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Florida men say plan was to arrest, not kill, Haiti’s president

The chief of Haiti’s national police force doubts their story: “They wanted to kill him. They knew what they were doing.”
People look into the window of a police vehicle carrying the bodies of two people killed in a shootout with police in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Thursday. Haitian National Police Chief Leon Charles said the two dead are suspects in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse.
People look into the window of a police vehicle carrying the bodies of two people killed in a shootout with police in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Thursday. Haitian National Police Chief Leon Charles said the two dead are suspects in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. [ JOSEPH ODELYN | AP ]
Published Jul. 11
Updated Jul. 11

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The operation that led to Haitian President Jovenel Moïse’s middle-of-the-night assassination was in the planning for at least a month, and came together during meals around Port-au-Prince and at a home where most of the men accused of the slaying were staying, several people who interviewed some of the suspects told the Miami Herald.

“They probably were watching and waiting for the opportunity for them to do it,” said Investigative Judge Clément Noël, who was among the first to question the two Haitian-Americans among the 19 suspects detained so far.

James A. Solages, 35, and Vincent Joseph, 56, both from South Florida, did not tell Noël why they chose the date that they did — July 7 — to launch the armed attack on Moïse’s private residence, but insisted that the plan was not to assassinate him.

Their mission, Noël and another person who debriefed the men said they were told, was to “arrest the president (at his home) and go to the presidential palace with him.”

The two Haitian Americans “said they were there, but they didn’t go to kill the president,” Noël said. “They said they knew what happened, but they didn’t participate in the killing. They were there to translate.”

In Haiti, it is illegal to arrest anyone after 6 p.m. unless it’s in the commission of a crime, something that Noël thinks is a hole in the men’s story. He said Solages and Joseph insisted that they had a copy of an arrest warrant that night. Asked who provided the warrant, the men claimed they did not remember.

The idea, they told another interviewer, was to install someone else as president, a claim Interim Haiti National Police Chief Léon Charles told the Herald on Saturday he doesn’t believe.

“They wanted to kill him,” Charles said about Moïse, who came into office in 2017. “They knew what they were doing.”

Related: Colombians held in Haitian assassination say Florida firm hired them

Moïse, 53, was assassinated inside his bedroom. His body was hit by 12 rounds, justice of the peace Carl Henry Destin told the Herald. Wearing blue pants and a white shirt covered in blood, Moïse was lying on his back at the foot of his bed when Destin arrived about 5 hours after the 1 a.m. assault. Destin said the wooden front door of the home and the door to Moïse’s upstairs bedroom were “riddled with bullets.”

“The bedroom was splattered with blood. The house and office were ransacked,” said Destin, who since the investigation said he’s had to go into hiding because of threats.

According to the initial statement issued by the government of Haiti, Moïse was killed around 1 a.m., which would coincide with the time residents in Pelerin 5, the neighborhood where the president’s home is located, told him they were awakened by the sounds of gunshots, Destin said.

But snippets of video footage that have emerged from that night show a timestamp of 2:44 a.m., raising questions about when exactly was Moïse killed and his wife wounded. Also unclear: The arrival time of the group of 26 Colombians and two Haitian Americans that Haitian police say were involved in the assault.

The two Haitian Americans told interviewers that the entire operation unfolded in an hour and 15 minutes, and referred to a “Mike as the colonel of the troop.” A source told the Herald that a man who used the named Mike is among the 17 Colombians who have been detained.

No one else, including the first family’s daughter or his son, were hurt. Also unharmed: members of the president’s security entourage, who are responsible for his safety, although three police officers were later taken hostage by some of the attackers after they fled the scene. The suspects who were interviewed said they went to a nearby house behind the Port-au-Prince police substation.

On Saturday, three days after Moïse‘s death, and as Colombian law enforcement officials began helping Haitians investigate the assassination, snippets began to emerge about the group, from their time in Haiti to who recruited them.

