By Nigel Duara Associated Press
VANCOUVER, Wash. — St. Johns Road springs from this city’s center and makes a slow ascent northeast over State Route 500 into a series of identical tract houses clustered around patches of grass and sandy playgrounds. For a few seconds in its northbound lane on the afternoon of Sept. 15, 2009, Antonio Cellestine’s head dipped down while his fingers tapped out a text message to his girlfriend.
Cellestine, distracted by his phone, swung his Plymouth Breeze into an adjacent bike lane where his math teacher, Gordon Patterson, pedaled home.
It was just after 4 p.m. Those few seconds — a dip of the head, taps of the fingers — would be among the defining moments in the lives of a dozen people in this southwest Washington city. Within six months, Cellestine would be in prison, his pregnant girlfriend accused of abetting a cover-up and a “ghost bike” locked to the spot where his teacher died.
Later, when he faced a sentence for vehicular homicide, Cellestine would pledge to change his life. Maybe, he said, he could tour high schools and serve as an example of the consequences of distracted driving.
Instead, he was back in court on Friday, just two months after his release from a three-year prison sentence. Once again, he faced driving charges — this time, attempting to elude, driving with a suspended license and taking a vehicle without permission. A Washington State Patrol trooper says Cellestine cut off a tractor-trailer in traffic in early July and then sped away when the trooper tried to stop him.
His court-appointed attorney, John Davis, said he expects prosecutors to ask for “the higher range” if Cellestine is convicted. His mother and stepfather said they expect the court system to treat him unfairly because of his history.
“If it would have been anybody else,” said stepfather Melvin Hill, “they would have let him plead out with a good deal.”
Cellestine’s history wasn’t mentioned at the hearing. But its echoes still resonate in this southwest Washington city of 160,000. The Gordon Patterson Memorial Bike Ride has been celebrated for three years, and the high school where Patterson helped Cellestine graduate has a section informally referred to as the “Patterson wing.”
Before the crash, Cellestine and Patterson made an odd duo, one a failing student with a sizeable juvenile record, the other a beloved math and design teacher who taught church classes under the alias “Gordon the Science Warden.”
Cellestine had convictions for drugs, burglary and fourth-degree assault, and spent nearly a year in a juvenile detention center. Once free, he struggled to adjust to high school. But Cellestine credited Patterson with helping him pull through.
“If it wasn’t for Mr. Patterson,” Cellestine said at his sentencing in 2010, “I would never have finished my senior paper and graduated.”
In September 2009, Cellestine was 18 and finished with school. Patterson had finished class and, as he urged others to do, commuted home by bicycle. He’d had a scare a year before, his friend Sherine West told The Columbian newspaper in 2010, when a car struck him on St. Johns Road on his way home.
This time, Patterson was headed north on the same street when Cellestine happened to be driving behind him. Patterson was hit with such force that a police sergeant would later testify to collecting pieces of Patterson’s helmet from the street.
Cellestine fled. Police relied on witness reports to track a Plymouth Breeze with a badly-damaged windshield to an apartment just one block away from the crash, where multiple witnesses later identified Cellestine from a lineup of photographs.
Vehicular homicide convictions are normally reserved for drug and alcohol-related crashes. But since July 2008, when texting while driving became illegal, prosecutors have been able use it as a reason to charge a defendant with the crime, and they would make Cellestine among the first to be charged in Washington state.
One of Cellestine’s friends, Kelsey D. Curtis, later lied to investigators and said he didn’t own the Plymouth Breeze. She admitted in court to throwing the car’s keys into a field so Cellestine couldn’t be found with them. She served five days in jail.
His girlfriend, Mallory Ewart, was also one of Patterson’s students and set up a car wash, ostensibly to raise money for Patterson’s family. Instead, she spent some of it on Cellestine’s bail and said so in a taped jail conversation.
She pleaded guilty to third-degree theft charges and spent 28 days on a county work crew.
One year after the crash, Patterson’s widow, Carrie, narrated a short documentary for Oprah Winfrey’s website on the dangers of texting while driving. Patterson’s family could not be reached by The Associated Press. They were not in court on Friday, and Cellestine’s attorney said he didn’t know whether they had been contacted by a victim’s advocate.
On Friday, Cellestine’s mother, Tania Nettles, said hundreds of people do what her son did when he killed Patterson.
“People check their cellphones all the time,” Nettles said. “He made one mistake.”
Cellestine, broad-shouldered with close-cropped hair, was called into the courtroom with other defendants in custody. Wearing jail blues with his hands cuffed in front of him, he walked to the front of the courtroom. His attorney and a prosecutor discussed possible trial dates.
They settled on Aug. 21. Cellestine didn’t appear to say anything.
As he was led back to the holding area behind a latched door, he appeared to notice his mother and stepfather in the courtroom gallery. He gave a brief nod and was gone.