The Girl with the Tonton Heart

Years after the Haitian diaspora, Papa and Baby Doc's children are still wandering

It was Nadia who put up Marilise's bond money when she was arrested, and it was Nadia who gave her a job at the variety store she owns. For a time, after the birth of her second girl, Vanessa, in 1995, Marilise and her kids lived with Nadia; she and the children's father split up in 1996.

Regardless of whether Marilise used or sold drugs (she adamantly denies she's ever done either and is backed up by her normally straight-talking sister), she clearly was friendly with a lot of people deeply and violently involved in the drug trade. One of them, she alleges, was her benefactor, Emite Ledice. "She didn't work, but she had money," Marilise charges. "And she was always going on trips to Haiti."

By all accounts Marilise and Ledice had become friends over the years; after the birth of Marilise's children, Ledice would visit with food and clothes, and Marilise often spent days and weeks at Ledice's home when the older woman was out of town. Ledice's children called Marilise Tantin, Auntie. The friendship ended in January 1998 with a dramatic event that stripped Marilise of nearly everything she valued, including her children and her freedom. She has yet to recover from the incident, which may yet result in her deportation to Haiti, where she is certain she'll be killed.

Newspaper stories, police reports, and Marilise's own account of the event and its aftermath are convoluted and sometimes contradictory, and truth often is indistinguishable from alibi. The only facts not in dispute are these: A botched drug transaction on January 22, 1998, led to the kidnapping of four of Ledice's children from their North Miami home and the death of one of the kidnappers. Marilise subsequently was arrested and charged with four counts of armed kidnapping and second-degree murder (because her alleged participation in the scheme resulted in the death of an alleged accomplice). In February 1998 a Florida grand jury indicted her and the surviving kidnapper, Inestin Petit-Homme. By the time she went to trial in September 1999, Marilise had spent twenty months in jail.

The last time she'd seen her daughters had been when the police pulled them, her, and four of Ledice's children out of a van parked near the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop, a large flea market. "I was happy when the police came," Marilise recollects. "They told us: “Everybody out of the van.' And then they put handcuffs on me. They said, “You're going to jail for kidnapping.' I said, “Who? I've been kidnapped since yesterday.'"

It had begun more than 48 hours earlier at Ledice's house. Marilise was there; she says she had been summoned to look after the kids. A series of visitors dropped by, first two men, then another two men. There were discussions in Ledice's bedroom, Marilise remembers, and comings and goings and phone calls and beepings. It came down to one moment, midafternoon, when one of the visitors ripped open a black purse with a knife. "He stuck the knife inside," Marilise reports, "and he said, “Oh no, bitch, you're shorting me. Bitch, you give me dirt for drugs.'

"Emite was really scared, and she said, “No, it's not my fault.' And they say, “Where's my money? Give me my money,' and she say, “The other men took the money and left.' And one of them said, “I'm not going to leave if you don't give me $15,000.' She calls the other two who already left. I think they didn't answer, so [the two men at the house, brothers Ignace and Inestin Petit-Homme] they tell her to go get [the money]."

Ledice drove off, ostensibly to find the $15,000, leaving the Petit-Homme brothers, Marilise, and the children at the house. When Ledice hadn't returned by around five, according to Marilise, the men herded her and the children at gunpoint into a van. Inestin Petit-Homme drove north on I-95, finally stopping at a house Marilise had never seen before. "They made us go inside, and there was no furniture so we had to sit on the floor," she recalls. Marilise began receiving beeps from the day-care center where her daughters were; she was late to pick them up. She says she asked the men to let her go to the day-care center, thinking that would be her ticket to freedom. Instead Inestin went to collect the two girls and deposited them back at the hideout, where there were only potato chips to eat, and everyone slept, or tried to sleep, on the floor.

Meanwhile North Miami police had been called about a "home invasion" at Ledice's address. According to incident reports, Ledice had called her ex-boyfriend on the afternoon of January 22, told him she was in trouble, and hung up. He had driven to her house and found Marilise, the four children, and two unknown men who threatened him with their semiautomatic 9mm pistols. The boyfriend left after learning the children would be kidnapped if $15,000 was not forthcoming. Later some neighbors called 911. The house was empty by the time police arrived, except for a plastic tape-bound package sitting on a sofa. The package was full of "suspected cocaine" which, according to a North Miami incident report, "was not cocaine per field tests indicating that a drug rip may have occurred."

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