For Joey Celestin, the three weeks he spent in jail, accused of murder, have ruined life as he knew it.
He lost his job, had to change his son’s school, and eventually moved out of the state.
Celestin and then-co-worker Bill Nichols were arrested and charged with the Sept. 7, 2010, killing of Terry Stephenson, co-owner of Pin Ups, a strip club on East Ponce de Leon Avenue. Stephenson was shot in the club’s parking lot as he carried cash from Labor Day weekend to take to the bank.
Now, Celestin is pursuing a lawsuit against the DeKalb County Police Department. On May 25, his attorney, David Krugler, sent a notice of claim to DeKalb County to give the county an opportunity to investigate and resolve the matter out of court.
“We have taken the first step of putting the county on notice,” Krugler said.
Celestin said his main goal in pursuing a lawsuit is to be publicly exonerated.
“I would like the police to take a little more effort to say, ‘This wasn’t the guy,’” Celestin said. “I want the families to know why I was released: they didn’t have the right guy.”
Charges were dropped against the two men three weeks after their arrests, after Celestin’s attorney found evidence indicating the two were not at the scene of the crime when it occurred.
Celestin and Nichols had lunch at Pin Ups, but returned to work before the 1 p.m. shooting.
“Mr. Celestin’s employer used a biometric sign-in system that requires a handprint from Mr. Celestin, so there was no question that he clocked back in to work at exactly 1:00 p.m.,” stated the claim letter to the county.
Later that day, after the shooting, Celestin and his co-workers saw the “streets filled with police,” but did not know what the problem was. That is, not until he was arrested.
“I was fully brought up to speed when I was arrested,” Celestin said.
At the police station, Celestin said he endured a “TV-style interrogation” for more than 12 hours straight. He said that he had no food, no shoes and the room was freezing.
Celestin’s interrogators started off being “nice cops,” asking for his side of the story, he said. Then they turned up the heat.
Detectives told Mr. Celestin that he would be incarcerated for 45 to 55 years and drew pictures of a man they explained would soon take his place raising his children “and being intimate with his wife,” the notice of claim stated.
“They were being really over the top in trying to break me,” Celestin said.
Police told Celestin they had camera footage of him running from the scene of the crime with a bag.
“They said, ‘Your co-worker is giving you up so you might as well start talking,’” Celestin said.
Celestin said his sons—ages 5 and 8—were traumatized after witnessing 10 police officers with guns and shields enter their home to arrest him, screaming “there’s a murderer in this house.”
“Kids in school were telling my 8-year-old, ‘We heard your dad killed somebody’ and ‘We saw your dad on TV,’” Celestin said.
At the time of his arrest, Celestin was in his third month working at Atlanta Kitchen as a computer draft designer. But after being jailed for three weeks, Celestin and Nichols lost their jobs.
“They told us they had to fill the spots,” Celestin said. But given the circumstances, Celestin said he believes his firing was due to the murder charge.
“That leaves a pretty nasty cloud over your head,” Krugler said.
Since his arrest and loss of employment, Celestin moved his family back to Florida where they lived previously. He has not been able to find a steady job, even though he has made it to the final interview stage on several jobs.
“You don’t have to pay for background searches anymore,” Celestin said. “A simple Google search can find information that a background check will not.”
Celestin has started finding his own gigs repairing computers, setting up networks and servicing electronics.
Upon the release of the two men, the DeKalb County Police Department released this statement: “New information has come up and detectives are looking into it, but these new developments do not mean the detectives cannot revisit charges against these two individuals in the future.”
“That is totally inexcusable,” Krugler said. “We want an unequivocal statement from the police.”
Burke Brennan, DeKalb’s chief communications officer, did not discuss the case, saying the county does not comment on pending litigation.