Jail was the last place wife, mother and churchgoer Jacqueline Renell Charles expected to spend two weeks of her life.
The 50-year-old manager of tax preparation offices in the New Orleans area was on her way home from work late in the evening Nov. 18 when a law enforcement officer pulled her over for speeding. He told her the stop was taking a long time because when he checked her license, he found a warrant for her in Mississippi.
She couldn't imagine why. Her son is in school at Millsaps College, so she does go to Jackson occasionally for ball games, but she had never been charged with a crime. Anywhere. The officer went back to his paperwork.
"He came back to the car and said, 'I have to arrest you,'" Charles said. "Of course, I started crying."
She was told she could probably pay a fine and go home. But that's not the way her nightmare played out.
Instead, she spent a week in the St. Charles Parish jail, then was hauled off to Mississippi, where she spent another week in the Jackson County jail. All the while, she kept telling officers they had the wrong person. Nobody delved into her story.
"I was just scared and nervous," she said, "not understanding what was happening."
Shackled for transport
She had been allowed to call her husband, who called her pastor, the Rev. E. Craig Wilson of New Generation Fellowship in Kenner. They contacted two New Orleans attorneys, who were trying to help.
She was moved from a holding cell after one night in the Louisiana jail into a pod with 15 or so other women. The day before Thanksgiving, a female deputy arrived in a Jackson County patrol car to take her to Mississippi.
"She shackled me all up and put me in a car," said Charles, who kept asking what she had done. Why was this happening? The deputy said Charles was accused of theft, but did not know what had been stolen.
When they arrived at the Jackson County jail, Charles saw the paperwork with her name on it. But the middle name was different.
"I told her that was not me," she said.
The officer asked for Charles' Social Security number and date of birth, which were a match. "Yes," the officer said, "That is you."
Charles spent a miserable week in the Jackson County jail. One inmate gave her a towel, another offered toothpaste. She had no tooth brush or undergarments, so she put toothpaste on the towel to brush her teeth. At first, she had a bunk in the cell, but more women arrived and she wound up sleeping on a mattress on the floor from Saturday until Wednesday.
Another inmate gave her socks and a T-shirt to put on under her jail jumpsuit. "They didn't bother me," she said of the other detainees. "It was just the whole atmosphere: nasty and cold and just awful."
One of the Louisiana attorneys, Ron Richard, called Sean Tindell, a Gulfport attorney and state senator, while Charles was still in Louisiana. The Louisiana attorneys were looking for more information on the charges. Richard tried to tell the Mississippi authorities they had the wrong person while Charles was still in Louisiana. He said they could not provide him much information, and each agency he contacted had different information.
"It was just a cluster," he said. "It was heartbreaking for this lady."
Tindell was trying to get a bond set for her release from jail while she was still in Louisiana.
The problem was, the woman arrested for the crime had failed to show up for court and was not eligible for bond. After Charles was extradited to Mississippi, Tindell began to sort out what had happened.
The Jackson County District Attorney's Office worked with him to get the original arrest records from 2001. The woman's name on those records was Jacqueline Marie Charles. Her date of birth, Social Security number and fingerprints in the original records did not match those of Jacqueline Renell Charles. Tindell established all this by Dec. 1.
Final clue was 'Earl'
The District Attorney's Office arranged to get Charles into court at 8 a.m. Dec. 2. Tindell saw her that morning for the first time, seated in the jury box in shackles with other defendants.
Just to make sure she was not the suspect, one other detail was checked. The original defendant had a tattoo that said "Earl" on her arm. They looked at Jacqueline Renell Charles' arms. She had no tattoos.
"It all came down to Earl," Tindell said. "That's my whole point. We need to send more information on people when we're extraditing them or arresting them on old warrants."
He said District Attorney Tony Lawrence has been amenable to this suggestion. In Harrison County, he said, the Sheriff's Department sends a photograph with extradition warrants. Tindell believes such procedures need to be uniform in Mississippi, so he's doing his research to sponsor a bill in the upcoming legislative session that would require more information be provided before a defendant is picked up from another jurisdiction.
Charles said there were plenty of places authorities could have checked, including her tax records, to confirm she'd never lived in Mississippi as the real defendant did.
She is back home now. But she missed weeks of her life, including the 80th birthday party she'd planned for her mother, attended by 200 family members and friends, many of whom drove in from other parts of Louisiana for the celebration Sunday.
A Facebook post about the experience by Tindell has received more than 530 likes and plenty of comments.
He said, "I'm hearing this happens more frequently than people would like to admit."