Wrong turn leads to larger wrong

Jean Celestin was arrested after mistakenly driving into a chemical plant in Gloucester County. All charges were later dropped. He is suing for damages.
Jean Celestin was arrested after mistakenly driving into a chemical plant in Gloucester County. All charges were later dropped. He is suing for damages. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)

GPS misled him while taking his daughters to a party. Homeland Security prosecutor now has a new view on false accusations.

Posted: July 26, 2014

One Sunday earlier this year, Jean Celestin was taking his daughters to a party in West Deptford Township.

On the front seat of his green Volvo was a wrapped birthday present. Behind him, Justine, 8, and Jeanelle, 3, were in child seats. At the wheel, Celestin, a U.S. citizen who was born in Haiti and now lives in Swedesboro, was glued to his GPS.

Big mistake.

Instead of taking him to the Delaware River's edge for the party, he said, it led him into the riverside complex of Solvay Solexis, an international chemical company, on a parallel road.

For his mistake, Celestin was handcuffed and arrested for trespassing - an ironic twist for a U.S. Department of Homeland Security assistant prosecutor in Philadelphia.

Celestin said the incident left him feeling that his ethnicity, race, and accent had affected a situation that might have ended affably if he had been questioned, reoriented, and sent on his way.

Celestin, whose job is to present evidence that can result in deportations, said defendants often claim they are wrongly accused.

"I've always been skeptical," he said.

And now? "Put it this way," he said, "I've been scarred. . . . It happened to me."

He is the youngest of eight siblings. None, he said, has ever been arrested.

"In my culture, 'You're in handcuffs?' That's the worst thing that can happen to you," he said. "I can't even articulate in words the impact that this has had on me. . . . I had to appear before a judge. She read me my rights as an accused criminal. That was the most demeaning moment of my life."

In April, after Celestin spent $1,500 on fees for an attorney, the Gloucester County prosecutor withdrew the charge.

Celestin's attorney, Robert N. Agre, has since filed a notice that his client will sue for civil damages. Potential defendants, said Agre, are the police department and the chemical company.

"I believe in law and order," said Celestin, 49, who prosecutes visa violations and other cases for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "I detest people who come to this country and commit crimes."

No epithets were uttered that day, he said, no references to skin color. Yet all of the dozen or so personnel who responded were white, he recalled. To him that played a role, and he said so to an officer.

"If everything is as I said it was, and I was white, would I be in this predicament?" he asked.

According to Celestin, the detective replied: "I know where you are going with this. We are not like that over here."

In a letter that Celestin drafted to Gov. Christie, he wrote: "Those who have heard my ordeal have concluded that I was arrested for driving while black. What do you think?" He decided not to send the letter while charges were pending, he said, and ultimately never did.

David Klucsik, Solvay's North American spokesman, said "Solvay does not publicly discuss site security matters." West Deptford Police Chief Samuel DiSimone declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

The trouble that day began, said Celestin, when he realized his smartphone's GPS had led him astray. He was turning around when a security guard ran up.

"'Why are you here?'" the man shouted, said Celestin. "'Didn't you see the signs?'"

"He repeated this, louder, and my 8-year-old began to cry," Celestin said. "I asked him to stop screaming at me in front of my daughters, but he got even louder."

A second man, also a guard, appeared. According to Celestin, the second man said: "'You have accessed a restricted area under [the first man's] watch. He could get fired because of it.'"

Celestin said he was fixated on his GPS and did not see any no-trespassing signs. Because the gate to the complex was open, he said, he followed the road without noticing a gate.

While Celestin exchanged words with the first guard, he said, two cars boxed in his car. The guard said he was going to call West Deptford police. Good, Celestin said he thought; they'll sort this out.

The Feb. 9 police report describes Solvay Solexis as "critical infrastructure" because it houses hazardous chemicals.

It says Celestin "breached" security, did not stop for the guard, and drove through the facility.

According to the report, the first guard opened the gate at some point to let out a contractor. At some point, Celestin drove in. The guard "began yelling," telling Celestin he was not permitted in the facility, the report states.

"I don't want to talk to you," the report quotes Celestin. "You insulted me." Celestin did not dispute that account.

He gave police his New Jersey driver's license and Homeland Security identification card. He explained that his wife had entered the birthday party's address into his phone's GPS.

While Celestin was being questioned, Charles Jones, the plant's head of health, safety, and environment, arrived. According to the report, he said he wanted Celestin charged with trespassing.

Jones did not respond to Inquirer voice-mail and e-mail messages.

Celestin was permitted to call his wife, Jessie Clairvil, an otolaryngologist. She arrived in her black Audi SUV and left with the girls and the birthday present.

Celestin was handcuffed, transported to the police station, fingerprinted, and photographed. He waived his right to remain silent and gave a taped statement to Detective John Craig. He let Craig examine his cellphone, the report states.

"I found that his GPS was taking him to an address of 1000 Leonard Lane, Thorofare," Craig wrote in the report. The Solvay plant is at 10 Leonard Lane.

"Upon checking the history of the search bar," wrote Craig, "I was able to see that 1000 Riverwinds Drive [the recreation center address, where the party was being held] had in fact been recently entered into the unit."

A call to the FBI confirmed that Celestin was a Homeland Security lawyer; a call to the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office led to the decision that he would be charged with trespass. He was released on his own recognizance, with a date to appear in court.

Born in Haiti, Celestin came lawfully to the United States at 13 and was raised in Jersey City. He graduated from Seton Hall University School of Law, clerked for a judge of the New Jersey Superior Court, and began work as an immigration prosecutor in Newark in 1995. In 2004, after his family moved to South Jersey for his wife's job, he began working at Immigration Court in Center City.

Compounding Celestin's distress was his job's requirement that he report the arrest to Homeland Security headquarters in Washington with a letter to his employment file.

"He was brokenhearted, just so disappointed, extremely distressed," said Celestin's friend Oscar Zambrano, an Immigration Court interpreter.

In addition to the lawsuit for alleged violation of his civil rights, Celestin wants the arrest record expunged.

"I work for the federal government. Every five years, they do a complete background check," he said. "I can't have that on my record."

In a sign of how rattled he was by the arrest, he said, he became flustered by a simple question from police: What does ICE stand for?

"I froze," said Celestin. "Immigration . . . Customs. I couldn't remember the 'E.'"

Enforcement, he can recall now, with a shake of his head. It stands for "enforcement."


mmatza@phillynews.com

215-854-2541215-854-2541 

@MichaelMatza1

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