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Home sweet home: Haitian jail nightmare over for Bradenton man

MANATEE -- Cheers rang out the moment Daniel Pye’s plane door opened shortly before 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Dolphin Aviation.

Seconds later, his daughter, Riann, ran onto the tarmac. She couldn’t help it any longer. She’d been waiting to see her dad since he was jailed in Haiti in October.

“That’s my daddy,” the 4-year-old yelled as she jumped into his arms.

He replied, “Princess,” as he held his little girl in his arms.

His wife, Leann, 27, followed with a kiss and a hug as dozens of their friends and family watched the family reunion. Leann is expecting to give birth to their son, Joseph Daniel, in the coming days.

“It feels great,” said Daniel, 29. “Thank you very much for your support. I’m looking forward to the birth of Joseph.”

Daniel was set free from jail Tuesday and said he has since had one Pizza Hut pizza and about six showers.

The Bradenton man runs an orphanage and mission in the southern coastal city of Jacmel, Haiti. Daniel was originally arrested in October without charges being filed against him when he went to a Haitian courtroom to sign paperwork regarding the mission where he and his wife take care of 22 children. He was released Christmas Eve, only to be charged with owning a false identification card as he was walking away from the jail with his wife.

In a previous interview with the Herald, Leann said they obtained Haitian identification cards legally from the immigration office in the capital Port-au-Prince seven years ago. Daniel’s card expired in April 2010, but he had since obtained another form of legal identification.

Family and friends, along with Haitian officials and the U.S. Embassy, pushed hard for his release.

Now they are nothing short of thrilled.

“We’re very excited,” said family friend Martha DiPalma. “We’re believers, so we are just thanking God.”

His return to Bradenton was truly a family affair. Daniel’s sister Tammy Morel drove from South Florida to see her brother.

“I knew he was going to get out,” she said crying. “It makes you appreciate things more.”

Daniel informed her Wednesday of his release in an e-mail. She got goose bumps as she read it.

“I feel like this is not real, I’m a free man,” he wrote.

“I was crying,” said Morel, who then drove to work at the University of Miami, where many of her coworkers shared in the joy.

“I call him my little unsung hero,” Morel said, adding that she wishes her father, Ken Pye, who is currently teaching in China, and brother Ken Pye Jr., who is in Tallahassee, could have made it to see Daniel.

Morel’s children made welcome signs. Other family members held balloons with messages of “I love you” and “Welcome back.”

Brittanie Smith, 13, cried when her uncle stepped off the plane. She couldn’t believe she was seeing him for the first time since August, when she visited him in Manatee.

“He’s fun,” Brittanie said.

Although they had been waiting for Daniel’s return since October, the final few hours dragged on. The private plane was supposed to land at about 1 p.m. Then it got delayed until about 7:20 p.m.

At about 7:45 p.m., loved ones lined up to greet Daniel only to discover the plane that landed was carrying local state Republican Reps. Jim Boyd and Greg Steube on their way back from the legislative session in Tallahassee.

“I couldn’t be happier that he is back on American soil. He’s doing good work over there,” said Boyd, who has ties with the family and waited to greet Daniel. He had to leave, however, after learning Pye's flight from Fort Lauderdale was delayed another 45 minutes.

According to Osner Fevry, a legal expert in Haiti who provided Daniel assistance pro-bono, the same judge who jailed Daniel in October signed his release order Tuesday, allowing him to finally leave the cell he had shared with 28 other men.

Fevry worked on Daniel’s case since it began, and on Monday had several conversations with the judge and other officials urging Daniel’s release.

“We finally agree, investigative judge Samedy and I, that Brother Daniel Pye will be released from prison tomorrow, Tuesday March 15, 2011, and that the Court Order will be hand delivered to me in person, to get Daniel PYE out of prison,” Fevry wrote in an e-mail to officials dated Monday. “Pray for that special trip. Hope everything will work in accordance to His plan for us all.”

Fevry drove to Jacmel to take the court order from the office of the judge and, from there, to get Daniel out of prison.

“Daniel PYE and his family will freely continue their missionary/humanitarian work among our needy children in Haiti,” Fevry wrote in the e-mail.

Daniel concurred Thursday night, saying he would eventually return to Haiti.

But as he stepped away from the bright lights of the television cameras, his wife pulled him close and said, “You’re mine now.”

Riann, who was close by, refuted that statement by leaping into her father’s arms again.

“No, he’s mine!” she said.

Paradise Afshar, Herald staff writer, can be reached at 745-7024.

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