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.
“We were on a humanitarian and medical mission trip serving people in small villages and outlying areas of Macedonia,” he said. “We weren’t aware when we went of an issue over the past year or two of people smuggling artifacts out of the country.”
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.
“We all went on to the next leg of the trip to Vienna expecting Jim and Candi to follow us on the next flight,” he said. “As people came from downtown (Macedonia), things began to change.”
U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper said he and his office began following the incident on Sept. 29.
“Our office has been involved almost every day in conversations with the U.S. embassy in Macedonia,” he said. “The 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.”
Skopje news outlet Kanal 5 reported that prosecution lawyers argued Dunlap intentionally attempted to smuggle the valuables out of the country, while Dunlap’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 Dunlap’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.
“I can only imagine how tough this has been and the expense of being there for much longer than anticipated,” he said. “I’m sure it’s been incredibly difficult being in a foreign country under these circumstances, and we’re elated that she is now out of the country on the way back home.”
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.
“It’s like a deep, long exhale of sheer joy,” he said. “It’s overwhelming and wonderful how God has taken care of it all.”
While, Dunlap’s family and fellow church members are celebrating in Meridian, the staff of OCH in Starkville is just as excited about Dunlap’s release and is eagerly awaiting her return.
Family Nurse Practitioner Gwen Herndon said OCH staff members were worried about Dunlap’s situation and closely tracked her situation.
“It really is an answer to everyone’s prayers,” she said. “We don’t expect her back right away. This is a time for to rest and be with her family.”
OCH Public Relations Coordinator Mary Kathryn Kight said word of Dunlap’s release spread rapidly Wednesday morning with staff members calling and emailing to spread the news.
“We really are a family here and a part of our family as been missing for the past month,” she said. “We want the best for her and we want her to take care of herself first.”