Ex-Haitian prisoner glad he’s safe, sad to leave beloved country
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com July 17, 2012 10:16PM
John Shattuck, a Frankfort businessman who has helped arrange for many donations to Haiti, looks over a photo of Steven Shaw while at his residence in Frankfort, IL on Monday, July 9, 2012. Shaw is one of two men Shattuck helped get released from a Haitian penitentiary. The photo of Shaw was taken when they arrived in Miami. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media .
Updated: August 19, 2012 6:07AM
An Ohio man who was rescued from a Haitian prison this month with the help of a Frankfort businessman said the experience is bittersweet.
“I’m so happy to be out and to see my boys again,” Jason “Zeke” Petrie said from his home in Barberton, Ohio. “But Haiti is all I know and love. Now I’m worried I’ll never be able to go back.”
Petrie and Steven Shaw, of Dighton, Mass., were arrested May 18 after a pro-military rally in Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital. Petrie, known as a “fixer” — someone who transports foreign doctors, journalists and relief workers around the country — said he was hired to drive reporters and photographers to the rally. At the last minute, he asked Shaw, a building contractor, to help out and invited his girlfriend, Darlene Eliette, to tag along.
When the parade turned ugly and participants started throwing rocks, Haiti’s special police began rounding up suspects. Petrie and Shaw were charged with conspiracy, criminal association and attempted murder.
“I felt really bad. Steve had been arrested because of me. So had my girlfriend,” Petrie said. “I felt like I had damned them.”
When Frankfort businessman John Shattuck, who frequently travels to Haiti on humanitarian missions, learned of their incarceration, he began to investigate. Having never met either man, Shattuck reached out to Petrie’s brother, Ben.
Once Petrie’s family realized the kind of work Shattuck does — transporting millions of dollars’ worth of medical, school and building supplies to Haiti on behalf of the nonprofit Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos and other groups — they gave him permission to work with lawyers to get the men released.
“I just saw this thing ending with two Americans dead in a Haitian prison, not a good thing for anyone,” Shattuck said. He spent six weeks calling in markers and collecting evidence.
“Everything was honest and truthful,” Shattuck said. “It came down to simply getting someone to listen to the truth.”
On July 4, Shattuck flew to Haiti. Two days later, Judge Bredy Fabien ruled there was not enough evidence to hold the men and they were freed.
Because Petrie had lost his passport, Shattuck checked him into a local hotel until the U.S. Embassy opened Monday morning. Meanwhile, he and Shaw flew back to the United States on July 7.
Petrie said he stayed in his hotel room, fearing he’d be arrested if seen, until 9 a.m. July 9, when he donned long sleeves to cover his many identifiable tattoos and took a motorcycle to the embassy. Later that day, he boarded a plane for Miami.
Happy to be reunited with his family, especially his sons Spartacus, 4, and Moses, 12, Petrie said now that the adrenaline rush has subsided, he can see more clearly the pluses and minuses of the situation.
On the one hand, he is free from the 16-by-22-foot cell where 108 men were housed in squalor. At one point, both Petrie and Shaw were put in isolation for four days. Petrie said that was the worst.
“I got really emotional about my boys, thinking how I’d failed them,” Petrie said. “But Steve was so tough, he was always positive. He is the most faithful, loyal friend in the world.”
Petrie said he returned the favor by having Shaw’s back when they were back among the prison population. Because Petrie had spent the past 20 years traveling in Haiti, spending much of that time in the slum areas, including the notorious Cite Soleil, he enjoyed a bit of street credibility. And he knew many of the prisoners. He’d taken care of one named Ja Ja when he was a boy. Ja Ja protected Petrie and Shaw, Petrie said.
“It was a very violent place to be, with fights every day, lots of razors and stuff like that,” said Petrie, a diabetic who went into insulin shock twice during the ordeal.
So he can breathe a sigh of relief that he is free.
On the other hand, he also is likely to be banned from returning to the country he loves. Petrie said he fell in love with black people when he was just a kid of 4 or 5.
“I lived in a white middle neighborhood but our mailman was black,” Petrie said. “I was fascinated by him and then by black people.”
He later embraced Haiti because it is the first independent black republic. He’s been traveling to the country since he was 19. His sons are half Haitian.
“My life has been consumed by Haiti,” he said. “My girlfriend is still there. And my heart is still there. This is very tough for me.”