American founder of Haiti orphanage pleads not guilty to sex abuse, detained in Miami

Miami Herald [Miami FL]

April 16, 2024

By Jay Weaver

The American founder of an orphanage in Haiti pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to new federal charges accusing him of traveling from Miami to the island and sexually assaulting four underage boys under his care more than a decade ago.

But during his detention hearing in Miami federal court, a prosecutor said Michael Karl Geilenfeld “sexually abused 20 boys” at his orphanage and then threatened them not to say anything or they would be harmed.

“We have multiple people saying the defendant sexually abused them in the same way,” Justice Department prosecutor Eduardo Palomo told a federal judge.

Palomo argued that Geilenfeld, who was granted a bond by a magistrate judge in Denver before his recent transfer to Miami, should not be released before trial because he’s a danger to the community and a flight risk to the Caribbean.

U.S. District Judge David Leibowitz agreed, ordering that the 72-year founder of St. Joseph’s Home for Boys in 1985 in Port-au-Prince be detained in a federal lock-up until trial. In doing so, Leibowitz overturned the decision of the magistrate judge, who in February allowed Geilenfeld to be released to a halfway house pending trial. That decision, however, was put on hold in March while prosecutors appealed it.

Between then and now, the U.S. criminal case changed significantly, with prosecutors last week filing a superseding indictment accusing Geilenfeld of “engaging in illicit sexual conduct” with four minor boys between 2006 and 2010 in addition to the original charge of traveling to Haiti for that purpose. The four boys, now adults, are expected to testify at Geilenfeld’s trial.

Palomo, assisted by prosecutor Lacee Monk, told the judge during the detention hearing that one of the four underage boys cited in the indictment was stabbed in the chest by a Haitian friend of Geilenfeld’s because the alleged victim had reported his abuse to authorities in Haiti.

Palomo said Geilenfeld paid the associate as much as $27,000 for various tasks, including helping him open another home for the poor in the neighboring Dominican Republic after the orphanage operator was shut down in Haiti and charged with crimes there in 2014.

Photos of alleged victims

Palomo also said Geilenfeld kept a dossier with photos of his alleged sexual-abuse victims — evidence that was discovered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in May 2019 when Geilenfeld was traveling through Miami International Airport to the Dominican Republic. The array of photos included pictures of two of Geilenfeld’s victims cited in the new indictment, Palomo said.

Geilenfeld’s lawyer, D’Arsey Houlihan with the Federal Public Defender’s Office, argued that his client should be released to a halfway house in Miami as he awaits trial because he is elderly and has no prior criminal history.

“He has dedicated his life to serving the poor and indigent,” Houlihan told the judge, noting that Geilenfeld was living in a studio apartment in Denver that had been offered to him by the pastor of a church that he attended there every day. “This is a gentleman who doesn’t have significant means.”

But Judge Leibowitz disagreed, pointing out that Geilenfeld was charged with “extremely serious crimes” that carry up to 30 years in prison. “The weight of the evidence has really changed,” he said, citing the superseding indictment filed last Thursday.

In addition, Leibowitz issued a protective order to shield the identities and other personal information about Geilenfeld’s alleged sexual-abuse victims from the public and other parties.

No trial date has been set for the case, which includes about 100,000 pages of evidence, according to prosecutors.

Opened home in the Dominican Republic

In court papers, prosecutors said Geilenfeld has held “himself out as a missionary while using his position and privilege to sexually abuse young boys and cover up his crimes.” Between the mid-1980s through 2014, Geilenfeld operated multiple orphanages in Haiti, including the St. Joseph’s Home for Boys. 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.

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 in January, 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.”

Home closed by Haitian officials

The original St. Joseph’s Home for Boys 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, prosecutors 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 at MIA, an officer found in Geilenfeld’s possession 11 copies of a three-page photo array of victims/witnesses involved in the sexual-abuse allegations. 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).