MARIETTA, Ga.—A convicted sex offender has been arrested more than 30 years after an 8-year-old boy was found dead in the woods of an Atlanta suburb.
James Michael Coates, 56, faces multiple charges, including murder and aggravated child molestation in the 1988 killing of Joshua Harmon, Roswell police announced Friday. He was taken into custody Wednesday after a traffic stop as he rode in an Uber.
Coates, of Woodstock, was arrested after DNA evidence collected from the crime scene linked him to the killing, police said.
Detectives, police officers, scientists and others who worked the case over the years “never gave up hope in bringing Josh’s killer to justice,” Roswell Police Chief James Conroy said at a news conference.
“This was a tragedy that no family should endure,” Conroy said. “The death of Josh and the fact that his killer remained free for such a long time is unimaginable.”
“When you have something as tragic as the kidnapping and murder of an 8-year-old, that locks into your heart and that’s something you don’t want to give up,” Conroy added.
One of the longtime investigators, former Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Keith Howard, said that “bringing this case together is a miraculous feat.”
“Everyone I’ve met throughout my involvement in this, which was over 20 years, was always passionate about making sure they solved this case,” said Howard, who is now chief deputy with the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office.
Joshua was reported missing by his parents on May 15, 1988, after he didn’t return home for dinner. After several hours of searching, his body was found in a wooded area near the apartment where he lived. Coates lived in the same apartment complex at the time, investigators said.
Police said the case went cold, but they revisited leads over the years, and law enforcement technology improved.
With the permission of his family, police say they exhumed the boy’s body in February 2021 in hopes of finding more evidence. Additional DNA testing was done on evidence from the crime scene, and police say the testing linked Coates to the crime.
Coates has twice been convicted of child molestation for crimes that happened in 1990 and 1993, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. After the 1993 conviction, he spent two decades in prison and was released in August 2013, according to Georgia Department of Corrections records.
Coates remained jailed Friday on the murder charge and other charges that include sodomy, child molestation and enticing a child for indecent purposes. It wasn’t known whether he has an attorney who could be reached for comment on his behalf.
Joshua’s aunt, Marlene Carlisle, became emotional as she turned to investigators at Friday’s news conference and thanked them. They “always took anything and everything we had to say to heart and ran with it,” she said.
“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.
By Jeff Martin