In jail, claustrophobic and confused
Justin Jouvenal, The Washington Post
Glen Sylvester avoids elevators and the back seats of cars to fend off his claustrophobia, but as the police officers walked him toward the small jail cell at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in May 2016, he braced for the panic to grip his body.
Sylvester, 54, was already bewildered. He had no idea why he had been placed under arrest. Minutes earlier, the Maryland man had been squashed into an economy seat on a flight idling on the tarmac when two officers boarded.
Suddenly, he was handcuffed and being pushed through the airport in a wheelchair. The insurance agent, Army veteran and youth basketball coach said he kept blurting out: "You have the wrong person!"
Then he was facing the cell. As the door closed, Sylvester said he felt like a drowning man. His chest seized, and it seemed as though he was unable to get a breath no matter how hard he tried. He pressed his face between the bars, trying to gulp fresh air. A single thought went through his mind: What did I do?
The answer, according to a lawsuit Sylvester recently filed in Fairfax County, was nothing. The District Heights resident claims he was mistakenly arrested for a pair of thefts from a Fairfax City, Virginia, grocery store the year before.
The charges were eventually dropped, but Sylvester said the 12 days he endured in various jails were a nightmare for someone with claustrophobia. He said he lost 18 pounds while behind bars, and his wife said he still sleepwalks, checking the bedroom door for air as if he is still in a cell.
"It's baffling to this day. Why me?" Sylvester asks. "How did you pick me out of billions of people? I really don't understand that. It makes me emotional, to be honest."
Sylvester and his lawyer say they still don't know how police homed in on him as a suspect. The Fairfax County officer named as defendant in the lawsuit, Brian Geschke, did not respond to requests for comment, and a police spokeswoman declined to comment on the case, citing the pending litigation.
A spokesman for Fairfax County said Geschke believes the investigation was conducted properly.
"Officer Geschke denies the allegations in the complaint and will vigorously defend the case," the statement read.
False arrest is a rare but real problem that can have searing consequences, from job loss to the destruction of a reputation. Unlike the more high-profile issue of wrongful convictions, no one tracks exactly how many cases of false arrest occur across the country.
But each year, dozens file lawsuits claiming that eyewitness error, paperwork mix-ups, sloppy police work or even identity theft have led police to haul them to jail for crimes they didn't commit or for offenses that never happened. Most are eventually released after the error is discovered.
Sylvester's trouble began May 13, 2016, when he was traveling home from attending the funeral of an uncle in Grenada, a country in the Caribbean. After landing at BWI, the plane was held on the tarmac, and the officers removed Sylvester from the flight.
"It was incredibly embarrassing in the world that we are living in," Sylvester said. "It's like I'm a terrorist."
Sylvester said he spent three hours in the cell at BWI before he was removed to go before a magistrate. His panic attack finally lifted as he went outside. He recalls sucking in air as the tightness in his chest eased.
The respite was short-lived.
"You have four felony charges in the state of Virginia, and you are considered a fugitive for leaving the country," Sylvester recalled the magistrate telling him as she explained why he wouldn't get bail.
Sylvester said he was stunned - he hardly ever went to Virginia and had never been to the store he was accused of robbing.
As Sylvester would later learn, two men walked through the Fairfax City-area Wegmans about 6 p.m. Nov. 5 and Nov. 12, 2015, piling into their carts items including Veuve Clicquot champagne, moscato wine and roses. Then they simply walked out the door and made off with the goods.
Surveillance cameras captured the thefts, showing that they appeared to be carried out by middle-aged black men.
The losses totaled more than $1,250, meaning Sylvester was charged with felony grand larceny. Each of the four counts carried a prison sentence of up to 20 years if Sylvester were eventually convicted.
Sylvester claims he was coaching basketball at Kelly Miller Middle School in the District of Columbia at the times of the crimes. His story was bolstered by three witnesses interviewed by The Washington Post. His wife, an assistant coach and a parent of a player said they recalled seeing him at the school about 6 p.m. or a short time before and after on the days in question.
After the hearing before the magistrate, Sylvester was taken to a detention center in the Annapolis, Maryland, area to await extradition to Virginia.
His first stop was a large holding cell where he was placed with others under arrest. Sylvester said he was scared as the people discussed drug use and assaults they had carried out. He shrank into a corner, doing breathing exercises to try to keep his claustrophobia at bay.
Sylvester's life revolves around basketball. He has spent 13 years as the head basketball coach at Kelly Miller Middle and at the Seed School, also in D.C. He is also the president of the Bulls, a basketball and mentoring program for at-risk boys that has helped more than 20 participants get into college and earn degrees. Sylvester said four have landed in the NBA.
His own record is not without a blemish. While in college in North Carolina in the 1980s, Sylvester said, he did community service for stealing two Cabbage Patch dolls from a store. A check by The Post turned up no other similar offenses in the intervening years.
At the detention center, Sylvester was eventually allowed to call his best friend, who was supposed to meet him at the airport. Derrick Wilson alerted Sylvester's wife.
"It was unbelievable," Wilson said. "He couldn't believe he was in jail over something he didn't know about."
He was then issued a jail jumpsuit and transferred to his own cell at the detention center. He said he kept expecting authorities to realize their error and release him, but now it was sinking in he would be in the jail for a while.
Sylvester said he remembers the exact dimensions of his cell - 7 by 11 feet - because he paced it obsessively.
He pulled his mattress onto the floor next to a dirty toilet so he could sleep with his head on the cell door. He said doing so allowed him to feel the air coming through the food slot, which helped his claustrophobia.
"You talk about broken," Sylvester said. "You're broken at this point."
Eleven more days would drag by in the detention center. Sylvester missed his wedding anniversary on May 17. Finally, on May 25, Virginia authorities arrived to transfer Sylvester to Fairfax County, where he was granted bail.
Sylvester walked outside and plopped down on a curb.
"I remember just crying like crazy," he said.
In September 2016, a Fairfax County prosecutor decided to drop the charges against Sylvester after receiving the results of an analysis that showed Sylvester's cellphone accessing cell towers in the District of Columbia and Maryland at the time of the crimes, according to emails obtained by The Post.
The Wegmans loss-prevention officer, who originally reported the thefts to police, also cast doubt on whether police had arrested the right person after seeing him in court for a preliminary hearing.
"My impression was that he may not be the same person I saw in the videos of these incidents," she wrote in a sworn affidavit provided to Sylvester's lawyer.
Sylvester is claiming in the lawsuit that Geschke was grossly negligent for not obtaining the cellphone records and interviewing him before seeking arrest warrants against him. The county has argued in its response that Geschke's actions do not rise to the level of gross negligence and that the case should be dismissed. The response does not address the facts asserted by Sylvester.
The arrest has left Sylvester and his family shaken.
"It's so easy to get arrested and lost in the system," said his wife, Stacey Sylvester. "I don't want anyone else to have this terrifying feeling again. It hurts my heart. It does make me mistrust the justice system."