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Authorities investigating death of Black teen in Louisiana as homicide

Family members of Quawan “Bobby” Charles, 15, and local civil rights groups have raised questions about whether race slowed police response.
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Authorities are investigating the death of Black teenager Quawan "Bobby" Charles, whose body was found in a Louisiana sugar cane field, as a homicide, they said.

"Just as we do in any case involving someone found deceased in this manner, we immediately began treating this as a homicide investigation at the very moment we found Quawan 'Bobby' Charles," the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office said in a statement Saturday.

The statement was released after Charles' relatives and local civil rights groups called for an independent investigation and raised questions about whether his race played a role in how law enforcement officials have handled his case so far.

Quawan "Bobby" Charles.
Quawan "Bobby" Charles.via Ronald Haley Jr.

Charles' body was found Nov. 3 in a sugar cane field near the village of Loreauville, about 20 miles from his father's home in Baldwin. The 15-year-old was reported missing by one of his parents Oct. 30 in the St. Mary Parish town of Baldwin.

Ronald Haley Jr., one of the lawyers representing Charles' family, said Friday that it was unclear why Baldwin police hadn't issued an Amber Alert after he disappeared or how he could have drowned — the likely cause of death listed in the preliminary autopsy report — when his body was found in shallow water.

Baldwin Assistant Police Chief Samuel Wise III said in an interview Monday that an Amber Alert wasn't issued because Charles' disappearance didn't meet the criteria for one as designated by the Louisiana State Police, which activates such alerts.

"An Amber Alert is only used when the subject is abducted or kidnapped or is in danger of serious bodily harm or death," Wise said, adding that Charles' parents didn't indicate that was the case.

Wise said Charles' information was entered into the National Crime Information Center, a confidential law enforcement database. He also said that Baldwin police called Charles on his cellphone and texted him Oct. 30 but his phone was turned off. This prevented them from pinging his phone, Wise said.

Another lawyer for the family, Chase Trichell, said Monday that Charles' parents didn't have any evidence to suggest that he had been abducted when they reported him missing, that they relayed to police what they knew at the time.

That their report didn't meet the state's threshold for issuing an Amber Alert, "we find that inadequate and perhaps fatally dangerous," Trichell said in a telephone interview. "You don't need an Amber Alert to post a missing child flyer online or to spread it to other departments in neighboring parishes."

"They didn't know if he was missing because he was abducted or because of foul play," Trichell said. "They had no idea. All they knew is that we better tell the police because the police are going to do a good job and the police are going to exhaust all their resources."

Trichell said Baldwin police did not exhaust their resources and it inhibited their ability to find Charles.

"This is 2020 and I think it's time for the Baldwin Police Department to start living in the modern age," he said. "Why did they not utilize social media? Why didn't they send an all-points bulletin to neighboring parishes?"

The Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office didn't say why it's investigating the teenager's death as a homicide.

Charles was reported missing to the Baldwin Police Department, which then notified the local sheriff’s office in St. Mary Parish, the office said.

It was not immediately clear why the sheriff’s office in St. Mary Parish didn’t alert authorities in nearby Iberia Parish, where Charles' body was found. A St. Mary spokesperson didn't respond Sunday night to a request for comment.

Investigators found Charles’ body hours after learning of his disappearance, the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office said, adding that it was "actively and aggressively" gathering evidence and conducting interviews.

Video evidence from an area near where Charles' body was found showed him on camera before his death and no one else with him, the statement said.

The sheriff’s office said it was awaiting toxicology results and declined to provide additional details about Charles' death because the investigation is ongoing.

Trichell said Sunday that he was heartened that the sheriff's office was investigating Charles' death as a homicide.

"No able-bodied 15-year-old is going to drown in ankle-deep water without some outside influence that contributed to his death," he said.

Still, he said that neither the family nor their lawyers have heard from Iberia Parish Sheriff Thomas Romero about possible leads, theories and other findings, despite a request Friday for a meeting.

A spokesperson for the sheriff could not immediately say if Romero would meet with them.