A Brutal Murder Sparks Debate on How to Treat Miami's Mentally Ill Homeless
Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Just after sunrise on a muggy September morning, Steve Dutton and Tom Lang sip coffee at a sidewalk table in downtown Miami. Steve, who has warm brown eyes and an easy smile, drinks black coffee from La Provence; his husband of 11 years, Tom, blue-eyed behind the oval-shaped lenses of his glasses, nurses an extra-strong blend from Starbucks. Lucy, their husky, and Max, a dachshund, curl up at the gray-haired couple's feet.
Flagler Street is nearly empty of traffic. Shutters still cover store windows. A few office workers hurry by, and Dutton and Lang wave hello to the passersby they've come to know. Ever since they retired and moved from Texas to South Florida four years ago, they've left their Biscayne Boulevard condo at 6:30 every morning for a stroll and coffee.
They're inseparable, taking long cruises every few months and bringing back souvenir pins for their favorite baristas. At home, they relish their bustling urban life. They eat out every meal, joking they use their oven for storing books.
Midway through their coffee, a man with wild dreadlocks and a scraggly beard begins hurling obscenities at a cowering woman. He tips his head back and screams into the sky. Dutton and Lang recognize the homeless man immediately; just a week earlier, they'd intervened when they saw him slap the same woman.
Dutton is unusually qualified to help; he spent two decades as the CEO of a homeless charity in Texas. He knows how important it is to find quick treatment for such an obviously disturbed man. So he takes out his phone to snap a photo for police.
But the man spots him and hollers, "Motherfucker, you take my photo?" Then he sprints across the street as Dutton's camera clicks away. "Leave us alone!" Lang shouts. Before the couple can react, the man shoves Lang hard.
Lang's head slams onto the sidewalk. Blood streams from his ears as his attacker runs away. Screaming, Dutton tries to dial 911 but can't see the numbers through his tears, and someone else has to make the call. He squeezes Lang's hand, and Lang squeezes back.
He would never recover. For three days, machines kept him alive. The third day, he died.
Police didn't have a difficult time tracking down his killer: Evans Celestin was arrested on the streets he's drifted on and off since 2007. Police soon learned he'd been booked nearly 20 times over the past decade, including for five other violent batteries. He'd already spent ten years in prison for manslaughter. And he'd shown clear signs of mental illness, according to his family, thinking that walls were talking to him, speaking in gibberish, and lashing out at relatives.
Lang's brutal attack September 7 has thrown Miami's homeless problem into stark relief. Although the city has greatly reduced its number of street-dwellers, many who remain are mentally ill, addicted to drugs and alcohol, and strongly resistant to help.
There are endless debates over how to aid them. Ron Book, the powerful chairman of Miami-Dade's Homeless Trust, has spent 20 years trying to push the homeless into housing by making it harder to live on the streets. He has vehemently fought comforts such as extra outdoor toilets and created mobile mental health units to encourage treatment.
But ultimately, he says men like Celestin have to accept help. "I'm not a court of law. I'm not a criminal justice system. We don't hold people against their will," Book says. "The goal is to have caseworkers working with them to get them to stay [in services]."
Across the bay, though, Miami Beach has recently taken a more aggressive approach. Using a state statute, the city's police began involuntarily committing substance-addicted homeless this spring.
"We really believe that what we're doing is the very best that can be done to truly save lives," Miami Beach Police Chief Daniel Oates says.
Caught in the middle in the most personal, wrenching way possible is Dutton, who is sure of only one thing: Celestin should never have been on the street to kill his husband.
"I mean, this was our neighborhood, where we live," he says. "All we were doing was having a coffee and enjoying a beautiful morning."
Photo by Monica McGivern
When Steve Dutton walked into Fort Worth's Samaritan House, he couldn't take his eyes off the stranger waiting for him. Dressed in a three-piece suit, Tom Lang sat reading the Wall Street Journal, a pair of glasses perched at the end of his nose.
"He looks like Cary Grant," Dutton recalls thinking that day in August 2004, "just so distinguished.
