Skip to comments.WRONG SIDE OF THE BORDER ("I didn't do anything wrong!")
Posted on 11/24/2002 9:10:44 AM PST by fight_truth_decay
POHENEGAMOOK, Quebec Michel Jalbert never imagined that his usual excursion to gas up at the cheapest place in town would land him in a Maine prison for five weeks and create an international incident. Even now, after U.S. officials finally released Jalbert on $5,000 bail and as he awaits his trial in U.S. District Court early next year, the spirit of cooperation that forms the social and economic fabric of this Canadian border town remains frayed.
People who once thought they had written permission to cross briefly into Maine to buy gasoline without visiting U.S. Customs now worry about the risk to save 20 cents a gallon. Pohenegamook is a mostly French-speaking community where houses and families straddle the border and logging trucks barrel out of the Maine woods to feed the town's thriving lumber industries. But now its residents are rethinking their habit of comfortable coexistence with their American neighbors. The fallout has even reached the four Mainers who live at the edge of Pohenegamook and count on the town for utility services, snow plowing and trash collection.
Jalbert's arrest and imprisonment made headlines across Canada for weeks and inspired an outpouring of moral and financial support from people in both countries. It raised speculation that he was singled out as an example to all border scofflaws in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Canada on the day of Jalbert's release, calling the ordeal an "an unfortunate incident" and promising future fairness for Canadians who cross the border regularly for gas and other errands. Still, Jalbert's treatment raised questions about the logic and fairness of customs and immigration operations at Maine's northernmost outpost.
The toll on Jalbert has been severe. A part-time woodsman, Jalbert ran up more than $5,000 in telephone bills, legal fees and lost wages while being held in Piscataquis County Jail in Dover-Foxcroft. He suffered depression and anxiety attacks and lost 10 pounds while separated from his common-law wife, Chantail Chouinard, 26, who is five months pregnant, and their 5-year-old daughter, Debbie. There were days, alone in his cell, when he sobbed in despair.
The 32-year-old Jalbert returned home Nov. 14 to his family's cozy rented bungalow set back from busy Route 289. With temperatures in the teens and more than a foot of snow on the ground, his work in the woods is finished until spring. Last Sunday he had his first good night's sleep in more than a month.
"I found it very difficult because I didn't do anything wrong," Jalbert said through an interpreter while sitting on a dark blue leather couch in his living room. "The border patrol officers know we're just going to gas up. They treated me like a criminal. Anybody could have been in my situation. I'm the one who pays for the others."
Jalbert is charged with entering the United States without a customs or immigration inspection, possession of a firearm by an illegal alien and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He faces a maximum sentence of being barred from the United States for up to 10 years and/or up to 10 years in jail, but his attorney hopes Jalbert's sentence will wind up being time served.
Locals and U.S. officials dispute that Jalbert's arrest had anything to do with efforts to increase border security following last year's terrorist attacks. Border patrol reports said agents Christopher Cantrell and Pedro Hernandez were simply doing their jobs on Oct. 11, when they arrested Jalbert as he drove away from Ouellet's Gaz Bar. Opened in 1983, the gas station is located about 200 feet across the U.S. border in Estcourt Station, Maine.
U.S. officials said Jalbert had three strikes that led to his arrest. Before buying gas, he failed to stop for an inspection at the U.S. Customs Station, situated about 1,000 feet farther down the road that runs along the Canadian frontier. Then Cantrell and Hernandez found a 20-gauge shotgun in Jalbert's old green Jeep and learned that Jalbert had a criminal record. Jalbert was found guilty of breaking and entering and receiving stolen goods when he was 18 years old.
Jalbert and other locals said Cantrell is an overeager, uncompromising agent who is unfamiliar with the way things have been done in this area of the border for decades. They said Cantrell arrested another Pohenegamook man, Dany Ouellet, on Aug. 8 for failing to report to U.S. Customs before buying gas. They said Ouellet, who lives just down the road from the gas station, was handcuffed and hauled off, leaving his wife and child crying hysterically in their car. Ouellet was held for 10 days before he was released and barred from entering the United States for five years.
"Cantrell was new and he doesn't know the game around here," said Guy Leblanc, a Pohenegamook town councilor and the customs officer at the Canadian Customs Station, which is located one house away from the gas station.
Border Patrol officials back their agents and dispute that Cantrell overreached his authority. "It's an agent doing his job," said Monte Bennett, assistant chief patrol agent at U.S. Border Patrol district headquarters in Houlton. "Our agents were just on patrol. Better technology and improved communication is making enforcement easier."
Jalbert's arrest has had a chilling effect on Pohenegamook, especially among patrons of Ouellet's Gaz Bar and people who live near the border.
At the U.S. Customs Station last week in Estcourt Station, cars and trucks occasionally rolled down Frontier Road, checked in at the station and headed back into Canada to buy gas. Others drove in from Route 289 and headed straight down the driveway to the pumps. Leblanc said some residents have stopped by the Canadian Customs Station to pick up forms to apply for a pardon for criminal convictions so they may enter the United States legally.
Many here think Jalbert's arrest was unnecessary and all the residual hubbub is foolish. Several houses along Frontier Road sit directly on the borderline, reflecting a time before 1910 when the boundary was less clear. Some people pay taxes to both countries. Most feel the leeway granted in the past was justified.
"It's difficult for us who have lived by the boundary all these years," Renette Dion, 61, said through an interpreter. She has lived in her spick-and-span home on Frontier Road since 1969. Her backyard garden is in Maine. She remembers when the U.S. Customs Station was located beside her house, near the gas station's driveway, before it was moved to the present location in the 1970s. She remembers having U.S. Customs agents over for dinner and baby-sitting their children.
