Woodstock man arrested, charged in murder of Roswell 8-year-old in 1988

James Michael Coates is charged with murder.

Credit: Fulton County Sheriff's Office

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James Michael Coates is charged with murder.

Credit: Fulton County Sheriff's Office

Suspect lived in same apartment complex at the time of child’s death

Crediting advances in technology and the relentless commitment of their colleagues, Roswell police announced an arrest Friday that they expect will close a 33-year-old cold case involving a child’s murder.

James Michael Coates, 56, of Woodstock, was taken into custody Wednesday during a traffic stop as he rode in an Uber, Roswell police Chief James Conroy said during a news conference Friday. Coates is accused in the 1988 murder of 8-year-old Joshua Harmon, who was found dead in the woods near the apartment complex where his family lived in Roswell.

Prior to Coates’ arrest, Roswell police had obtained warrants for him on a litany of charges, including murder, aggravated assault, aggravated sodomy, aggravated child molestation and first-degree cruelty to children.

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Marlene Carlisle, the aunt of Joshua Harmon, speaks on behalf of the family at a news conference Friday.

Credit: Jenn Finch

Marlene Carlisle, the aunt of Joshua Harmon, speaks on behalf of the family at a news conference Friday.

Credit: Jenn Finch

Combined ShapeCaption
Marlene Carlisle, the aunt of Joshua Harmon, speaks on behalf of the family at a news conference Friday.

Credit: Jenn Finch

Credit: Jenn Finch

Coates has twice been convicted of child molestation, among other charges, for crimes that happened in 1990 and 1993, records show. Following his 1993 conviction, he was imprisoned for nearly 20 years, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.

“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,” Marlene Carlisle, Harmon’s aunt, said as she spoke on behalf of the family during Friday’s news conference. Carlisle is the sister of Harmon’s mother, Cherie Harmon, who died in October 2020 at the age of 65, according to her obituary. Joshua was her only child.

“My sister never gave up. Never gave up,” Carlisle said. “She kept going and she made that phone call every few years ... and I know she’s smiling down on everybody here.”

“Thank you all so much,” she said, addressing the Roswell police officers and GBI agents assembled at the news conference. “On behalf of the family again, we love you and we thank you.”

The case began in May 1988, when the child was reported missing by his parents after he did not come home for dinner, Roswell police said. Police searched for him for about 48 hours before his body was found in the woods near the family’s apartment complex on Raintree Way. At the time, Coates was a resident of the same apartment complex, Conroy said.

Though detectives and GBI investigators collected “valuable evidence” at the time, the case went cold. The evidence was reexamined regularly over the years as technology advanced.

In February, Harmon’s body was exhumed, officials said. The following month, Roswell police received funding from Georgia’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which allowed investigators to pay for additional DNA testing on evidence from the original crime scene by a private, independent laboratory, CyberGenetics, Inc.

The results of that additional testing helped investigators link Coates to the killing, Roswell police said. A warrant was then taken out against Coates, who was located during the traffic stop and taken into custody without incident.

“The death of Josh and the fact that his killer remained free for such a long time is unimaginable,” Conroy said. “I hope this arrest brings a sense of closure.”

An officer who formerly worked on the case, Keith Howard, likened the arrest to a milestone life event such as a wedding or the birth of a child.

“It’s very emotional,” said Howard, now a chief deputy with the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s really hard to put into words. This case was about Joshua ... Everyone I spoke to who was involved in this case was passionate about solving it. Cherie was the catalyst for that.”

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Members of Joshua Harmon's family react to the announcement of an arrest in the 8-year-old's murder case.

Credit: Jenn Finch

Members of Joshua Harmon's family react to the announcement of an arrest in the 8-year-old's murder case.

Credit: Jenn Finch

Combined ShapeCaption
Members of Joshua Harmon's family react to the announcement of an arrest in the 8-year-old's murder case.

Credit: Jenn Finch

Credit: Jenn Finch

Coates was booked into the Fulton County Jail, where he remains without bond.

The investigation into Harmon’s death remains open, despite the arrest of Coates, police said. Anyone with further information is asked to contact Roswell police at 770-640-4100 or leave an anonymous tip with Crime Stoppers Greater Atlanta at 404-577-8477.

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Joshua Harmon vanished May 15, 1988, as he played near his apartment complex in Roswell. His body was found two days later.

Credit: Roswell Police Department

Joshua Harmon vanished May 15, 1988, as he played near his apartment complex in Roswell. His body was found two days later.

Credit: Roswell Police Department

Combined ShapeCaption
Joshua Harmon vanished May 15, 1988, as he played near his apartment complex in Roswell. His body was found two days later.

Credit: Roswell Police Department

Credit: Roswell Police Department