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Convicted Child Molester Charged in Murder of 8-Year-Old Georgia Boy in Decades-Old Cold Case


James Michael Coates, Joshua Harmon

Officials in Roswell, Georgia, have charged a convicted child molester with the 1988 murder of an 8-year-old boy, possibly bringing an end to a decades-old cold case, as well as some closure to the boy’s family.

James Michael Coates, 56, of Woodstock, was taken into custody without incident during a traffic stop on Wednesday, according to police, and has since been charged with the murder of Joshua Harmon.

Joshua’s parents reported him missing on May 15, 1988, after he didn’t return home for dinner. After an extensive 48-hour search, Joshua’s body was found in a wooded area near the apartment where he lived. Despite efforts to find a suspect, the case went cold.

However, investigators regularly revisited the case over the years, re-examining evidence as technology developed, Roswell police say in the press release. With the permission of Joshua’s family, the boy’s body was exhumed, and DNA evidence was found linking Coates to the crime.

“After 33 years, two months and six days, we made an arrest in the murder of Joshua Harmon,” Roswell Police Chief James Conroy said during the press conference on Friday. “To the Harmon family, this is a tragedy no family should endure. The death of Joshua and the fact his killer still remained free for such a long time is unimaginable. I hope that this arrest brings your family a sense of closure.”

Joshua’s aunt Marlene Carlisle was also at the press conference, and spoke on behalf of the family.

“Josh was an amazing young boy who had an uncanny relationship with nature, and with God, so I know where he is and I know he’s at peace,” Carlisle said.

“I want to thank these incredible people who have worked diligently and very hard, and always took anything and everything we had to say to heart and ran with it, and these bulldogs that got through everything and worked for 33 years to solve this for our family, we are forever indebted to all of you. You’re amazing people, and every one of you have big beautiful hearts,” Carlisle said.

Joshua’s mother Cherie Carlisle Harmon, Marlene Carlisle’s sister, passed away in October 2020.

“Cherie Carlisle Harmon age 65 of Lawrenceville, Ga. passed away Thursday October 15, 2020. She was preceded in death by her loving son Joshua Randall Harmon. She was an incredible seamstress who enjoyed being a homemaker, and felt her life’s purpose was her son Joshua, her husband Larry, and taking care of stray kids by encouraging them and leading them down the right path of life,” her obituary says.

Marlene Carlisle said Coates’ arrest is “bittersweet for us.”

“We wish Cherie could be here, but we also feel that she and Josh high-fived, and said we’re going to help, and we’re going to get everybody through this, and helped these ladies and gentlemen come to this conclusion,” she said.

“My sister never gave up, ever gave up,” Carlisle also said. “She kept going, she made that phone call every few years, to the point of probably bothering some people, but she was willing and able to do it. I know she’s smiling down on everybody here today and thanks you all so much. On behalf again of our family, we love you, and we thank you.”

In addition to murder, Coates is also charged with aggravated assault, aggravated child molestation, false imprisonment, cruelty to children, tampering with evidence, and other felonies.

Georgia Department of Corrections records show that Coates was previously convicted of child molestation—just a few years after he allegedly murdered Joshua Harmon.

After his conviction for crimes that he committed in 1990, Coates spent nearly 20 years in prison—beginning in 1993 and ending in 2013. Coates did not appear in a search of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Sex Offender Registry. Law&Crime reached out to GBI for clarification on that.

Watch the Roswell Police Department press conference in full, below.

Joshua Harmon Cold Case Arrest Press Conference

The Roswell Police Department has made an arrest in the 1988 murder of 8-year old Joshua Harmon. James Michael Coates, 56, of Woodstock, was taken into custody July 21st and booked into the Fulton County Jail on multiple charges including Murder. Roswell detectives arrested Coates after DNA evidence collected from the crime scene linked him to the murder.

On May 15th, 1988 Joshua was reported missing by his parents after not returning home for dinner. After extensive searches over the following 48 hours, Joshua’s body was discovered in a wooded area nearby to the Raintree Way apartment where he lived. Roswell detectives, in partnership with the GBI, investigated the case extensively and collected valuable evidence, but the case went cold. Investigators regularly revisited the case over the intervening years in pursuit of justice for Joshua and his family, and evidence was consistently re-examined to keep pace with evolving leads and advancing technology.

In February of 2021, with the permission of his family, Joshua’s body was exhumed in hopes of identifying further evidence. In March, the GA Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) taskforce, a subset of the GA Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC), provided the Roswell Police Department with funding to pursue additional DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene. Recently, investigators received the results of that testing performed by an independent laboratory, CyberGenetics Inc., which linked Coates to the crime. He was taken into custody without incident on a traffic stop the morning of July 21st.

The full list of Coates’ charges are as follows:
-Felony Murder
-Aggravated Assault
-Aggravated Sodomy
-Aggravated Child Molestation
-Enticing a Child for Indecent Purposes
-False Imprisonment
-Cruelty to Children, 1st Degree
-Concealing the Death of Another
-Tampering with Evidence

“This was a tragedy that no family should endure”, said Roswell Police Chief James Conroy. “The death of Josh and the fact that his killer remained free for such a long time is unimaginable. I hope this arrest brings the Harmon family a sense of closure. The many officers, detectives, special agents, attorneys, scientists and retirees who worked this case never gave up hope in bringing Josh’s killer to justice. They are truly heroes, and I thank each one for their dedication and perseverance”.

This arrest would not have come to fruition without the collaborative effort of a number of partner agencies. The Roswell Police Department would like to thank the GBI, the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office, Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office, the CJCC SAKI Task Force, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, San Diego Police Department Forensic Science Laboratory, Bode Technologies, Clements DNA Consulting, and CyberGenetics Inc. for joining us in the tireless pursuit of justice.

While an arrest has been made, this does still remain an active investigation. We would ask anyone with information about this case to contact the Roswell Police Department at 770-640-4100, or provide anonymous information through Crime Stoppers Atlanta at 404-577-TIPS(8477).

Posted by Roswell Police Department on Friday, 23 July 2021

[Images provided by Roswell Police Department]

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