A successful banker, Lang wanted to volunteer to help homeless in the city. A mutual friend had suggested he get in touch with Dutton, a former airline negotiator who was then CEO of Samaritan House, a nonprofit that provided housing and services to homeless affected by HIV/AIDS.
The two were opposites in many ways: Dutton was a people person and a loquacious talker; Lang was more reserved, a natural listener. Dutton didn't put much thought into what he wore; Lang was a meticulous dresser with an eye for fine suits and shoes. Dutton would grab anything that caught his eye at the grocery store; Lang never veered off his list. "Oscar and Felix," Dutton would grow fond of saying, referencing the Odd Couple.
But they hit it off from the first day they met at the homeless nonprofit. "I've met him," Lang told a longtime friend, Jon Nelson. Lang called Dutton hours after their meeting and asked him to dinner. Within a few months, they'd moved in together in downtown Fort Worth.
"Oh, I thought they were perfect together," Nelson recalls. "They played off of each other, and you just knew that they cared about each other. You knew that they were in love. You knew that they were best friends."
By the time Dutton and Lang crossed paths, each was nearing the tail end of a long, prosperous career. Dutton, born in Iowa, had studied at the University of Illinois and then Brooklyn Law. He'd worked as a negotiator for American Airlines before becoming CEO of Samaritan House in 1996. Lang had been in Orlando, graduated from the University of Florida and its law school, and worked as a trust officer for banks including Continental National Bank.
Both had been previously married to women. They'd each raised families and gotten divorced, Dutton in his late 30s, Lang in his mid-40s. It hadn't been easy growing up gay in the '50s and '60s, and it took decades for each of them to come out. Dutton was first, starting a relationship with a man in the '80s. Lang didn't come out until he met Dutton. "When we met, it was kind of a release of, 'God, I can really be who I am; I can really feel the way I do with you,'" Dutton says.
One thing didn't pan out, though: Lang didn't stick as a volunteer. A few weeks into their relationship, Dutton put Lang in charge of volunteers at a 5K. But he was too bossy. Volunteers began to complain to Dutton, who had one of his longtime helpers take over. He laughs at the memory.
"I didn't love him any less. It was just that" — he snaps his fingers — "doggone it, he was such a crummy volunteer."
That was just Lang: a perfectionist to a fault. If a letter was going out with his name on it, no error would go unnoticed. When he grew ivy on his house, it was perfectly trimmed. He was articulate and intelligent, and often serious. But he also had a sense of humor. Betsy Pepper, a friend of more than 40 years, remembers his canoe capsizing during a trip down the Brazos River in Texas years ago. Lang, soaked, came up laughing. "I will never forget that," she says now.
About a year into their relationship, Dutton and Lang were ready to get married. Because the United States didn't allow same-sex marriage yet, they took a trip to Toronto in 2005 and exchanged vows there. In 2008, after Iowa legalized gay marriage, they wed again, on the steps outside the state capitol. "It was such a great day," Dutton says. "It was amazing to have that validation."
In 2012, Dutton and Lang — then in their 60s — both retired. The pair had been taking cruises a couple of times a year, starting with a 2004 trip to Alaska. So both gravitated toward Miami and its bustling port. They sold their Fort Worth apartment and bought a one-bedroom unit in a Biscayne Boulevard high-rise. Perched on the 39th floor, it offered a sweeping view of Biscayne Bay and American Airlines Arena.
They spent much of their time traveling. Twice they took cruises that circumnavigated the globe, from Grand Cayman to Sydney, Hong Kong, and Cape Town, chronicling their journey on a photo-packed blog called Tom and Steve at Sea.
When they were on dry land, they loved downtown. Every morning, after the pair woke up and Lang pulled on a pair of his signature neon tennis shoes, they'd head out, hitting Bayfront Park, then Starbucks, then La Provence.
Over the past few months, though, they'd noticed a disturbing trend. More and more people seemed to be sleeping in the park and on the streets. Some of them became aggressive and hostile when passersby refused to give them money.
