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United States v. Celestine

November 2, 2009

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NARON CELESTINE AND STEVEN LAMONT RILEY, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John W. Sedwick United States District Judge

[Re: Motion at Docket 45; Joinder at Docket 53]

ORDER AND OPINION

I. MOTIONS PRESENTED

At docket 45, defendant Naron Celestine ("Celestine") moves to transfer this case from the District of Alaska to another judicial district. Celestine's co-defendant, Steven Lamont Riley ("Riley"), joins in the motion at docket 53. The United States opposes the motion. Oral argument was not requested and would not assist the court.

II. BACKGROUND

Celestine, Riley, and Tillman Bradley III ("Bradley")*fn1 are charged in a two-count indictment. In Count 1 all three are charged with a conspiracy to distribute 500 grams or more of a mixture and substance containing cocaine. In Count 2 Celestine and Bradley are charged with distributing 500 grams or more of a mixture and substance containing cocaine.

To support their position that the trial must be moved to another judicial district, defendants point to articles which have appeared in both the print and on-line versions of an Anchorage newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News ("AND") and one article from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Copies of the articles were attached to Celestine's motion and appear at docket 45-3.

The News-Miner is published in Fairbanks and is not widely circulated outside Fairbanks. AND, however, circulates in many communities within the District of Alaska. Although it has the largest circulation in Alaska, in many communities AND competes for readers' attention with other newspapers, including the Frontiersman (Wasilla and Palmer), the Peninsula Clarion (Kenai and Soldotna), the Homer News, the Seward Phoenix Log, the Cordova Times, the Valdez Star, the Kodiak Daily Mirror, the Bristol Bay Times (Dillingham), the Tundra Drums (Bethel), and the Dutch Harbor Fisherman. The venire for trials conducted in Anchorage includes residents of Wasilla, Palmer, Kenai, Soldotna, Homer, Seward, Cordova, Valdez , Kodiak, Dillingham, Bethel, and Dutch Harbor, among other towns and villages. Defendants point to no publicity in the local papers serving any of those communities.

The first AND article was published on June 15, 2009. Headlined, "Missing Necklace at Center of Shooting Has Hip-Hop Ties," it reported on a shooting death in an Anchorage parking lot saying that a "mysterious missing necklace, rumored to be worth $100,000" may have supplied a motive for the slaying of Joe A. Young, Jr. The article goes on to say that as he lay dying, Young told the police that "Cole" shot him. The article then advises that police say "Cole" is Celestine and that he may have put a $10,000 price on Young's head for stealing the necklace. The article is accompanied by a photo said to be taken from Sean P's MySpace page. Sean P is described as a nationally known rapper. The photo shows "Cole" wearing the necklace while he and two other black men stand near Sean P.

The same photo accompanies a June 16, 2009, AND article headlined "Missing Bling At Center of Shooting With Ties to Rapper Sean Paul." In the second article, it is said that the necklace allegedly belonged to Sean Paul. The story then repeats the assertion that "Cole" or "Cold" put out a $10,000 hit on the victim after the necklace was snatched from around Cole's neck at a local nightclub. The article then states: "Cole, real name Naron Celestine, 38, has a long history of drug-related arrests and convictions. But Rex Butler, an attorney for one of the men Cole allegedly hired to kill Young, disputes the feds' allegations of a hit." The article then quotes Butler, who is a well-known Anchorage criminal defense attorney, as saying that during his investigation of the matter people have told him that Cole "couldn't put two nickels together, much less $10,000."

The last article from AND, to which defendants point titled "Figure In Parking Lot Slaying Faces Cocaine Indictment," was published August 25, 2009. The lead paragraph reads, "Naron Celestine, whose ties to a Kansas City rapper and a gaudy $100,000 necklace surfaced during investigation of a high-profile killing at the Sport Authority in June has been hit with federal charges of conspiring to distribute and distributing more than 500 grams of cocaine, according to documents unsealed Tuesday. " In a brief summary of the conspiracy charge, the article notes that Tillman and Riley were also charged but "remain on the run." The article then reports that Celestine was arrested and pleaded not guilty. Explaining why the indictment had to be unsealed, the article points out that an assistant United States attorney had asked that the matter be sealed pending completion of a collateral investigation.

Acknowledging that the collateral investigation was not specifically identified, the AND article goes on to imply it involved the June shooting of Joe Young, Jr. Repeating what was in the earlier AND articles, the August 25 story goes on to add comments by a state assistant district attorney who describes the assertion that Celestine hired hit men as "hearsay." The attorney says that if he had evidence he would charge Celestine, but "I don't have anything like that." After pointing out that three men (not including Celestine) have been charged with killing Young, the article says the police and prosecutors believe the three may have been seeking a reward Celestine allegedly offered or else they were trying to steal it for themselves. Thus, in this story Celestine's "contract" on Young has morphed into a reward for the necklace. The article then quotes Butler, who says that he assumes Celestine might shed light on the killing "either as a witness for himself or as a witness for the government" adding, "[i]t's not unusual for a person who is facing a drug conspiracy charge . . . to want to help themselves." The article states, "Butler says there was no contract." The article adds a description of Butler's theory that the three men arrested for killing Young were acting in self defense when Young pulled a gun on them. At the end of the story it is noted that Celestine is being held in custody pending trial on the drug charges, before pointing out [Celestine] was convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine in 1992 and was sentenced to 35 months in prison. In 1995 he was charged with maintaining a place for drug trafficking, possessing cocaine and possessing a gun as a felon. He was convicted only on the weapons charge and was sentenced to 75 months in prison.

The article from the Fairbanks' paper was published August 26, 2009. Titled "Figure in Alaska Slaying Indicted on Drug Charges," the story is short. It reports that Celestine was charged with distributing more than 500 grams of cocaine, and that his name surfaced in relation to the shooting of Joe Young, Jr. The article adds: "Court documents say the word on the street was that Celestine put a $10,000 hit on Young in retaliation for the theft [of the necklace] but Assistant District Attorney John Skidmore says that's difficult to prove."

Defendants have not submitted any evidence that there has been any publicity relating to either of them, to Young's slaying or to the charges in the case at bar in any of the newspapers published in the other communities from which the venire for Anchorage trials is drawn. Defendants have not submitted any ...


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