Arrest made in 1988 killing of 8-year-old Roswell boy

ROSWELL — The mystery surrounding the disappearance and death of an 8-year-old boy in Roswell 33 years ago has been solved using DNA evidence, according to the Roswell Police Department.

Police have arrested 56-year-old James Michael Coates, of Woodstock, for the 1988 slaying of 8-year old Joshua Harmon. Coates was taken into custody July 21 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. Police say Coates lived in the same apartment complex as Joshua and his family.

Arrest made in 1988 killing of 8-year-old Roswell boy

The Case: On Sunday, May 15, 1988, 8-year-old, Joshua Harmon was reported missing to the Roswell Police Department by his mother. At the time of his murder, Joshua’s family lived in an apartment complex called “Roundtree Apartments.” Today, that apartment complex is known as “River Crossing at Roswell”. 

Joshua regularly played outside in the area of his apartment building and the other buildings in the immediate vicinity. He searched for turtles around the lake in the complex and played in the “fort” in the woods behind his building. 

On May 15, Joshua had been playing outside — both with friends and alone — all day. Joshua’s mother recalls that he was in and out of the apartment throughout the day. When Joshua’s mother started making dinner she asked her husband, Joshua’s stepfather, to let Joshua know to stay close to home. When Joshua’s stepfather could not find him, Joshua’s mother called the Roswell Police.

A neighbor informed the family that Joshua had stopped by their residence at about 7 p.m. to ask if his child, Joshua’s friend, could come outside to play. The family was spending time together and eating dinner so the boy could not come outside. Joshua told the neighbor that he was going to be waiting for the neighbor boy in the woods at the fort where the children commonly played together. This is the last reported sighting of Joshua alive.

After extensive searches over the next nearly 48 hours, Joshua Harmon’s lifeless body was located in the woods of the apartment complex on Tuesday, May 17, 1988. Joshua was beaten and strangled to death. Joshua was buried under loose dirt and pine straw. Logs were placed on top of his body to conceal him from immediate discovery.

Cold Case Reopened: 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 taskforce, a subset of the GA Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, 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 during a morning traffic stop.

The Charges: The full list of Coates’ charges are as follows:

  • Murder
  • 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.”

While an arrest has been made, this does still remain an active investigation. The police are asking 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).

Reminder: Crime articles contain only charges and information from police reports. Suspects and defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

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