Update: On Tuesday, police charged Janet Irvin for her role in 15-year-old Quawan Charles's disappearance and death. Irvin reportedly picked up Charles against his parents' knowledge sometime before he disappeared. According to Louisiana Sheriff Thomas S. Romero, the police department feel that they've “put together an extremely strong case against Mrs. Irvin.” Irvin is currently faces charges for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and failure to report a missing child.
This story was originally published on November 17, 2020.
Three days after his family reported him missing to local police, 15-year-old Quawan “Bobby” Charles was found dead in a sugar cane field 25 miles from home in Baldwin, Louisiana. His death has been ruled a homicide, but according to a preliminary autopsy, the Black teenager in a rural town was first reported as drowning. Then, photos of Quawan's autopsy revealed that his face was severely disfigured, and suspicious circumstances around his disappearance — along with the police's failure to take immediate account and investigate the case — have led to accusations of foul play in what could be a racially-motivated attack.
“It appears that something hateful happened to Bobby,” Ron Haley, the family’s lawyer, said in an interview. “Whether this was an intentional act or grossly negligent indifference for human life, it’s still horrible.”
Quawan's initial disappearance paints a heartbreaking picture of his family's quest to find him. On October 30, Quawan disappeared from his father’s house sometime before 3:00 p.m. His mother had planned to pick him up that afternoon, but he didn’t answer his phone. When he hadn’t responded by 7:00 p.m., his parents called the Baldwin Police Department. They claim the police brushed off their concerns, speculating that he was at a football game. Police insist that “all procedures were followed;” however, they didn’t issue an Amber Alert or immediately go out and look for Quawan.
Frustrated by the lack of action, Quawan’s parents took matters into their own hands and learned that their son had been picked up from his father’s house — without their knowledge or permission — sometime before 3:00 p.m. by a woman named Janet Irvin and her 17-year-old son. Quawan's parents did not know the Irvins, and only later found out that he was with them that afternoon.
It wasn't until November 3, the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office got involved in the investigation. By 6:00 p.m. that evening, Quawan’s body was found near Loreauville, a rural community not far from the Irvins’ home after investigators sent a signal to his cellphone. But at this point, his family had been searching for him for days, and knowledge that he was taken by a white family without their consent left a lot of questions in what police later dismissed as a case of accidental drowning.
"It shouldn't be incumbent upon the family to solve the crime of Quawan Charles," said Chase Trichell, another attorney representing the Charles family.
According to the Washington Post, the coroner’s office said Quawan likely drowned and had no injuries before his death. They theorized that the wounds on his face happened after his death and likely came from aquatic animals, though a toxicology report has not yet been released. His death is reported as a homicide, but in a statement released Saturday, Iberia Parish Sheriff Tommy Romero said: “any case involving someone found deceased in this manner” is treated as a homicide investigation.
Given the nature of his physical deterioration, his family sought for more answers. When they saw photos of Quawan from the coroner’s office the night he was found, they likened his appearance and gruesome disfigurement to that of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy who was murdered in a racially motivated killing in 1955. “Those bodies of water barely go up to your knees,” Haley said of the area where Quawan’s body was found. “And so this isn’t that Quawan tried to go for a swim.” The Iberia Parish Sheriff Department reportedly has a video of Quawan in the area before his death indicating that the teen was alone at least briefly before and after he is seen in the recording.
What's more, though, is that the Charles family attorneys believe Irvin and her son have since packed up and left their home. Investigators said they were questioned already and “are actively tracking their whereabouts.”
Despite mounting suspicions in the case, along with the accusation that this was potentially a racially-motivated attack, the sheriff's office is not ready to release the video of Quawan to the public. “Although we believe it is important not to compromise any part of our investigation, we are prepared to release some details so that the public can be assured we are not resting in our effort to find the truth,” read a statement released by the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office. Currently, the family is also waiting for the full results of an independent autopsy.
Andre Arceneaux, a local activist and founder of Stand Black who has been with Quawan’s family during the investigation, told the New York Times that the failure of the police to immediately look for the teen is indicative of a larger issue. “Regardless of whether this was racially motivated or not, regardless of what the situation surrounding his death may be, the fact that the police departments didn’t act the way they would’ve acted if Quawan was a 15-year-old white girl named Katie, that’s the problem,” he said.
“We believe that if he had been of a different color, that this will be taken a lot more seriously,” Haley told ABC News. “We [would] not be talking today about 13 days have gone by, with no leads, 13 days have gone by with no answer, 13 days have gone by without [the] official cause of death…This family deserves that Bobby will be laid to rest.”