Where is Keith Jean?
That’s what police continue to ponder after Jean jumped into the Passaic River to avoid capture by police last Wednesday, Aug. 3, and has yet to turn up.
Authorities speculate he may have drowned or possibly met his demise in a water/sewer chamber or somehow made his way to safety.
According to Harrison Police Lt. David Doyle, the episode began at about noon on Aug. 3 when a Harrison police officer observed a black Chevy Impala parked at a fire hydrant at Second St. and Cleveland Ave.
The officer noticed that two of the occupants were going in and out of the Impala and scanning a parking lot that has been targeted by numerous car burglars.
Eventually, the Impala left, heading north on Second St., and was followed by the officer to 900 Passaic Ave. in East Newark where the officer, after having called for backup, pulled over the Impala.
At that point, officers questioned the driver, Arbrey Tucker, 29, of Bloomfield, about his prior activities in Harrison.
Ultimately, police charged Tucker with driving without a license and arrested him on active warrants from Newark. The Impala was found to be registered to the driver’s brother, one police official said.
While police were busy with Tucker, his passenger, identified as Keith Jean, 31, whose last known address was in Roselle, exited the Impala and took off running toward Harrison Supply Co. on Passaic Ave. and then jumped into the river, Doyle said.
Doyle said numerous officers from East Newark and Harrison arrived to assist with a rescue effort, which, according to Police Chief Derek Kearns, included “trying to push out to him, a life preserver, rope and a large tree branch,” all to no avail.
Instead, Doyle said, Jean “continued telling officers he was not going back to jail” and he then began swimming farther out into the river toward the center of NJ Transit’s Newark drawbridge, between the Bridge St. bridge (further south) and Rt. 280 (just north of it).
Doyle said Jean was found to be “wanted by at least two other jurisdictions” – Orange for resisting arrest and the Union County Sheriff’s Office for obstruction of a court order.
Officers then reached out to Newark PD and the N.J. State Police Marine Unit for help.
Meanwhile, Jean continued swimming to a bulkhead surrounding the center bridge tower foundation as officers implored him to cooperate with them so he could be extricated from the water.
About 15 minutes before the arrival of the State Police Marine Unit, along with a Newark Fire Department boat, with members of the Newark PD Tactical Response Unit aboard, Jean made his way from the bridge support to a storm outfall drain on the west bank of the river just south of the N.J. Transit bridge.
At this point, Kearns said, the officers lost sight of Jean.
Starting at about 1 p.m., the Clay St. sewer outfall was searched from the river side while Newark PD checked manhole access covers along the drain route from the street. Additionally, a camera on an extension pole was used to try and locate Jean with no results.
As a last resort, police reached out to the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission (PVSC) which sent a crew to insert a camera from street level into the storm drain’s path to search for Jean but again, they came up empty.
The search was suspended at nightfall but was resumed next day, said PVSC Executive Director Greg Tramontozzi, who told The Observer that a PVSC crew “dropped a camera line into a manhole to conduct video surveillance.” Another attempt would be made later in the day at low tide, he said.
Asked to assess the chances of someone surviving an attempt to penetrate through the outfall system, Tramontozzi said an individual would face “an awful lot of hazards in that setting.”
Assuming Jean had opted to walk through the pipe, which, he said, is big enough to accommodate a large man, “he could reach our regulator,” and, further on, an interceptor pipe where he would encounter “an awful lot of flow in our system” which, in turn, “would be very dangerous” due to low oxygen content along with the presence of hydrosulfide and methane gases.
Given those conditions, “I can’t imagine him getting to our [treatment] plant [in Newark] which would be several miles away,” he added.
Still, Tramontozzi said, at the regulator location, there is a ladder that leads to a manhole – whose weight he estimated at between 80 and 120 pounds – which, if he were sufficiently motivated and had enough strength, Jean could conceivably lift and free himself.
However, Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose was less optimistic about Jean’s survival chances in the outfall and suggested that among the potential perils awaiting him were rising water in the system, particularly at high tide.
This operation, Ambrose was quoted as saying last Thursday, “was a rescue effort, but unless [Jean] gets out, and right now, no one has seen him get out, it will be a recovery [effort].”