By MATT CRANE
Candi Dunlap, a Meridian resident and emergency room nurse practitioner at OCH Regional Medical Center, was released from a Macedonian jail Wednesday following a nearly month-long smuggling investigation.
Dunlap was arrested Sept. 28 at Alexander the Great Airport in Skopje, Macedonia during a security check. Officials reportedly found 256 coins, two pendants and two clay jars in her carry-on luggage that were considered of historical significance to the country.
Wayne Smith, pastor of 15th Avenue Baptist Church in Meridian, said he, Dunlap and a group from the church were on their way back to the U.S. when Dunlap was detained.
â€śWe were on a humanitarian and medical mission trip serving people in small villages and outlying areas of Macedonia,â€ť he said. â€śWe werenâ€™t aware when we went of an issue over the past year or two of people smuggling artifacts out of the country.â€ť
Smith said group leader Jim Hayes stayed behind with Dunlap while the rest of the group boarded the plane after being told the matter would be resolved within the hour.
â€śWe all went on to the next leg of the trip to Vienna expecting Jim and Candi to follow us on the next flight,â€ť he said. â€śAs people came from downtown (Macedonia), things began to change.â€ť
U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper said he and his office began following the incident on Sept. 29.
â€śOur office has been involved almost every day in conversations with the U.S. embassy in Macedonia,â€ť he said. â€śThe charges, as I understand them, were for taking certain items, pottery and coins, that were considered to be of some historical value to the Macedonian authorities.â€ť
Skopje news outlet Kanal 5 reported that prosecution lawyers argued Dunlap intentionally attempted to smuggle the valuables out of the country, while Dunlapâ€™s defense attorneys said she was unaware of any value the coins possessed and received them as a gift of appreciation for her mission efforts.
Kanal 5 said Dunlap had been in solitary confinement since her arrest.
Harper said he was pleased the resolution in Dunlapâ€™s case came sooner than he expected, as she was only penalized approximately $300 for court costs. Dunlap is banned from entering Macedonia for 10 years and will be on an unspecified probationary status for two years.
â€śI can only imagine how tough this has been and the expense of being there for much longer than anticipated,â€ť he said. â€śIâ€™m sure itâ€™s been incredibly difficult being in a foreign country under these circumstances, and weâ€™re elated that she is now out of the country on the way back home.â€ť
Along with Harper, Smith confirmed Dunlap and her husband Marc left the country Wednesday afternoon and said how relieved he and the church family were to learn of her release.
â€śItâ€™s like a deep, long exhale of sheer joy,â€ť he said. â€śItâ€™s overwhelming and wonderful how God has taken care of it all.â€ť
While, Dunlapâ€™s family and fellow church members are celebrating in Meridian, the staff of OCH in Starkville is just as excited about Dunlapâ€™s release and is eagerly awaiting her return.
Family Nurse Practitioner Gwen Herndon said OCH staff members were worried about Dunlapâ€™s situation and closely tracked her situation.
â€śIt really is an answer to everyoneâ€™s prayers,â€ť she said. â€śWe donâ€™t expect her back right away. This is a time for to rest and be with her family.â€ť
OCH Public Relations Coordinator Mary Kathryn Kight said word of Dunlapâ€™s release spread rapidly Wednesday morning with staff members calling and emailing to spread the news.
â€śWe really are a family here and a part of our family as been missing for the past month,â€ť she said. â€śWe want the best for her and we want her to take care of herself first.â€ť