Dutton vowed to get back into the homeless service he'd spent 20 years on in Texas — just as soon as he and Lang returned from their 2017 world cruise.
"Of course, I had no idea what was about to happen," he says.
On September 7, Dutton snapped a photo of Celestin (right) as he approached and then attacked Lang (left).
Courtesy of Steve Dutton
Eugenie Daseme was resting in bed one afternoon months ago when her youngest child swung the door open. "Oh, Mom, I didn't know you were here," Celestin said. "I just came to ask you for $500."
Daseme was incredulous. "Where am I going to find that?" she asked.
Suddenly seething with rage, Celestin grabbed a heavy vase filled with a bouquet of flowers and hoisted it over his mother's head as she cowered in fear.
Months later, sitting in the front room of her bright-pink Little Haiti house, Daseme says it's only by the grace of God that she's still alive. Her son smashed the vase into the ground instead of her head that morning. Speaking in Kreyol with her daughter translating, she circles a finger next to her head and says she thinks her son has lost his mind.
"Whatever that spirit is that's attacking him, he's different," she says.
To Celestin's family, Evans' attack on his mother was confirmation something had gone very wrong. Now that he's charged with murder in Lang's death, they still struggle to explain how a well-loved mama's boy turned into a violent, disturbed homeless man.
"He's not the same Evans," Caroline Celestin says. "I know my little brother, but this is not him. This is something else."
Evans Celestin was born November 29, 1977. His family had fled Haiti, looking for stable work in Florida. His mom did laundry at the Fontainebleau, while his dad worked in immigration. They bought a house in Little Haiti and spoke mostly Kreyol at home. Caroline Celestin remembers a happy childhood, with the family going to the beach and to the drive-in theater at the Swap Shop, where the kids would lie on their bellies while staring up at the screen. Evans was especially close with Caroline, who was born the same day he was but one year earlier.
"I didn't need no friends," she recalls. "It was just me and him."
Celestin attended Lakeview Elementary and Miami Edison Senior High. His mom says he brought home good grades and stayed out of trouble — the school never called about him. Other kids picked on him, and Caroline told him to defend himself. He never would, so instead she took on her little brother's bullies.
But Celestin fell in with the "wrong pack" of friends, his sister says. Just before turning 18, he was arrested in October 1995 on a felony charge of marijuana possession with intent to sell. He was adjudicated guilty and sent to jail for 21 days. Six months later, he was nabbed on felony counts of concealed carry and grand theft. In an arrest report, an officer wrote he'd spotted Celestin carrying a towel-wrapped Remington in front of the Miami Jewish Home on NE Second Avenue at NE 51st Street. The theft charge was dropped, but Celestin was convicted on the weapons charge and spent 22 days in jail.
After that, he stayed off police's radar for a couple of years. But then came the case that his family says sent him over the edge.
The afternoon of May 27, 1997, a man named Fred McKinnon approached Celestin to collect $150 he said he was owed. Celestin, then 19 years old, clean-shaven and working as a laborer, said he wasn't paying. The two threw punches before Celestin, a slight man at five feet seven inches and 170 pounds, took off and told McKinnon he'd be back later.
A few hours later, McKinnon saw Celestin leaning out a car window with a handgun. It was about 8:30 p.m., and McKinnon was standing outside an apartment building on NW 68th Street. Celestin fired several shots, police say, missing McKinnon but striking a bystander named Darryl Green. One bullet lodged in Green's heart, killing him.
Two weeks passed before police found Celestin and charged him with first-degree murder. Before trial, an inmate named Jesse Swanson came forward and said Celestin had told him he "was sorry that he had killed the victim, that he had fired the shot, but that he had intended to kill someone else."
A jury had already heard opening arguments when Celestin decided in October 1999 to plead guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter. He was sentenced to ten years in prison.
