Family of teen killed in Atlanta elevator collapse launches probe, attorneys say

JauMarcus McFarland's stepfather, James Boyce (left), and mother Jessica Moore said they are devastated following the teenager's death.

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS / ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

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JauMarcus McFarland's stepfather, James Boyce (left), and mother Jessica Moore said they are devastated following the teenager's death.

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS / ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

The family of an 18-year-old athlete who died in an elevator collapse at a Midtown apartment building has opened a formal investigation to try to figure out what happened leading up to their son losing his life.

In a news conference Tuesday morning, attorneys representing the family of JauMarcus McFarland said they are looking into the fatal incident to determine if there are grounds for a lawsuit and intend to hold “every entity responsible for that accountable.”

“This family obviously deserves answers and certainly they deserve justice if there is wrongdoing,” Cochran Firm attorney Sam Starks said. “And it certainly appears that JauMarcus’ death was unnecessary and preventable.”

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JauMarcus McFarland

Credit: GoFundMe

JauMarcus McFarland

Credit: GoFundMe

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JauMarcus McFarland

Credit: GoFundMe

Credit: GoFundMe

The investigation centers on the owners and managers of the 444 Highland Avenue apartment complex in Midtown, Starks said. The investigation will also focus on Champion Prep Academy — the college preparatory program where McFarland was enrolled that uses the Highland Avenue complex as housing for its students.

“We certainly believe they had a duty and responsibility to provide for the care and supervision of these boys and we have some serious questions about that,” Starks said.

The apartment complex said Tuesday it is aware of the family’s investigation, but declined to comment further on the claims. Champion Prep Academy was not able to be reached for comment.

McFarland, 18, had arrived at Champion Prep at the beginning of August with the hope of improving his grades and becoming eligible to join a college football program. The teen graduated from high school in May and moved from his hometown of Maryland Heights, Missouri, to “better himself,” his family’s attorneys said.

“He had a desire and a dream to go to college and to play college football,” attorney Shean Williams of the Cochran Firm said. “He came to Atlanta to fulfill that dream. Unfortunately, what JauMarcus and his family got was a nightmare.”

McFarland and several of his teammates were inside an elevator at the apartment complex when it malfunctioned Sept. 1, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported. The others made it out, but McFarland became trapped.

He was lodged between the elevator and the floor when first responders arrived on the scene, according to an Atlanta police report obtained by the AJC.

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“Mr. McFarland’s upper body was between the third floor and the elevator,” the police report said. A 911 caller said his feet were hanging from the top of the elevator, visible from the second floor. Fire crews worked for an hour to free McFarland. As they tried to extricate him, they noted he had a faint pulse “but was not alert,” officials said. McFarland was taken to Atlanta Medical Center, where he died.

McFarland’s mother, Jessica Moore, said she is “overwhelmed” by the recent events. His stepfather, James Boyce, said he “just can’t comprehend it.”

“I liked to refer to him as a gentle bear,” Boyce said. “Because he’s a big, old guy and he looks intimidating, but really he’s very gentle underneath. Everybody was proud of him.”

The couple, who drove from Missouri to claim McFarland’s body, said they have not been permitted to see their child. Boyce said he wants clear answers about what happened.

A spokesman for Safety Fire Commissioner John F. King confirmed inspectors are investigating to determine the cause of the collapse. The building’s property manager, Nathan Phillips, previously said it appeared to be a “domino effect of events leading to the unfortunate death of this young man.”

“The state inspectors will release their findings in due course, so it would be inappropriate for us to discuss full details until that report is complete,” the property manager said in a statement. “What we can say is the weight capacity of the elevator was 3,000 lbs. — but the 16 young athletes who were inside the elevator when this occurred pushed that limit to nearly 4,000 lbs.”

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Attorney Shean Williams (left) said the elevator that collapsed on 18-year-old JauMarcus McFarland, killing him, was operating illegally.

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS / ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

Attorney Shean Williams (left) said the elevator that collapsed on 18-year-old JauMarcus McFarland, killing him, was operating illegally.

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS / ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

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Attorney Shean Williams (left) said the elevator that collapsed on 18-year-old JauMarcus McFarland, killing him, was operating illegally.

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS / ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS / ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

On Tuesday, Williams pushed back against the contention that the weight limit was a factor in McFarland’s death, saying there were not 16 people inside as the apartment complex claimed. He also said the complex had a long history of problems, “including maintenance issues specifically related to the elevator in question.”

“Prior to the death of JauMarcus, this apartment complex — these owners, these managers — were fully aware of numerous complaints and problems, including failed inspections and malfunctions of that elevator,” he said.

Williams also said the elevator should have been out of commission “pursuant to Georgia law.”

“You cannot operate an elevator without a proper license. That license had not been properly issued because there had not been a state inspection as required by Georgia law,” he said.

A photo from one of the building’s residents showed a placard inside the elevator stating that it was last inspected in August 2019 and was due for an inspection in August 2020.

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A photo from inside the elevator shows that it had not been inspected since August 2019.

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

A photo from inside the elevator shows that it had not been inspected since August 2019.

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

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A photo from inside the elevator shows that it had not been inspected since August 2019.

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

In a previous statement, Phillips said the elevator had passed an inspection in 2019 and was not due for its next five-year inspection until 2024. In response to an email from the AJC, the Safety Fire Commissioner’s Office said Georgia law “requires elevators to be inspected on an annual basis.”

“It is the building owner’s and the property manager’s responsibility to alert our office that a certification has expired so a current inspection can take place,” a spokesman for the fire commissioner said. “An elevator should be inspected before the expiration date on the placard.”

Williams said there is “no dispute” that it was “an illegal operating elevator.”

“And they had the audacity to blame it on JauMarcus and these other students, saying there was too many people on the elevator,” Williams said. “So let me get the record straight. There was not 16 people on the elevator as their management claims. That elevator did not have more than 3,000-pound people, excessive weight.”

The Cochran Firm did not specify how many people are believed to have been on the elevator, but said the number of individuals inside “should not have caused this elevator to break or crash unless it was not properly maintained.” Williams added that the elevator had failed an inspection in 2015 and that complaints had been filed as recently as two days before McFarland’s death.

“With these prior incidents and issues at that apartment with these elevators, the question wasn’t: ‘Was it going to happen?’ The unfortunate question was when it was going to happen and who was it going to happen to,” Williams said.

As of Tuesday, no lawsuit had been filed in the case. Williams said his firm is awaiting more information about the formal cause of McFarland’s death.

“This family gave their young man and entrusted his life, his future, his dreams to a bunch of adults that did not do what they were supposed to do,” Williams said.

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