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A New York socialite and philanthropist saw her life flash before her in a split second when a group of heavily-armed men tried to force her into a car in Haiti last week.
Aura Copeland, 42, who has traveled several times to the impoverished country for her charitable work, knew that she was about to be detained, and maybe even kidnapped, and held for ransom — a crime that has become ubiquitous in a nation wracked by political chaos, natural disasters and economic downturns.
Copeland arrived in the country two days after a devastating earthquake hammered the city of Les Cayes in the southwest, leaving more than 2,000 dead and 6,000 wounded.
She told The Post that she was on her way to meet friends in a taxi in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince when the car was stopped by four men dressed as police officers, but with their faces covered by black masks and helmets. They demanded her passport, which she did not have with her, she said.
“My hands were shaking and my heart was beating very fast,” said Copeland, who is more than six feet tall. Her taxi driver, who stayed with her during the ordeal, told her that he overhead the men speaking in Creole, and saying that they were planning to put her in jail. Copeland had suffered a kidnap attempt three years ago, and was worried about it happening again, she said.
Copeland panicked and called a former flame, Haiti’s former prime minister Laurent Lamothe, who ruled the country between 2012 and 2014. “Luckily it was a quarter to nine in the evening, and he picked up the phone,” she said. “He was in Miami at a Dolphins game, and was happy to hear from me. We’ve stayed very good friends.”
When Copeland handed the phone to the police and told them who was on the line, they looked at her in disbelief, she said. Eventually, they let her go without incident, she said.
Kidnappings for ransom in Haiti have increased exponentially in the last year as the country lurches from natural disasters to political unrest and economic hardship. During the first quarter of 2021, kidnappings have increased 150 percent compared to the same period in 2020, according to data compiled by Control Risks, a London-based security consulting firm.
Haitian president Jovenel Moise was assassinated in his home last month.
“I came here to visit the orphanages, to touch base with the teachers on the ground,” said Copeland in a telephone interview from Haiti this week. Copeland, who works as a shoe designer, is the co-founder of Les Couleurs Charity, a New York-based non-profit that provides arts education to Haitian orphans.
Despite the near arrest, Copeland insisted that she would stay in the country until her work is completed. After Lamothe spoke to the men, it was clear that they were police, she said.
“The next day, Laurent called me and told me which neighborhoods I needed to avoid, and gave me the number for his personal security chief,” Copeland said. “I know others have not been so lucky. It was the longest 25 minutes of my life.”
During that time, Copeland said she tried to reason with them and explain that she was in Haiti on a charitable mission. “I tried to say something that would soften their hearts,” she said. “I tried to tell them about the children we are helping, but they weren’t listening.”