Celestin's family still isn't convinced of his guilt. They say that few people saw what happened and that Celestin always said he was innocent. "He's not a liar," says his sister Mona Castele. "I said, 'Did you do it?' He said, 'No, sis, I didn't do it.'?"
This much is clear: Something changed in Celestin while he was in prison. During his years at Calhoun Correctional Institution in Florida's Panhandle, he earned a high-school diploma. He also wrote several letters to Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin in which he asked politely for documents from his case. In a delicate, looping cursive, he explained he needed the information "for the things I'm trying to handle right now."
While imprisoned for manslaughter, Celestin earned his high-school diploma. But after his release in 2007, he suffered mental illness and became homeless.
Courtesy of the family (left), Courtesy of Miami-Dade County Corrections (right)
He was released in April 2007, when he was 29 years old. He landed a job driving a truck, and at first his family couldn't tell anything was wrong. He was home again, smiling and spending time with his nieces and nephews.
But then he began acting strangely, buying a new car and then smashing it, the glass flying everywhere. When a niece asked what was wrong, he told her the walls were talking to him. He'd disappear for weeks, and his sisters would be shocked to see him begging on the street or to find out he'd been arrested again.
Celestin was tormented by what he'd missed while he was behind bars. His father had died while he was in custody, and he hadn't been allowed to attend the funeral. His siblings had started families.
"He missed out on a lot," Caroline Celestin says. "All his life he's been in there. No kids, no girlfriend, no marriage."
He soon turned violent, sometimes attacking his family. He was arrested for simple battery in September 2009 after hitting Caroline in the face, though the charge was later dropped. When his mother called for help in June 2011, Celestin told responding officers he didn't like her new husband. Then he punched him in the face.
"We had to pull the defendant off the victim," an officer wrote in the arrest report. Celestin also told his stepfather: "I will spend one week, maybe two weeks, in jail, but when I get out, I will come back for you." He was sentenced to 130 days after pleading no contest to battery.
Yet despite all of those arrests, Celestin kept returning to the streets after serving short stints behind bars. Nearly half the cases against him were dropped; in two other cases — a 2010 burglary and a 2012 battery — juries acquitted him.
He had chances to seek help. As Celestin was leaving jail in 2012, outreach workers with the Homeless Trust offered him a spot in a diversion program. He declined.
His family also tried to offer him a way out, but he refused to stay at his mother's house.
In recent years, Caroline Celestin would occasionally see him on the streets. Though he'd once been meticulous about staying clean, his hair and beard were wild and he was surrounded by plastic bags filled with belongings. She says she would pull her car over and tell him he could come to her house, take a shower, and have something to eat. But he always refused.
In September, his family found out about his arrest in Lang's death only after it was broadcast on the news. Caroline Celestin says she cried, wanting to know, once more, what had gotten into her brother's head.
"It's like he took a left. Instead of going straight, he's this way," she says. "I don't get it. I don't get it."
Dutton and Lang loved traveling and often took cruises that circumnavigated the globe.
Courtesy of Steve Dutton
For the first couple of days after Lang was attacked, Dutton was angry. He was mad at the City of Miami — he and Lang had loved it, and now he felt it had failed them. He was mad at the homeless. He kept thinking he wanted to leave.
But on the third day, as he woke up and got ready to go to the hospital where Lang had been lying unconscious, he felt different. In a moment he calls a "jubilee," he realized all the ways he could help Miami's homeless. That day, with Dutton and the rest of his family by his side, Lang slipped away.
Dutton knows there are no easy answers to his questions about how to reduce the number of people living on the streets. He still can't pinpoint the exact reason for Lang's death, whether it was the homeless budget and housing shortages that kept Celestin on the streets, the criminal justice system that kept returning him there, or the lack of solutions for the illness that made him violent.
Yet Dutton has felt more certain every day that Celestin should have been getting the help he needed instead of roaming the streets. "The man who shouldn't have been there was," Dutton says. "And he attacked Tom and killed him."
