New Orleans police officer killed in on-duty wreck recalled as ‘the biggest personality on the force’
Posted on Jan 22, 2010 in Local Issues, NOPD, Traffic
By Ramon Antonio Vargas, The Times-Picayune
January 22, 2010, 6:13PM
alfred_celestain_funeral_hearse.JPGRusty Costanza/The Times-PicayuneA New Orleans police officer salutes the hearse carrying Alfred Celestain Sr. past the 1st District police station on Friday.
The casket carrying New Orleans police officer Alfred Celestain Sr. emerged from St. Louis Cathedral to bell tolls, blaring bagpipes and the buzz of a snare drum roll.
After pallbearers loaded the casket into a hearse idling in front of Jackson Square, a procession of marching officers, rolling patrol cars and rumbling motorcycles followed the hearse en route to the 8th District police station.
For a moment, just as the procession began, all was somber. But when the moment passed, a brass band-led second-line broke out on the corner of St. Peter and Chartres streets. The dress shoes of men, women and children clicked as they rushed to join in.
* See a gallery of photos from the funeral of Alfred Celestain Jr.
That is how hundreds of cops and civilians on Friday bid farewell to Celestain: the 103rd officer killed in the line of duty in the history of the modern New Orleans Police Department and perhaps “the biggest personality on the force,” in the words of Police Superintendent Warren Riley.
Relatives buried the 59-year-old in Lake Lawn Cemetery. Celestain, who was divorced, is survived by his parents, four siblings, two stepsiblings and three children, ages 32, 24 and 4.
Celestain died Jan. 11, two days after an allegedly drunken driver crashed his pickup truck into a police cruiser Celestain rode in with a rookie officer he was training in the Central Business District. Injuries from the wreck dragged him into a coma, and relatives opted to remove him from a life-support system.
Investigators later booked the driver, 24-year-old Gino Ray, with vehicular homicide.
During Friday’s funeral, Riley enlivened the mood in the cathedral by recounting wild anecdotes about the fallen 20-year veteran.
One happened right after Celestain, working an off-duty security detail at an Algiers bank, foiled a midday robbery in February 2008 by firing several shots at a pair of men who stormed into the lobby with AK-47s.
Celestain put investigators’ and witnesses’ nerves at ease after the incident by recounting the events with swagger, Riley said.
“They tried to come into my bank with these AKs, and they tried to do a ‘Scarface’ on me!” Riley remembered Celestain saying, excitedly. “But I sent them right back where they came from!”
After the funeral, Sgt. Toni Blanco remembered how one of the shots Celestain fired that day grazed a robber’s head. The blood from the gunshot later helped federal authorities convict the suspects. The stocky-framed, mustached Celestain celebrated by getting “Trigger Man” tattooed in cursive letters on the finger he fired the bullet with, said Blanco, who supervised Celestain for several years in the 4th District, which polices Algiers.
celestain-off-duty.jpgEliot Kamenitz / The Times-PicayuneAlfred Celestain Sr. practices for a police fundraising concert in 2004. Celestain died Jan. 11 from injuries he sustained in a traffic accident.
Riley drew more chuckles when he remembered the first time he met Celestain, at a nightclub dance party.
“I didn’t even know he was a police officer,” Riley said, because Celestain moonwalked so wildly that he somehow disrobed to just his undershirt and pants.
“We can only imagine how much you loved him,” Riley told Celestain’s closest family, “because we know how much we did.”
As the procession passed outside the cathedral, Blanco called Celestain a “morale boost” for the districts he worked in. Often, during 4th District roll call, Celestain strolled in wearing a Rastafarian hat with fake dreadlocks or a raccoon hat with a mechanized tail. He cooked food out of French Quarter hotel kitchens for colleagues working through hurricane evacuations. A proud alum of John McDonogh High School’s marching band, Celestain played several musical instruments, including the guitar and trumpet.
Celestain, nicknamed “Shorty Red,” grew close enough to Blanco to take vacations with her to locales as far away as La Ceiba, Honduras. At a restaurant there, he danced suggestively on a pole to coax a laugh from the bemused clientele.
“I never knew an officer like ‘Shorty,'” Blanco said, before politely excusing herself to join the second-line in his name.
Ramon Antonio Vargas can be reached