"It's stupid," Dion said of the recent crackdown. "To go to my garden, I'd have to go to Customs, and then what do I do when it's closed? It's ridiculous to put in new laws that make life difficult."
Germaine Levesque, 75, lives next to the Canadian Customs Station. The boundary line runs through the kitchen of the home where she and her husband, Edmond, raised 11 children. The boundary is marked on the house's exterior, a black line painted on white shingles.
A few houses down, Denis Desjardins, 45, has a tempered opinion of Jalbert's situation. The boundary line runs right through the center of his home. His kitchen and living room are in Canada. His bathroom and two bedrooms are in the United States.
"Mr. Jalbert is not all correct because he has a criminal record," said Desjardins, an unemployed electrician. "But it went too far. It was not his intention to do anything wrong on the American side."
Philip Dumond, 71, is one of four Mainers who live in Estcourt Station, at the edge of Pohenegamook. A retired Maine game warden, Dumond has lived at the eastern end of Frontier Road for 45 years. Since Jalbert's ordeal, Dumond has had trouble getting town agencies to pick up his trash or plow the last 300 feet of road to his house, as they always have in the past. Canadian officials installed surveillance cameras last summer to watch the end of the road where a general store located on the Maine side of the border was selling U.S. cigarettes illegally. Dumond said U.S. officials recently installed cameras and a gate near the U.S. Customs Station as well.
Pohenegamook officials have promised Dumond that police and fire trucks will come if he calls, but he's not so sure, living on the fringe of a 100-acre no man's land at the very tip of northern Maine.
"Indirectly, I got hurt by this," Dumond said. "Border Patrol had a right to do what they did, but they should have used their heads. The bottom line is we're lacking communication between Canada and the U.S."
Pohenegamook officials said they are concerned about the liability of providing public services in Maine and the long-term effect of Jalbert's experience on local residents. They hope to get some answers and work out a solution when they meet with Canadian and U.S. customs and immigration officials in a closed-door session on Dec. 4.
"We just want to know what will happen in the future so we can advise people living on the border," said Guy Leblanc, the town councilor and Canadian Customs officer. "We want to live in peace."
Jalbert said he regrets violating the law, but he said he wasn't alone. He didn't drive out of his way to the U.S. Customs Station that Friday afternoon because nobody in Pohenegamook ever did, thanks to special dispensation provided in a 12-year-old letter from then-Customs Director Emery Ingalls in Portland to gas station owner Gaston Ouellet. Typewritten in June 1990, the letter said townspeople could continue the practice of "no reporting if the customers are just planning to buy gas and return to Canada."
Still, it wouldn't have done Jalbert much good if he had reported the day he was arrested, because the customs station is open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily and he bought gas shortly before 3 p.m.
Jalbert said border patrol agents stopped him because they saw a blaze orange hunting vest on the seat beside him. He said he kept the shotgun in his truck during the hunting season in case he saw partridge while working in the woods. Because hunting is popular in Jalbert's rural community, he figures there were several other hunters in line for gas that day who likely had shotguns or rifles in their vehicles.
As for his criminal record, Jalbert attributes the 14-year-old charges to youthful indiscretion. He said an acquaintance gave him a Canadian flag, a power drill and a tool box as payment for a $20 loan. He said he was charged with the crimes after the acquaintance was arrested for breaking into a local mechanic's garage and implicated Jalbert. Jalbert said he returned the items, was fined $200 and served no jail time.
Jalbert's American attorney, Jon Haddow of Bangor, has filed a motion to have the U.S. charges dismissed. In particular, Haddow believes it's outrageous that Jalbert was expected to get permission to enter the United States, given the letter from the former customs director.
"This was expressly permitted by the U.S. government," Haddow said. "This whole thing is petty. It's way overboard, and it's misdirected."
James Michie, spokesman for U.S. Customs in Washington, D.C., said the letter and its look-the-other-way policy are under review. For now, he said, residents of Pohenegamook should follow the advice of the signs and check in with U.S. Customs officers before buying gas.
What isn't clear is whether Ouellet's Gaz Bar will survive the turmoil. Leblanc said business at the station dropped by about 50 percent after Jalbert's arrest, but it has improved since Jalbert returned home. Leblanc said he hopes Ouellet's remains open because it helps keep prices down at the five gas stations within Pohenegamook. While they charge about 20 cents a gallon more than Ouellet's, gas stations throughout the rest of Quebec usually charge about 50 cents a gallon more.
Despite the potential cost savings, Jalbert no longer buys gas at Ouellet's. He's collecting unemployment benefits now that his seasonal work is over, and his wife is on pregnancy leave from a local sawmill. So Jalbert is thankful for the financial support they have received, especially with mounting legal bills from his American and Canadian attorneys. Radio listeners in Ottawa raised $5,000. A group in Pohenegamook hosted a benefit pig roast Saturday. And another group in his wife's hometown is hosting a benefit brunch today. Letters and checks have come from all over Canada and the United States.
"I was surprised to see the people in the U.S. who understand the situation and I thank them very much," Jalbert said. "It was really heartwarming."
Looking ahead, Jalbert worries about the outcome of his case. He hopes U.S. officials decide to drop the charges against him. If not, he hopes they settle on a fair fine. Above all, he believes U.S. and Canadian officials must work out the kinks in their oversight of a border that defines the lifestyle of an entire town.
"They need to rectify this problem," Jalbert said. "It just doesn't make sense."
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:
Arrest proves guilt--ah, I see. Thanks for clearing that up.
With the Visa Express scheme for your Saudi "friends", and considering that none of the 9/11 hijackers came from Canada but slipped through YOUR immigration policy, it should be us sealing the border.
Oh I agree. I was just being a smart@$$.