In fact, Miami has long grappled with how to handle its homeless population, with the city's methods even setting a national precedent in a landmark federal court challenge. In the 20 years since, the number of Miami's homeless has decreased dramatically. But many of those left on the streets today are struggling with mental illness or substance addictions, and recently a new disagreement has broken out over how to deal with the issue.
The city's homeless problem reached a crescendo more than a quarter-century ago. As Miami endured the violence of the Cocaine Cowboys era, the street-dwelling population skyrocketed 25 percent a year from 1988 to 1991. By then, the city's 6,000 homeless greatly outnumbered the 700 available shelter beds. Officials proposed everything from putting the homeless behind ten-foot walls to carting them off to camps in the Everglades.
In February 1991, Miami cops cleared the homeless out of Bicentennial and Lummus Parks and filled a dumpster with their belongings, violating a 1990 federal court order barring the destruction of homeless people's property.
In doing so, they "unwittingly spurred an exodus that would create the precise situation local politicians had been trying for years to avoid," the Miami Herald reported at the time. "Until then, Miami's homeless 'problem' had been relatively easy to ignore." After the parks were emptied, the homeless were "in our face," the story continued, with groups congregating under the I-395 overpass in a shanty with sofas and camp stoves in fortresses of shopping carts.
In the landmark Pottinger case of 1992, a federal judge found that the city had a "policy and practice of arresting homeless individuals for the purpose of driving them from public areas." With so few shelter beds, the judge added, the majority of the thousands of homeless men, women, and children had "literally no place to go."
Shortly after that ruling, Miami-Dade's Homeless Trust was born. With a now-$61 million budget funded in part by a food and beverage tax, the trust has made a huge dent. Ron Book, an influential lobbyist, took a leadership role in the trust in the early '90s and has helped guide its approach since.
Twenty-five years after Pottinger, only 600 homeless remain on Miami's streets. The trust funds programs including the Lazarus Project and a prison transition program that Celestin turned down in 2012. It has also built housing complexes such as Verde, with 145 townhouses for formerly homeless families and a 22-acre farm that grows produce purchased by local restaurants. And it sends out "green shirts" — 21 teams of outreach workers — every morning to try to bring the homeless population into its fold.
Book's philosophy leans on a central idea: At a certain point, the homeless have to choose not to remain on the streets. He points to the Lazarus Project as one approach that could have helped Celestin's life — and, consequently, spared Lang's. Through the year-and-a-half-old program, outreach workers fan out across downtown every morning in search of some of the city's most desperate homeless. They deliver prescribed medications that could help put participants' lives back on track.
One hundred thirty-five people are being treated; of those, all but three have gotten off the streets, according to Book.
But, he says, a person has to accept the help. Staff spend months building trust with the homeless in hopes they'll agree to try it.
"I can't force somebody who's got mental health issues off the street," Book says. "I can't force somebody with drug issues. I can't force them all in."
Yet one South Florida city is doing just that. After noting a "revolving door" of alcohol- and drug-addled homeless, Miami Beach Police began collecting evidence to prove they had life-threatening substance abuse issues. Then they asked judges to sign a court order applying the Marchman Act, which allows a person to be committed against his will if there's reason to believe he's addicted to alcohol or drugs.
Since May, the city has placed eight people in treatment using the tactic. All eight are still in custody, and at least one participant left treatment and had to be sent to jail. He's receiving treatment there.
"Everyone involved agrees this is a lifesaving effort that we're undertaking," MBPD's Chief Oates says. "This is an enlightened approach to saving lives. That's what this is. We're not willy-nilly incarcerating anybody."
But Book says he's unsure whether forced commitment is the answer. "I like anything that helps me get people off the streets and into a stable environment," he says. "I think that program does that — but we live in a free world. And we live in a free world that doesn't violate people's constitutional rights. And the courts have consistently said people have a right to be homeless."
There's also the larger, ever-present question of funding. Some homeless say they want to get off the streets but either can't get into a shelter or find them to be too restrictive. Deborah Ford rolls through downtown every day in a wheelchair, begging for food and change. She claims she's been trying to get a bed for a year.
