|SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) — 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.
Dominican police and U.S. agents are seeking to detain Jorge Puello, who acknowledged Monday that he is wanted in El Salvador for alleged involvement in a human smuggling ring in the Central American country.
In a call from an unknown location, Puello told The Associated Press he was innocent of the accusations and that he and his Salvadoran wife had taken in young women from the Caribbean and Central America who had been abandoned by smugglers.
Salvadoran authorities want to prosecute Puello and his jailed wife for allegedly luring women and girls into prostitution with bogus offers of modeling jobs.
“I’m planning to go to El Salvador to tackle this problem,” Puello said in a phone call arranged by his mother at his childhood home in the Dominican Republic. “I am not afraid to face the music.”
Each new detail emerging about the past of the 32-year-old seems to add to the embarrassment and discomfort of the American missionaries that Puello volunteered to help, and who are still awaiting release from a Port-au-Prince jail.
On Monday, a Haitian prosecutor said a power outage delayed his printing of a recommendation to release the 10 Americans charged with child kidnapping. Because Tuesday is a national holiday, he doesn’t expect the judge to issue a decision until Wednesday morning.
In the phone call with the AP, Puello said he had fled the Dominican Republic to avoid arrest.
The Dominican National Police, working with Interpol, said it had conducted several raids and interviews Monday in an attempt to locate Puello and detain him on the Salvadoran warrant.
U.S. federal agents also went to his mother’s house over the weekend. Dave Oney, a Marshals Service spokesman in Washington, said authorities are trying to determine if Puello is a man with a similar name and physical description wanted for a 2002 parole violation.
Puello’s statement that he had left the Dominican Republic was immediately cast in doubt by his mother, Ana Rita Puello, who refused to vouch for her son’s whereabouts.
Informed that Puello said he had left the country, she looked surprised. Asked if she believed he fled, she shook her head and smiled.
“I don’t want to answer,” she said.
Puello’s recent behavior has only stoked doubts about his identity and other aspects of his life.
He falsely portrayed himself as a lawyer in the Dominican Republic. He wrongly claimed to be the leader of the country’s Sephardic Jewish community. And he initially told reporters he had never been to El Salvador, but now says he has deep connections to the Central American country, including five children there.
Arrest warrants identify him as Jorge Anibal Torres Puello. Around Santo Domingo he was also known as Jorge Torres, Yoram Torres and Jorge Migdal.
The Americans in Haiti, detained for allegedly trying to take 33 children out of the country without proper documents after the earthquake, knew him as Jorge Puello.
Puello says his role in the case is as a misunderstood do-gooder who volunteered to help the detained Americans after reading about their case on the Internet.
“If you see somebody dying and you can help you can’t just not help because you have a past,” he said. “I have been helping people since I was a kid.”
Born in Yonkers, New York, Puello spent his early childhood years in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico after his parents divorced, according to his mother, a 49-year-old activist with a small political party and the operator of a preschool at the family home.
Later, Ana Puello married Franco Cerminara, a businessman from Italy, and they moved to South Florida.
“That’s when Jorge began to go wrong,” said Cerminara, now retired.
The couple showed a photo of a young Jorge in a starched white military academy uniform in the Dominican Republic. But as a 15-year-old in Miami, they said, he began dating a stripper, who was a single mother and 10 years older than him. He soon left home for Philadelphia, where Cerminara said he was convicted of bank fraud and later moved to Puerto Rico to work as a hotel receptionist.
At some point, he apparently served in the U.S. military. A family photo shows him in fatigues standing next to two Army trucks. Puello said he served in the Army from 1996-2000 but gave no further details.
About four years ago, he emerged in Santo Domingo saying he wanted to establish a Sephardic Jewish community. Cerminara and Ana Puello said everyone in their family is Catholic and that Jorge Puello converted on his own. “He is Jewish by conviction,” she said. “He practices the religion and believes it in his heart.”
The Dominican Republic is home to about 50 Jewish families, a tightly knit and low-key community that includes Sephardim and Ashkenazim, and some had doubts about the new arrival, said Isaac Lalo, secretary of the Centro Israelita de Republica Dominicana, the main synagogue.
Jorge Puello began identifying himself as the “newly elected president of the Jewish Communities of Dominican Republic” in a Jewish newsletter and elsewhere even though he was never elected to any such role and had no congregation.
“This guy has nothing to do with our community,” Lalo said. “Sephardic Jews don’t just set up a community out of the blue.”
Puello at some point moved to El Salvador with his Salvadoran wife, Ana Josefa Galvarina, who is jailed in El Salvador. He said that he ran a business converting cars to run on propane gas.
He said in the interview that he and his wife took in young women abandoned by smugglers, with the cooperation of the immigration ministry, but that the migrants tired of the house rules and he dropped them off at a bus station with money for a ticket home.
He said they told police they had been trafficked by Puello to punish him. “They made it all up,” Puello said of his accusers. He says he’s eager to go back and fight the charges and join his children, now staying with their grandmother.
It was his Salvadoran lawyer, he said, who told him to leave the country and avoid arrest. “He said not to get in trouble right now, not to get arrested until he can fix everything.”