CONVENT — Standing to the side at the Dorsey family compound in St. James with as many as 15 people in the area, John D. Celestine Jr. had dropped his head to his chest after a sister of the then-missing 12-year-old Talaija Dorsey screamed about what she saw in the trunk of Celestine’s Chrysler Concorde.
St. James sheriff’s Capt. Claude Louis Jr. testified Wednesday that he had spotted a single flip-flop with a flower design in the trunk the night of July 1, 2014, and had called over Talaija’s sister, Janea Dorsey, to identify the footwear.
“That’s what Talaija was wearing,” Louis said Janea Dorsey screamed.
After dropping his head, Celestine, 45, the longtime live-in fiancé of Talaija’s mother, Emma Dorsey, then shouted: “ ‘That’s not how it went down. It didn’t go down like that,’ ” Louis said.
It was at that point, Louis testified Wednesday at the St. James Parish Courthouse in Convent, that Celestine went from concerned stepfather of a missing child to a criminal suspect and was read his Miranda rights.
Those newly disclosed details about the sheriff’s probe into Talaija’s high-profile disappearance the morning of July 1, 2014, and subsequent slaying came to light as Celestine’s defense attorney argued that the Miranda warning came too late.
Defense attorney Blaine Hebert asked Judge Alvin Turner Jr., of the 23rd Judicial District, to throw out evidence and statements collected before the Miranda warning. Turner took the motion, one of several pending defense challenges to the investigation, under advisement Wednesday.
Celestine faces a first-degree murder charge in the case.
Before his arrest, Celestine was interrogated by detectives for nearly two hours, the attorney argued. Before that, Celestine had waited in a Sheriff’s Office lunchroom and later a squad room while other members of Talaija’s family were interviewed.
Hebert on Wednesday pressed Louis and sheriff’s Detective Julie Scioneaux if they had harbored suspicions about Celestine — who was free to leave the Sheriff’s Office, the detectives said, but not told that — hours earlier and should have given the constitutionally mandated warning then.
Attempting to call into question the detectives’ claims that Celestine was not a suspect at that point, Hebert repeatedly questioned Louis and Scioneaux about whether an allegation of molestation that Talaija reportedly brought against Celestine affected their view of him as a possible suspect in her death. The molestation allegation came to light hours before the Celestine interview and came up during the interview, which began about 7:20 p.m. July 1 with Scioneaux, Louis and one other detective.
Shortly after the interviewing ended that night, Celestine rode willingly with Louis to the Dorsey home in St. James to search the Chrysler Concorde and a van and, at the home, signed written consent forms for searches without a warrant.
But Scioneaux and Louis on Wednesday denied they had those suspicions, insisting they were questioning Celestine to gather details to help find Talaija as they would any parent of a missing child.
Once the flip-flop and what is thought to be Talaija’s hair clip were found about 10:30 p.m. July 1 in the trunk of the car Celestine had driven to work that day, Louis testified, Celestine was read his rights to remain silent and have an attorney present.
He was arrested for his own safety and taken to the Parish Prison in Convent, Louis said. At that point, though, Celestine was booked on a count of obstruction of justice and false communication and wouldn’t be arrested and indicted in Talaija’s slaying for another seven days after her badly decomposed body was found near a cane field off La. 3127.
After three hours of testimony Wednesday from Scioneaux and Louis, Hebert asked Turner to throw out the statements and the evidence from the Chrysler Concorde.
“Sometimes, the law is brutal, Judge,” Hebert said.
Prosecutor Robin O’Bannon countered that the initial questioning of Celestine and the other initial steps detectives took with him were aimed at finding a missing 12-year-old.
“He was no more a suspect than Emma (Dorsey) was,” O’Bannon told the judge.
In the steamy days of early July 2014, Talaija’s disappearance prompted a communitywide search by deputies and volunteers who looked for her among the woods and cane fields of St. James Parish’s rural west bank.
Deputies said at the time that the preliminary cause of death from Talaija’s autopsy was inconclusive due to her body’s condition. Though the obstruction count was thrown out, Celestine faces a first-degree murder charge.
Prosecutors have not said in public filings whether they intend to seek the death penalty. The slaying of someone younger than 13 is an aggravating factor needed for a first-degree murder charge.
While family members at the time expressed shock that Celestine was accused in Talaija’s slaying, Emma Dorsey told detectives the day of Talaija’s disappearance that the child claimed a few months earlier he had molested her in her bed, according to testimony.
But Detective Scioneaux testified Wednesday that Emma Dorsey also discounted that story as Talaija’s dream, which was enhanced by a bed filled with stuffed teddy bears.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Hebert pressed Scioneaux if she should have read Celestine his Miranda rights when she asked him about the allegation during the interview the evening of July 1.
Scioneaux answered no because she said she was only asking Celestine about the allegations to corroborate Emma Dorsey’s account, which he did, and to learn background into the family’s dynamics.
Scioneaux testified she was trying to see what the relationship was like between Celestine and Talaija after the claim and whether she would have reason to leave home and seek attention from boys or others.
Louis added later that he didn’t view the allegations to be a possible crime, thus Celestine wasn’t initially a criminal suspect who was due a Miranda warning because the claim had not been reported to deputies previously.