OCOEE, Fla. – The family of Jean Samuel Celestin is suing the cities of Ocoee, Windermere and their police departments more than two years after the 33-year-old died following an arrest during a domestic violence call.
The lawsuit claims that Celestin was suffering from an acute mental health crisis at the time of the April 11, 2019 arrest. Celestin suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, according to the lawsuit.
Celestin’s mother and sister called 911 on that night after they got into a physical confrontation with the man. Body camera video from that night shows the officers speaking with Celestin’s mother, saying that the man had hit her in the face. In the video, Celestin’s mother can be heard saying he is dealing with some kind of mental issue.
The lawsuit claims Celestin’s family had him committed to a mental health facility previously and that they were trying to do the same on April 11, 2019.
According to the suit, the Ocoee officers who responded — officer Joshua Bode and officer Christopher Bonner — treated Celestin as a criminal rather than someone in crisis. It goes on to claim that the officer failed to engage the crisis intervention team, even though one has existed in the Ocoee Police Department for more than 20 years. Bode and Bonner both worked in the road patrol unit, according to the lawsuit.
Body camera video from those officers shows their interaction with Celestin. They ask if they can speak with him.
“OK, so what do you want to talk about?” Celestin asked.
“Can you tell us what’s going on?” Bode responded.
From there, Celestin can be heard questioning whether the officers are actually with the police department before slamming the door shut. The officers rush to the door but Celestin opens it again.
“I want to talk to you, but you have to talk,” Celestin said.
In the video, Bonner ordered Celestin to “get back” multiple times and Bode deployed his Taser, but to no obvious effect. A brief struggle ensued.
In the video, Celestin can be seen holding a large kitchen knife and another item that the officers later refer to as a remote.
The video shows Celestin push through the front door and Bonner uses his Taser.
According to the lawsuit, Celestin then sat against a pillar placing his hands in the air saying he would allow himself to be arrested. The body camera video backs that up.
In the video, both officers can be heard ordering Celestin to lay on his stomach. Bode has his gun drawn at this point.
“You are about to get shot. Get on your (expletive) stomach right now,” Bode said.
The lawsuit claims Celestin was too disoriented and unwell to follow commands and eventually panicked and ran again.
In the video, Bonner can be seen using his Taser a second time. Celestin makes it across the street before he is tackled by a third officer — officer Griffin Hebel with Windermere police, according to the lawsuit.
The suit claims officer Dominic Chiuchiiarelli then shocked Celestin for 20 continuous seconds with his Taser as officers worked to restrain him. Celestin was kept on his stomach and placed in a “hobble” restraint, which the suit likens to a hogtie.
The lawsuit claims hobble restraints “are known to cause death by positional asphyxia and the United States Department of Justice advises against using them. If a hobble restraint must be used, officers are required to turn the subject off of their stomach immediately after the restraint is applied and monitor the subject carefully so they can obtain medical treatment as necessary.”
The lawsuit said that Celestin was left facedown after the hobble is applied.
In the body camera video, Bonner can be seen walking away from Celestin. He briefly talks with the man’s mother and asks her to wait inside her home. By the time he returns to Celestin, the other officers have begun chest compressions and Bonner runs to retrieve an AED.
The lawsuit claims that none of the officers gave Celestin rescue breaths, despite instructions from the AED machine to do so. The body camera video appears to back this up, though the officers can at one point be heard requesting a mouth guard for those breaths. The officers did continue CPR until paramedics with the fire department arrive.
“As a result of Defendants (the officers) improper use of the hobble restraint and their refusal to provide proper medical care, Mr. Celestin died of sudden cardiorespiratory arrest,” the lawsuit reads.
The suit is seeking compensatory and punitive damages as well as a jury trial.
The death of Celestin was reviewed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s Office. The state attorney ultimately decided that the use of force by the officers involved “both cumulatively and individually, does not warrant the filing of criminal charges.”
The state attorney cites the medical examiner’s autopsy, which listed the cause of death as “sudden cardiorespiratory arrest during subdual and restraint with contributing factors of recurrent depression with psychotic features, mild cardiac hypertrophy and obesity.”
The state attorney’s report goes on to say that there is no evidence the officers “committed intentional misconduct or acted with any degree of malice or prejudice.”
Attorney Jeremy Markman is representing the Celestin family. He said the family called 911 that night for help.
“But what we have is law enforcement officers who are inadequately trained, inadequately prepared and did not deal with this situation appropriately from the get-go,” Markman said.
Markman said Celestin was no threat to officers and they used excessive force while trying to restrain him.
“They tased him on multiple occasions, they used a hogtie, they used an armbar when four officers held him on the ground. He suffered from positional asphyxiation and died at the hands of these law enforcement officers,” Markman said.
Markman said with the lawsuit they are demanding the cities of Ocoee and Windermere, as well as the respective police departments, hold the officers accountable. They’re also calling on the agencies to review their policies and procedures while responding to calls regarding mental health issues.
Markman adds he’s calling on the new Orange-Osceola County State Attorney Monique Worrell to reopen an investigation to determine if criminal charges should be filed against the officers. Worrell’s office has not responded to News 6′s inquiry asking if she’s considering their request. The previous state attorney decided not to prosecute the officers.
Celestin’s older sister, Joanne Celestin, said what happened to her brother plays in their family’s minds every day.
“I just didn’t even imagine that this situation was going to lead to that. It never crossed my mind,” Joanne Celestin said.
The family adds they won’t stop until they get justice.
“It’s been a long fight, but we’re going to continue to fight for him because he deserves that,” Joanne Celestin said.
News 6 has contacted the cities of Ocoee and Windermere for comment on the lawsuit.
A spokesperson for Windermere responded, “Town of Windermere doesn’t make comments on ongoing lawsuits.”
At the time of this writing, Ocoee has not responded.
This is a developing story and will be updated as more information becomes available.