The son-in-law of a former Mandeville mayor found himself embroiled in international intrigue this week, when he and other heavily armed Americans were arrested Sunday in Haiti as part of what some officials there believe was an attempted covert government mission.
In a saga where many details are still foggy, Dustin Porte of Mandeville and four other Americans were flown back to the U.S. on Wednesday, three days after Haitian authorities in the island nation's capital of Port-au-Prince detained them, two Serbian nationals and a local man.
They were caught at a checkpoint with an arsenal of rifles and pistols in the two cars they were driving.
The men — some with past ties to the U.S. military — initially claimed to be on some sort of government mission, and later said they were providing security for a businessman working with Haitian leaders. Nonetheless, it remains unclear what their mission was and for whom they were acting.
Citing federal sources, the Miami Herald reported Thursday that neither Porte, 43, nor any of his compatriots will face charges from the U.S. government.
The affair has caused outrage in Haiti. Prime Minister Jean Henry Ceant went on CNN on Wednesday to call the detained men “mercenaries” and “terrorists” who were trying to destabilize the Caribbean nation, where recent economic turmoil and corruption allegations have put the poverty-stricken country of 11 million on edge.
The U.S. State Department on Thursday said the detainees’ return to the U.S. was coordinated with authorities in Haiti but declined further comment.
Porte is the husband of ex-Mandeville Mayor Eddie Price’s daughter. In 2014, he founded Patriot Group Services, according to Louisiana business records. The company, which lists an address in Old Mandeville, is an electrical contractor that received a $16,000 subcontract from the Department of Homeland Security, the Miami Herald reported.
Reached by phone Thursday, Porte’s mother, Inez, said that as far as she knew, her son would not be charged with a crime, and his family was trying to help as much as it could to get him back home.
A staffer for U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, whose district includes Mandeville, said the Republican congressman's office had been in contact with Porte's family and was waiting for more information from the State Department.
According to the Herald, Porte formed part of a multinational group that included at least two former Navy SEALs — Christopher McKinley, 49, and Christopher Osman, 44 — and Marine Corps veteran Kent Kroecker.
The remaining American in the group was 52-year-old Talon Ray Burton, who directs a security company named Hawkstorm Global, according to the Herald, which has reported extensively on the saga.
The Serbian nationals were 37-year-old Danilo Bajagic — whose LinkedIn profile says he works for a security company near Washington, D.C. — and Vlade Jankvic, 41. The eighth man, Michael “Clifford” Estera, 39, is a Haitian national who may have been deported from the U.S., the Herald reported.
Riding in a Toyota Prado and a Ford truck without license plates, the men were stopped Sunday at a police checkpoint a block from Haiti’s central bank. Officers found six rifles, six pistols, two sophisticated drones and three satellite phones.
Investigators learned that an ex-Haitian government official had originally purchased one of the vehicles and then sent it to Fritz Jean-Louis, an adviser to President Jovenel Moise, the Herald reported.
After the men were detained, Jean-Louis claimed they were on a mission to evaluate the nation's central bank, the Herald said. He then left Haiti.
Haitian officials, including Port-au-Prince police and the bank’s chief, rejected the explanations from Jean-Louis and the men. Porte and his companions were jailed on counts of illegal weapon possession and driving in cars lacking license plates.
Speaking with the Herald, a human rights activist who monitored the arrests accused the men of working under the orders of Moise, the president.
The activist, Pierre Esperance, said presidential staffers pushed for the captured men to be freed without condition, but police resisted.
As word of the cloak-and-dagger affair spread, an agitated Ceant, the prime minister, told CNN that the eight were all “terrorists” and “mercenaries” aiming to throttle the government. He didn’t explain further, CNN reported.
Ultimately, Porte and six others were flown back to the U.S. on Wednesday. Only Estera remained in Haiti to face charges.
The Herald quoted sources as saying that the U.S. government had intervened, citing concerns for the detainees’ safety.
Esperance on Thursday said that he and others in his country were upset that the local justice system was not allowed to handle the case and that the U.S. had meddled in Haitian affairs.
"It shows there was a conspiracy," he told the Herald.
Staff writer Bryn Stole contributed to this report.