Arrest in Haiti assassination leaves some baffled: ‘Nobody ever heard of him’

By Catherine Porter, Simon Romero and Eric Nagourney

As a sprawling multinational investigation into the assassination of Haiti’s president broadens, with suspects stretching from Colombia to Florida, the Haitian authorities have turned their focus to a little-known doctor who they said coveted the presidency.

Haitian authorities say President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated early last Wednesday morning by a team of perhaps two dozen heavily armed mercenaries recruited from abroad who in multiple vehicles rolled up to his heavily guarded home, gained entry after little resistance and opened fire.

On Sunday, Haiti’s national police chief, Léon Charles, was among the authorities who cast Christian Emmanuel Sanon, a 63-year-old doctor and pastor who divided his time between Florida and Haiti, as a central figure in the plot.

But how Sanon might have managed to set such an ambitious plot in motion was not easily explainable Monday.

“I never heard of this Sanon before,” said Georges Sami Saati, 68, a Haitian American businessman who is a prominent figure among Haitian emigres in Miami. “Nobody ever heard of him.”

Questions about Sanon’s role came as Haiti reeled Monday in the aftermath of the assassination, with three prominent political figures staking claims to lead the country. After being briefed by a team sent to Haiti to assess the outlook, U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday urged Haitian leaders to put aside their differences.

“The people of Haiti deserve peace and security,” Biden said, “and Haiti’s political leaders need to come together for the good of the country.”

It is not just that Sanon, who was born in Haiti and studied in the Dominican Republic and the United States, was not a very prominent figure. It was also hard to see how he could have footed the bill for the assault, given his personal financial travails. In 2013, he filed in Florida for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

Sanon holds degrees not just in medicine but also in theology, and there are suggestions that if he did see himself taking over the presidency, he felt it was a divine calling.

Michel Plancher, a civil engineering professor at Quisqueya University in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, said he got a call out of the blue to come to meet Sanon in June. He was told the doctor, whom he did not previously know, was planning a political campaign.

“He said he was sent by God,” Plancher said in an interview Monday. “He was sent on a mission of God to replace Moïse. He said the president would be resigning soon — he didn’t say why.”

Plancher said he had met with the doctor twice in Haiti at a home he thought may have been owned by a businessman.

The first meeting, on June 1, was brief, and the second one longer, he said. It was held in a big room, with a Haitian flag flying and six to eight people sitting around a large table, Plancher said.

There, he said, Sanon outlined his political ambitions for the long-suffering country.

“He said he will implement a Marshall Plan to run the country,” said Plancher. “He wanted to change French as an official language, and replace it with English. He seemed a bit crazy. I didn’t want to participate anymore.”

Although Sanon is in custody in Haiti along with at least 18 other men described as suspects — many of them Colombian military veterans, and two U.S. citizens — Haitians at home and in the large diaspora have been more than a little skeptical about the government’s account of what happened, especially amid questions about what role, if any, Moïse’s own security detail might have played.

Some of the suspects have been brought before the news media, some bloodied and bruised, but none have appeared before a judge or had a chance to speak out.

In West Palm Beach, Florida, no one answered the door at the Sanon home. In New York, Sanon’s brother, Joseph, said that he had not been in touch with him for some time and that he had no idea what was going on.

“I really need to know what in the world is happening here — I need to know,” Joseph Sanon said. “I don’t feel comfortable speaking about him until I know what’s going on. I am desperate to know what’s happening.”

American officials say U.S. investigators were helping the Haitian government as it tried to unravel the plot. The American delegation sent there included representatives from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and the National Security Council.

They appeared to have come home with more questions than answers about who is in charge in Haiti.

“What was clear from their trip is that there is a lack of clarity about the future of political leadership,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a news conference Monday.

Sanon was born in 1958 in Marigot, a city on Haiti’s southern coast, and graduated from the Eugenio María de Hostos University in the Dominican Republic and the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, according to the Florida Baptist Historical Society.

According to public records, Sanon is also licensed to practice both conventional medicine as well osteopathic medicine, an area in which doctors sometimes provide therapies such as spinal manipulation or massage as part of their treatment.

Dr. Ludner Confident, a Haitian-born anesthesiologist who practices medicine in Florida, said he got to know Sanon while both were working for the Rome Organization, a nonprofit aid group in Haiti, in the years before an earthquake devastated the country in 2010. The quake destroyed Sanon’s clinic, according to a 2010 article in the Baylor Line, a campus magazine at Baylor University in Texas.

“He is a pastor,” Confident said about Sanon. “He’s a man of God, wanting to do things for Haiti.”

Still, Confident said he had not spoken with Sanon for years. And, he said, “When it comes to politics, I don’t have any information about his political agenda.”

At least a decade ago, there were signs that Sanon harbored some grand ambitions.

A YouTube video recorded in 2011 titled “Dr. Christian Sanon — Leadership for Haiti” appears to present Sanon denouncing Haitian leaders as corrupt and offering himself as a potential leader of the country.

A friend of Sanon’s, a former airline pilot named Steven Bross who met him when he moved to Florida, said Sanon cared deeply about making Haiti a better place to live.

“He was always trying to figure out ways to make Haiti more self-sufficient,” Bross said.

But political aspirations? That seemed unlikely, he said.

“He liked being behind the scenes,” Bross said.

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