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Roswell Police detectives reflect on arrest in oldest unsolved homicide

Detective Zack Kowalske, Roswell Police Department

Zack Kowalske, with the Roswell Police Department, has been the lead detective in the Joshua Harmon case over the past year, a murder that has gone unsolved for more than three decades.

ROSWELL, Ga. — After 33 years, two months and six days, Roswell police arrested the man they believe murdered 8-year-old Joshua Harmon, whose body was found in a wooded area 100 yards from the apartment complex where he lived.

It was the department’s oldest unsolved homicide. Master Police Officer Jennifer Bennett led the investigation for about four years. As an investigator of crimes against children, she knew the case would bring challenges, but she said she was determined to see it through.

“This case had a profound impact on the police department,” Bennett said. “That any homicide, and especially a child homicide, would be unsolved for so long is incredibly frustrating. Some of us have grown up knowing of this case and to now have children of our own, it is distressing to know that there is a family that for 33 years has had few answers with regards to the death of their child.”

During a traffic stop July 21, officers arrested 56-year-old James Michael Coates from the back of an Uber and booked him into the Fulton County Jail. In June, detectives received lab results from DNA evidence collected from the scene which linked him to the murder, and they were able to secure warrants for his arrest.

Coates is charged with seven counts of murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, aggravated sodomy, aggravated child molestation, enticing a child for indecent purposes, false imprisonment, cruelty to children in the first degree, concealing the death of another and tampering with evidence.

Police make arrest in 33-year-old cold case murder of Roswell boy

Coates previously served a 20-year prison sentence for a child molestation case that occurred in 1990.

Roswell Police Chief James Conroy said in a press conference he hoped the most recent arrest offered a sense of closure to Joshua’s family.

“I only wish Josh’s mother Cherie could be here today, but what I do know is that she is with Joshua and they are looking down on us and they are happy with these developments,” Conroy said.

Cherie passed away Oct. 15, 2020, at the age of 65. She reported Joshua missing Sunday, May 15, 1988, when he didn’t return home for dinner. In an online memorial, Cherie said Joshua had been playing outside that day and had gone to wait for his friend to finish dinner before he disappeared. Police and volunteers discovered his body two days later.

“Evidence found at the scene indicated the juvenile was a victim of homicide,” the 1988 police report states.

Although the case went cold, few ever forgot Joshua. Bennett, who was often in touch with Cherie, said she thinks she would have been excited that Coates was arrested, but it would have been tempered awaiting a conviction.

“Cherie was a lovely person who had experienced frustration within her life that few can imagine,” Bennett said. “It would break my heart to give her an update with no progress. But being the resilient woman that she was, she would take it in stride and provided encouragement for the investigation to continue.”

Detective Zack Kowalske said Bennett was “truly the driving investigative force” of the contemporary investigation. He took over as the lead detective on the case 18 months ago. By that time, he said, the case had exhausted most of its leads other than the DNA evidence.

“However,” Kowalske said, “I have been involved with the case since 2014 when a new team was tasked to the case. … I have always been focused on the forensic side of it. My first memories of the case were utilizing the original crime scene photographs from 1988 to locate the original crime scene within the woods.”

Roswell detectives, in partnership with the GBI, routinely re-examined the evidence to keep pace with evolving leads and advancing technology. Their breakthrough came in February, when, with the permission of Joshua’s family, his body was exhumed in hopes of identifying further evidence.

In March, the Georgia Sexual Assault Kit Initiative taskforce, a subset of the Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, provided Roswell Police with funding to pursue additional DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene.

Results from that testing, performed by an independent laboratory, CyberGenetics Inc., linked Coates to the crime. Kowalske said the lab results gave him a sense of confirmation.

“To have an answer based out of science in this case reaffirmed why I am passionate about utilizing the disciplines of the forensic sciences to bring truth and justice to cases,” Kowalske said.

Kowalske and Bennett began their careers with the Roswell Police Department. Since joining in 2009, Kowalske has spent most of his career within the Crime Scene Investigations Unit. Bennett has been with the department for 18 years.

When the murder occurred, Conroy was in college. Since then, he’s worked a 30-year career, retired as chief of police in DeKalb County and joined the Roswell Police Department. He said 85% of the department had not even been born when Joshua was murdered.

“This shows you that police officers are not going to stop,” Conroy said. “We will continue until justice is done.”

Police spokesman Tim Lupo said the Roswell Police Department has seven additional open cold cases. Six are homicides and one is a missing person’s case.

Joshua’s case remains an active investigation. Anyone with information is asked to contact the Roswell Police Department at 770-640-4100, or provide anonymous information through Crime Stoppers Atlanta at 404-577-TIPS (8477).

Reach Chamian Cruz at 770-847-8079 or Follow her on Twitter @xchamian.