The two Haitian-Americans were evasive and offered few details, including declining to say who hired them. But Charles, two judges and one other individual who debriefed both Haitian-American suspects in custody and at least one of the Colombians shared some of the information they gathered with a Herald reporter.

Of 28 people believed to have taken part in the attack, 26 are Colombian and two are Haitian American, Haitian police have said. Colombian government officials have said at least some of the men were former members of the miliary.

Charles said the men were recruited by a South Florida-based company, Counter Terrorist Unit, on behalf of a “high-profile Haitian doctor.”

Charles declined to name the physician.

“They said they were hired to provide security to a VIP,” a source, who spoke to some of the suspects, told the Herald. The source requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the investigation.

Related: ‘We need help.’ Haiti’s interim leader requests U.S. troops

During their stay in Haiti, the group lived in two different houses in the Port-au-Prince area. Solages lived “somewhere in Petion-Ville, and Joseph along Route Frere, Noel said the men told him.

Together with the Colombian commandos, they would often eat together, with the Haitians translating for the Colombians. Both men said they spoke Spanish along with English and Haitian-Creole.

Noël spoke to both Solages and Joseph in a police station, shortly after the two men said they had “called their boss” and then surrendered to police late Wednesday night. Noël siad his interview began around 11:45 pm. and lasted until 3 a.m.

Solages told Noël that he had been living in Haiti for a month, while Joseph said he had been in the country for the past six months. Joseph told another interviewer that he had been going in and out of Haiti since January, but had been in the country steadily for the past three months.

The Colombians, Joseph told Noël, had been in Haiti for the past three months. They said they were all being paid $3,000 a month through Counter Terrorist Unit during their time in Haiti.

The night of the assassination, some members of the group arrived on foot and others in vehicles.

“The same way they came is the same way they left,” said the source who also interviewed the men.

Noël said the men said armed members of the team entered the president’s residence, somehow getting past a guarded security gate and then gaining access to the home.

Solages and Joseph claimed that as translators “there are a lot of details about the operation they didn’t know,” Noël said.

At one point the judge said he asked the men: “If you had the mission to arrest the president, when the men came out without the president, what did you say?”

“That’s when one of them said, ‘One of the men said they found the president already dead,’ " Noel said. “They said they didn’t kill him. That’s what one of them said one of the Colombians said.”

Residents who live in Pelerin, a neighborhood of million-dollar mansions above the hills of Petion-Ville in Haiti’s capital, reported hearing the sound of gunshots at around 1 a.m. The bullets, they said, appeared to come from high-powered weapons.

“A neighbor said they heard someone say ‘DEA, cooperation " Destin said in English. “They heard someone translating in Creole, and they heard a foreign language... ‘Both hands up, lie down, lie down,’ is what they heard.

The fact that the DEA was cited may not have been a coincidence. Sources say Joseph has a history of car theft, federal passport fraud in the U.S. and had once worked as a DEA informant who went by the name “Oliver ’' in South Florida.

By the time, specialized units of the Haitian police arrived on the scene, the attackers were already gone.

Destin arrived at the scene around 6 a.m., along with a forensics team.

None of the president’s security agents were present when he arrived at the president’s home that morning, Destin said.

A maid and a gardener told him that the attackers came into the house and handcuffed them. They described the assailants as foreigners with big guns.

“They were crying, screaming,” Destin said. “They could not even give me the time it happened. They said they heard a lot of shooting.”

Moïse’s daughter Jormarlie, told Destin she was inside her brother’s room when she heard gunshots and hid in his bathroom.

“When she heard things calm downed, she heard her mother’s voice,” Destin said.

Jormarlie Moïse “then saw two, three people who appeared and said, ‘We are with you,’” Destin said. “They came and took her and her mother to a hospital.”

First Lady Martine Moïse was wounded. Police said she had been shot in the arm. She was flown out of the country to Miami the same day and admitted to Jackson Health System’s Ryder Trauma Center.