A Louisiana boy’s suspicious death has prompted his parents to ask if race slowed police response

The mysterious death of a Black 15-year-old whose body was found in a sugar cane field in rural Louisiana four days after his parents reported him missing to local police has prompted calls for an independent investigation.

Among the things his family wants to know is why an Amber Alert was not issued and why the boy’s face appeared to be mutilated when his body was found.

The body of Quawan “Bobby” Charles was found in a sugar cane field Nov. 3 near the village of Loreauville, about 20 miles from his father’s home in Baldwin. Charles disappeared from the home on Oct. 30. The Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office said it is investigating the “suspicious circumstances” of the teen’s death but has released few details.

A preliminary autopsy report obtained by NBC News lists the cause of death as “likely drowning” and says Charles had “muddy water” in his airways and “hyper inflated lungs.” It also attributes “post-mortem injuries” on his face to “aquatic animal activity” from his being found in water.

But Ronald Haley Jr., a lawyer for Charles’ family, said in an interview Friday that it is improbable the boy could have drowned because the water is shallow where his body was found. The family plans to seek an independent autopsy, Haley said.

The teen’s mother, Roxanne Nelson, had tried to reach her son on his cellphone Oct. 30 because she had planned to take him to get a haircut, Haley said.

After her calls went unanswered, she contacted Charles’ father, Kenneth Jacko, who tried to enter his bedroom, but the door was locked. Jacko was eventually able to access the room but could not find Charles. So he and Nelson went to the Baldwin Police Department, where a report was taken, Haley said.

It is not clear what action local police took after the report was filed. The Baldwin Police Department could not be reached for comment.

In a statement to The Acadiana Advocate newspaper, Baldwin Assistant Chief of Police Samuel Wise III said the department is “not investigating the death of a body found in Loreauville, Iberia Parish.”

“However, the Baldwin Police Department will be investigating reasons why the deceased juvenile was missing from his residence in Baldwin,” Wise wrote in the emailed statement. “Proper protocol was used to report the juvenile as missing and all procedures were followed thru within the Baldwin jurisdiction.”

Charles’ parents are distraught and did not want to be interviewed Friday, Haley said, adding that they had given him permission to speak on their behalf.

The parents said a teenage friend and his mother had picked Charles up around 3 p.m. the day he went missing and taken him to their home in Loreauville, while his father was at a store, Haley said. Charles’ parents said they did not know the family and had not given them permission to take him, Haley said.

The teen’s parents said sheriff’s deputies accompanied them to the home of the friend on Nov. 3 — before his body was found — and that authorities searched the home but did not find anything suspicious, according to Haley.

Katherine Breaux, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said Friday that deputies visited a home in Loreauville but declined to say where.

Breaux declined to comment on whether investigators have interviewed the family or searched their home. She also declined to comment about whether there are any suspects.

Charles’ parents, the Louisiana NAACP and the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter are calling for an independent investigation. Haley said he does not believe the family’s concerns were taken seriously by the Baldwin Police Department and it is worth probing whether race played a factor in their response. They contend the police did not use all their resources to find the teen.

His family has circulated a gruesome photograph of his mutilated face to draw media attention. The photograph calls to mind the image of the corpse of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955.

Louisiana State Police spokesman Lt. Nick Manale said Friday that the agency “was not contacted in reference to the missing individual and is not currently part of the ongoing investigation.”

“We have seen nationwide the collective indifference for the value of a Black life,” Haley said. “That’s something that has been put at the forefront of the national conscience this year starting with the killing of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.”

“So when you talk about this thing called systemic bias or racism in law enforcement,” he added, “it’s not just getting pulled over and beaten. It’s situations like this. It’s a missing child.”