‘We knew she didn’t run away’: Family of slain Gwinnett teen wants change

For nearly seven long months, Susana Morales’ family waited for answers.

The 16-year-old Meadowcreek High School student vanished last July while walking home from a friend’s house. Her family knew something was wrong, but didn’t find closure until last month when a man walking in the woods came across her skeletal remains.

Now the grieving family hopes her disappearance and death will highlight other missing persons cases, particularly those in minority communities.

Credit: Rosana Hughes / Rosana.Hughes@ajc.com

Credit: Rosana Hughes / Rosana.Hughes@ajc.com

“We looked for her and looked for her for six months and three weeks,” Morales’ mother, Maria Bran told reporters at a news conference Thursday morning in Norcross. “And nobody could give us any answers.”

Susana disappeared July 26 after telling her mother she was on her way home. Her decomposed remains were discovered in a wooded area near Dacula in February, more than six months after her family reported her missing.

Miles Bryant, a 22-year-old Doraville police officer who lived nearby, has been arrested on murder, kidnapping and other charges related to the teen’s death. He was quickly fired and remains in jail without bond.

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Jasmine Morales, 19, described her little sister as the baby of the family. Beautiful and talented, Susana was always quick to hop on the piano or sing a song to help liven up the mood. She was bubbly and intelligent, her sister said, and her future looked bright.

“We knew she didn’t run away,” Jasmine Morales said during the news conference. “We have to accept the fact that we’re not going to see her again. No amount of money — no amount of justice can ever bring her back to us.”

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Morales’ family said they hope Susana’s story will motivate police departments across the country to take missing persons cases more seriously and not assume a teenager must have run away if they haven’t been seen.

“Maybe we would have found her little body together in one piece and not the way it was found,” Maria Bran said through tears. “We do not want any other families to go through what we are going through.”

Credit: Gwinnett County Police Department

Credit: Gwinnett County Police Department

The Gwinnett police department has defended its handling of the investigation, saying detectives followed all leads beginning the night Morales was reported missing. The police chief is hosting a town hall meeting Thursday night to address some residents’ concerns, and Morales’ family said they plan to attend.

Bryant, a Berkmar High School graduate who served in the National Guard, could see the Morales family home from his apartment, records show.

Authorities tied the officer to the teen’s slaying after his personal gun was found during a search of the wooded area where Morales’ body was left. He had reported that weapon stolen hours after the teen’s disappearance, Gwinnett police Chief J.D. McClure said.

Bryant was initially fired and charged with concealing Morales’ death and making a false report of a crime. Those charges were later upgraded to include kidnapping and murder.

Bryant was reprimanded on several occasions during his 21-month employment with the Doraville Police Department, but a supervisor wrote in a performance review that Bryant was well-liked by his colleagues and had the potential to be “an exemplary police officer.”

As of Thursday, the exact cause of Morales’ death is still undetermined, according to Gwinnett police. Her bones were sent to an anthropologist for further analysis.

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Morales’ mother said simply knowing what happened has given her some closure, especially since she’ll be able to visit her daughter’s gravesite and bring flowers. But the family said they want investigators to keep digging and find out whether someone else may have also been involved.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

They also said they would like to see more thorough background checks for all new police officers.