"They have no beds," says Ford, who says she's been homeless for eight years. "I tried this morning. I've been on a list for a year."
But most homeless have chances to get off the street. Celestin turned down help at least once, and he saw outreach workers repeatedly, Book says. When his arrest for Lang's death made the news, Book's caseworkers recognized Celestin. Book calls the killing a tragic case of "wrong place, wrong time."
But if anyone was at the wrong place at the wrong time, it was Celestin. With his long record of arrests and mental health issues, it seems clear he needed treatment.
James Bernat, the Miami Police Department's homeless coordinator, says officers were familiar with Celestin, who would often be arrested for a crime and return to the streets in as little as a few hours. He says the underlying cause should have been dealt with.
"It could have been prevented," Bernat says of Lang's death. "If that gentleman who has a history and has been in and out of the system for years — if the system would have dealt with it, whether it's mental issues, drugs, or both, we wouldn't have had that tragedy."
For his part, Book says the Homeless Trust has about 8,000 beds and units of housing in its continuum. It's not enough for every homeless person in the county, but he says not everyone wants to come in at the same time.
He says he always needs more housing, but he believes the trust has the space for just about every person who wants to come in at a given time. He doesn't believe what happened could have been avoided, nor does he see it as a failure of the system.
"Unless you had law enforcement on every street corner in downtown, you couldn't predict where that was going to happen and when it was going to happen," Book says. "I mean, how unfortunate."
Every day, Dutton retraces the morning routine he and Lang once shared.
Photo by Monica McGivern
Steve Dutton pulls on a pair of sneakers and heads out the door. It's almost 6:30 in the morning and still dark. After just a few hours of sleep, Dutton is off for his walk.
Like every morning since Lang's death, he retraces the steps he and his husband once took together. He strolls alone past Bayfront Park; the dogs have been with friends since Lang's death. Then he crosses the street again and goes to Starbucks, where the manager placed a purple orchid plant on the counter. "In memory of Tom Lang," she scrawled across the pot. "A caring, loving soul who brought love and light to those around him. He will be missed dearly here."
Dutton buys his pastry and walks to La Provence for coffee. Then he sits for a while, remembering.
The toughest part is when he walks past the spot where Lang fell. "It's hard walking around the corner," he says, "because I see Tom lying there in my mind's eye."
Dutton distributed posters printed with Lang's picture and the time and date of a memorial service. More than 200 people showed up for the late-September event at their condo building. A Fort Worth service followed weeks later, with more than 200 people packing a light-filled chapel. Friends he'd kept for 40 years were there. So was the mayor. Dutton, Nelson, and Pepper spoke, telling stories about Lang, his impeccable style, and his love for travel and the arts.
Dutton has tried to turn his grief into action. He's met with local officials to discuss changes he believes would better serve the city's homeless. He's written a list of goals on a yellow lined sheet of paper. The first: Add more housing units.
He launched an online petition calling for solutions, met with Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, toured Camillus House and other local shelters, and began attending meetings of the Downtown Neighbors Alliance and the Homeless Trust. He's been offered a seat on one of the trust's committees, and he says he plans to accept. His friends aren't surprised he wants to help.
"I'd be surprised if he didn't," Nelson says. "That's part of his nature, dealing with humanity and human beings."
As for Celestin, he has been transferred to a psychiatric facility until he is stable enough to stand trial. His family is still stunned and saddened by the attack on Lang and has struggled to make sense of it.
"I feel very sorry for that man, for his family, very, very sorry," Caroline Celestin says. "Very sorry. We're all sorry. It's just sad because that man is not here. He's not here."
Dutton knows he could hop on the world cruise he and Lang had booked for 2017 and try to forget about everything that's happened.
But he thinks Lang would count on more from him.
"Tom was a perfectionist, and he expects —" Dutton pauses, collecting himself. "He expected people who were part of his life to not be perfect but to be as good as they could be. My friends and I have laughed and said he's directing things from Heaven. He knows what I can do, so he's expecting the best."
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.