Guershon Cherilien ’01, MS ’03 brings a profoundly personal passion to his work as a homicide detective. “I do what I do because I can make the phone call my family never received.”
Cherilien is referring to being able to call the family members of a murder victim to tell them the perpetrator is in custody. Cherilien knows, from painful first-hand experience, “It doesn’t bring their loved one back, but it does bring closure. And that is very important.”
Cherilien was 15 when his father, a pastor and owner of a cab company, was murdered. “My father was killed on October 10, 1994, and his killer has never been apprehended. On that Monday night, we received a phone call that dad had been shot. We quickly responded to the hospital and were at his bedside when he was pronounced deceased. It was a random act of violence, and we still have no answers. That definitely inspired me to pursue a career in criminal justice. In fact, one of my brothers is also a homicide detective, and he works in the very same office that handled our father’s murder case.”
After taking time off to recover from the shock and trauma, Cherilien, the fourth of five children, finished high school in Elizabeth, NJ, and was recruited as a football player by AIC. He went on to make the dean’s list, become a member of the Alanai Honor Society, a Junior Achievement award winner, a McGown Award for Excellence recipient, a Criminal Justice Department award winner, and a member of the Criminal Justice Honor Society. In 2001, he graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and sociology, and in 2003, graduated again with his master’s degree in criminal justice.
~ Guershon Cherilien ’01, MS ’03
“I enjoyed playing football at AIC and being a resident assistant, and later assistant resident director at then Street Hall,” said Cherilien, “I also appreciated the small classes where professors actually knew my name. That would not have been the case at a larger university. Professor Jill McCarthy Payne in the criminal justice program really stood out because she empowered me so much as a freshman to go on to do great things in this field.”
Cherilien began his career as a clinician working with youth before becoming a senior probation officer, an in-court detective, and finally a homicide detective with the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office Homicide Task Force in Jersey City, New Jersey. In 2017, Cherilien made the news for saving the life of a pregnant woman and her unborn child just moments before her vehicle became engulfed in flames. “I was on my way home from church,” said Cherilien, “and this car was driving in front of me when I saw flames coming out from underneath the vehicle.” The driver, not realizing the seriousness of the situation—or that the locks on the doors would soon malfunction—knew she was having some car trouble, but admitted that she would have sat in her car on the side of the road calling for assistance until it was too late to escape if Detective Cherilien had not been there to immediately move her to safety.
Cherilien is characteristically humble about the event and sees nothing especially heroic about his actions. As a man of deep faith, he sees the hand of a higher power at work and is simply grateful that he was there to intervene.
Intervening, in one way or another, is integral to Cherilien’s work in the world. Like any homicide detective, he spends the lion’s share of his day immersed in the nitty gritty details, the essential tasks of gathering evidence, reviewing hours of surveillance footage, combing through voluminous phone records, interviewing witnesses, and locating suspects. But Cherilien considers the work he does outside of the homicide squad room to be equally essential. “I speak regularly at local high schools here in New Jersey and give presentations about social media issues and cyber bullying. Education is such a huge factor. It’s almost magical how the more education you get, the less likely it is you’ll be involved in a crime. Just graduating high school is correlated with less likelihood of engaging in criminal activity. Teachers are so important. A teacher can instill something in a child that they’re not getting at home. I jump at the opportunity to speak to high school students.”
Obviously, the nature and demands of Cherilien’s work require a way to soothe the soul and refresh the spirit, a way to counterbalance the darkness and intensity of his profession. For Cherilien, that blessed escape has always been found in music. He plays bass and acoustic guitar, as well as piano, and his favorite genres are Gospel, R&B and Blues. “My father made me take music lessons when I was growing up, and I’ve been a church musician for the past 20 years. You’ve got to do things to take your mind off the work. You can’t keep it all internalized. Everyone has their getaway, and mine is music. I play music every Sunday morning.”
Cherilien has the charisma and quietly confident presence of a man who, in a different world, with a different past—a past that didn’t include the tragic death of his father—might have taken a different path, might have become a successful and popular musician. But Cherilien is faithful to his calling as a detective. “We deal with the worst of the worst, people who have taken a life and are trying to avoid going to jail for a long time. I’m not scared, but your antenna is up—you’re always aware. But the reason I do this is because of that phone call. I do it to make the phone call we never got.”
By Ellen Dooley :: photos by Jorg Meyer