Woman detained getting off cruise ship at Port Everglades for crime she didn’t commit

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A Texas tourist who took a cruise from Port Everglades returned, only to be arrested at the port on a felony child endangerment charge. She spent three nights in the Broward County Jail, but it turns out law enforcement officials detained the wrong person.

“I just don’t understand how something like this can happen,” Jennifer Heath Box, 48, of Houston told Local 10 News.

Heath Box has never been arrested before.

“The whole time I was like, ‘this is not happening,’” she said. “The strip search, the humiliation, the shackles, the prison uniform, being issued blankets.”

Heath Box spent three nights inside the Broward County Jail, including Christmas Day last year.

She said she missed saying goodbye to her eldest son who deployed on a three-year military mission while she sat behind bars for a crime she never committed.

Heath Box and her entire family spent a week on board the Harmony of the Seas.

It was her first cruise and they were celebrating the fact that her brother was cancer free.

When the ship docked at Port Everglades, Heath Box scanned her identification as she disembarked the ship.

“And it automatically came up with a warning,” she said. “At that point, security surrounded me along with the police, asked me if I was Jennifer Heath and asked me to remove my jewelry.”

Heath Box said she was told there was an active warrant for her arrest out of Houston.

“I said, ‘What am I being arrested for?’” Heath Box said. “That’s whenever they said ‘child endangerment.’ They escorted me off the ship in front of everyone.”

Heath Box claims there were plenty of signs that authorities detained the wrong person.

She says the person described in the warrant was not her, which should have raised a red flag.

She said she pleaded with the arresting officer, Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputy Peter Peraza.

If the name sounds familiar, Peraza is the deputy who was reinstated after being acquitted of manslaughter after shooting a man who had an air rifle in 2013.

Peraza was reinstated as a deputy and now works at the port.

The warrant clearly states the child endangerment charge involved a 1-year-old and 3-year-old, and the Jennifer Heath on the warrant had a date of birth of April 7, 1997, meaning the woman would have been 26.

“I’m 49 years old — huge age difference,” Heath Box said. “My oldest is 30 and the person the warrant was for was born in ‘97. Physically impossible.”

“I don’t have children under the age of 5,” she added. “All they kept saying (was) ‘look at the picture.’”

At intake inside the Broward County Jail, Heath Box claims a detention deputy raised a red flag.

“She came out and she handed the DL to Peter and she said, ‘We ran her DL and we don’t have anything in the system for her,’” Heath Box said. “Peter came back and said, ‘No. It is her. Let me show you. I can prove to you it is her. I will show you the picture.’ Again, that was all he was focused on.’”

Heath Box was booked and placed on a hold for Houston, and sat in jail Dec. 24, 25 and 26 of last year.

“I had a police officer come to my cell on the 26th (and say,) ‘I apologize’ and tell me, ‘We know you’re not the Jennifer Heath, we know you have been incarcerated wrongly. I said, ‘Does this mean I get released?’ I was told ‘no.’

In a statement to Local 10 News, BSO said they sympathize with the situation and were alerted to the warrant by Customs and Border Protection.

They said they reached out to authorities in Houston who confirmed the warrant, and on Dec. 26, BSO says they asked authorities in Harris County, Texas, for fingerprints to confirm they had the right person.

Hours later, they were told there were no prints because Heath Box had never been arrested before.

A BSO spokesperson says on Dec. 27, a message was sent saying, ‘Release our hold on the above named subject as soon as possible’ with no further explanation.

“Houston could have made the mistake by putting the wrong picture -- there were so many differences. It didn’t have to get taken that far,” Heath Box said.

The Sheriff’s Office says Peraza followed the appropriate protocols and that his actions were reviewed by the internal affairs division, and no employee misconduct was found.

The matter is now closed.

“When I was getting released I was told, ‘We are sorry it happened,’” Heath Box said. “I am spending my funds trying to clear my name and so far I have spent $10,000 of my savings trying to clear my name.”

“I’m terrified this can happen again,” Heath Box said.

Read the arrest warrant below:

About the Author:

Jeff Weinsier joined Local 10 News in September 1994. He is currently an investigative reporter for Local 10. He is also responsible for the very popular Dirty Dining segments.