He may not be as infamous as Osama bin Laden or Ted Bundy, but a Haitian gang leader charged with terrorizing U.S. citizens on the island has been named to the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” list and there’s a $2 million award for him, the FBI announced Wednesday in South Florida.
His name is Vitel’homme Innocent. He was recently charged with ordering the kidnapping of two U.S. citizens in Haiti last year, including one who was shot and killed while being held hostage, according to federal authorities. Innocent, 37, was previously charged with playing a leading role in the kidnapping of a group of U.S. Christian missionaries in 2021.
Innocent becomes the 532nd fugitive to be placed on the FBI’s most-wanted fugitives list since its inception in 1950, which has led to 494 of them being captured or located — including 14 found deceased, FBI officials said Wednesday. Bundy and bin Laden were on the list at the height of their notoriety.
The U.S. State Department also has doubled to $2 million the reward for information leading to his arrest or conviction, FBI officials said.
“It’s a marked increase over the reward offered for most of the fugitives on this list,” Jeffrey Veltri, special agent of the FBI in South Florida, said during a news conference at the bureau’s regional office in Miramar. “This speaks directly to the egregiousness of Vitel’homme’s alleged crimes. Being added to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List does not bode well for Vitel’homme.”
Kidnapped Haiti Americans from their home
A federal indictment unsealed in late October says Innocent kidnapped a Haitian American couple, Jean and Marie Odette Franklin, from their home in Haiti a year ago. Gang members killed Marie at the scene, and Jean Franklin was released 21 days later after his family paid a ransom, according to the Justice Department.
The gang leader was also named in a Haitian police report involving the investigation into the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. The report identified Innocent as one of the individuals who accompanied a former senator to rent vehicles for the plot. The politician, Joseph Joël John, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges last month in Miami federal court.
After announcing Innocent’s latest indictment in late October, the FBI put up billboards all over South Florida asking for tips on Innocent’s whereabouts and offering an initial $1 million reward to those who provided information leading to his arrest. None went up in Haiti.
Law enforcement agents and prosecutors believe Innocent has been living in the Tabarre neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, part of the territory his Kraze Barye (Destroy the Barrier) gang controls.
Asked why, if agents believed Innocent is hiding in Haiti, they are putting up billboards and posters in Florida, FBI spokesman James Marshall told the Miami Herald that the campaign was “based on a well-defined investigative strategy which we are not at liberty to discuss.”
Veltri, who was joined at the news conference by James Krieger, chief of the FBI’s violent crime section in Washington, D.C., said the publicity campaign and most wanted listing could prove invaluable in apprehending Innocent. But Veltri also acknowledged the logistical difficulty of capturing the gang leader in a country such as Haiti, where there’s no acting president, rampant violence and general lawlessness.
Veltri said the FBI plans to collaborate with its international partners in hunting him down, but admitted: “Haiti presents huge challenges.”
Ongoing gang violence in Haiti
Despite the FBI’s efforts to hold Haitian gang leaders accountable, armed violence continues to hold Haiti hostage. A fresh round of inter-gang warfare erupted this week after the death of a notorious gang leader, which on Wednesday led to dozens of hospitalized women and children being caught in the crossfire.
Heavily armed men attacked the Fontaine Hospital Center in the sprawling Cite Soleil slum in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday. More than two dozen babies, some of them on oxygen, and pregnant women had to be rescued.
The rescues were done by HERO Client Rescue Ambulance, which used a donated armored vehicle to move the patients. While being escorted into the slum by police in armored vehicles, rescuers’ convoy was shot at, one of the rescuers told the Miami Herald.
At least one baby died because the mother could not get a Cesarean section in time.
By late afternoon, the situation was under control and HERO workers were trying to reunite parents with their children after relocating the sick patients to other area hospitals. The hospital, according to a doctor, has been temporarily closed.
Early Wednesday, hospital director Jose Ulysse sent out an SOS on social media saying that the hospital “was in great difficulty” and “hundreds of infants and women” were at the mercy of armed gangs associated with Gabriel “Ti-Gabriel” Jean-Pierre and his “G-pèp-la,” gang coalition.
The fresh attacks by G-pèp-la erupted this week after the death of a rival gang leader, Iskar Andrice, who ruled the Belekou neighborhood of Cite Soleil and was a founding member of the gang G9 Family and Allies. Andrice, also known as Iscar Andris, was a former school teacher.
His death, after a gunshot wound under circumstances that are still unclear, immediately created a power vacuum and triggered a new round of inter-gang fighting.
Facing death penalty or life in prison
For now, U.S. law enforcement, however, is focused on Innocent, who was charged alone with conspiracy, kidnapping and murder. He faces up to life in prison or the death penalty. He is at large in Haiti, where his gang controls the area around the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince and has been implicated in a June attack against the Jamaican consulate and several high-profile kidnappings in recent months.
Among the victims: a prominent radio journalist, Marie Lucie Bonhomme, and her husband, Pierre-Louis Opont, the television station owner and former head of Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council.
U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves, at a news conference in Washington, D.C. last month, said Innocent’s gang and others in Haiti are increasingly targeting U.S. citizens, particularly Haitian Americans, as they terrorize the nation in the wake of the assassination of Haiti’s president more than two years ago.
Innocent and the Krazye Barye gang operate in Port-au-Prince, the capital, and the neighborhoods of Torcelle and Tabarre. Heavily armed gang members commit kidnappings for ransom, extortion and car thefts, Graves said, citing an indictment.
Kidnapping of missionaries
A year ago, Innocent was charged with six other gang members in a federal crackdown on gang leaders in Haiti. They were charged with armed kidnapping, including three suspects wanted in the abductions of the 16 U.S. citizens who were members of the Christian missionary group taken as hostages in the fall of 2021.
The indictments charged Wilson Joseph, known as Lanmò Sanjou, 29, Jermaine Stephenson, who is known as Gaspiyay, also in his late 20s, and Innocent, among others. The indictment says they had leading roles in the kidnappings of the missionaries serving near Port-au-Prince, and the U.S. is offering a $3 million reward for information leading to their arrests.
The three suspects collaborated with other gang members and demanded $1 million in ransom per victim and threatened to kill the missionaries, who worked for the Ohio-based Christian Aid Missionaries, if the ransom was not paid, U.S. authorities said. An undisclosed ransom was eventually paid. Most of the missionaries, including five children and a Canadian citizen, were held hostage for 61 days before escaping.
In a recent report to the U.N. Security Council, Secretary General António Guterres said violence was worsening in Haiti. Major crimes, including homicides and kidnappings, are surging at unprecedented rates, mostly in the West and Artibonite departments of Haiti.
Between July 1 and Sept. 30, the national police reported 1,239 homicides, compared with 577 reported in the same period last year. There were 701 victims of abductions, including 221 women, eight girls and 18 boys, between July 1 and Sept. 30, a 244 percent increase compared to the same period last year.