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Georgia police make arrest in 1988 murder of 8-year-old Joshua Harmon

<i>Roswell Police Department</i><br/>Joshua Harmon is seen in this undated photo.
Roswell Police
Roswell Police Department
Joshua Harmon is seen in this undated photo.

By Melissa Alonso and Dakin Andone, CNN

Georgia police have arrested and charged a man with the 1988 murder of 8-year-old Joshua Harmon after a review of DNA evidence linked him to the crime, according to the Roswell Police Department.

James Michael Coates, 56, faces numerous charges, police said Friday, including felony murder, aggravated assault, aggravated child molestation, concealing the death of another and tampering with evidence, among others.

CNN reached out to the public defender’s office and a previous attorney for Coates Saturday morning to give them the opportunity to comment on his behalf but has not gotten a response.

“The death of Josh and the fact that his killer remained free for such a long time is unimaginable,” Roswell Police Chief James Conroy said in a news release Friday. “I hope this arrest brings the Harmon family a sense of closure.”

Joshua’s parents reported him missing 33 years ago in May 1988 when he did not return home for dinner, police said Friday. His body was discovered in a wooded area near his apartment building in Roswell, some 20 miles north of Atlanta, after a 48-hour search.

Despite investigative efforts by local police and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation — including the collection of “valuable evidence” — the case eventually went cold, police said.

“Investigators regularly revisited the case over the intervening years in pursuit of justice for Joshua and his family,” police said in a statement, “and evidence was consistently re-examined to keep pace with evolving leads and advancing technology.”

Joshua’s body was exhumed in February 2021 in hopes of finding new evidence, police said. The following month, the Roswell Police Department was granted funding by the Georgia Sexual Assault Kit Initiative task force to “pursue additional DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene.”

Police did not detail the nature of the evidence but said the results of DNA testing connected Coates to Joshua’s murder. Coates was taken into custody Wednesday, July 21, after police initiated a traffic stop while he was riding in an Uber, Conroy confirmed during a news conference on Friday.

Georgia corrections records show Coates was previously convicted on child molestation charges in 1993 for a separate incident.

Speaking at Friday’s news conference on behalf of the family, Joshua’s aunt, Marlene Carlisle, thanked law enforcement for their dedication to solving the case, saying it was “bittersweet” for the family.

“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,” 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.

Joshua’s mother, Cherie Carlisle Harmon, passed away last October.

“And my sister never gave up,” Carlisle said, adding, “I know she’s smiling down on everybody here today and thanks you all so much.”

The case remains under investigation, and part of that investigation will involve ensuring Coates did not victimize any other children, Conroy said. Anyone with additional information is asked to contact Roswell police.

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