dominican Republic because that is my wealth, my life, that is my everything,” prosecutors said.

Geilenfeld was charged as part of a nationwide initiative launched by the U.S. Justice Department to combat child sexual exploitation and abuse. Anyone with related information or who may have been a victim or witness is being asked to call Homeland Security Investigations at 877-4-HSI TIP (877-447-4847).