DeKalb Police Chief apologizes to family of Decatur teen killed in hit-and-run, but questions remain
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Decatur, GA — The police chief of DeKalb County personally visited the family of a Decatur teenager who died in a hit-and-run crash and apologized for how her department handled the case.
But there are still questions about why DeKalb Police were unable to connect the dots between the missing teenager and the unidentified hit-and-run victim found early Saturday morning, Nov. 14.
The failure to connect the two cases left the family of John William Poe, 16, in the dark about what had happened to him. Though Poe died on Saturday, the family wasn’t notified about his death until Monday afternoon, Nov. 16, after police received pressure from Decaturish and other media outlets. DeKalb Police officials initially insisted they weren’t handling the case even though Poe’s father had filed a police report with DeKalb County and had a case number.
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DeKalb Police were slow to recognize that Poe was missing and was not a runaway, records obtained by Decaturish show. Investigators did not move with urgency and initially told the family “that it would take 3-5 business days to work up the investigation on a missing child,” according to Aaryn Jones, Poe’s sister in law.
“Which is outrageous time lost, especially if a child is still living and could be traced,” Jones said.
Police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos visited the family on Nov. 19 along with her chief of staff and a seargeant with the department’s unit in charge of missing children.
“They were apologetic,” Poe’s brother Jason said. “They apologized for the way the case was handled, the 48 hours between John being reported missing and John being identified. She was very upfront in the fact she said there’s no excuse for what happened. There’s no excuse for [them] not connecting the dots. She didn’t indicate what internally went wrong. She was hinting at there was a breakdown in some sort of procedures.”
Public records shed some light on the matter, but don’t answer the question about where the ball was dropped in this particular case.
The paper trail surrounding Poe’s death begins with police responding to a hit-and-run crash around 3:35 a.m. on Nov. 14. Poe had been riding his bike to a friend’s house at that time, and police officials told his family he was trying to cross Covington Highway near South Indian Creek Drive when the driver hit him. A flashlight on his bicycle was turned on at the time, meaning it was likely that whoever hit Poe saw him.
“There’s no way they would’ve missed John in the road,” his brother Jason said.
Police initially thought Poe was “an unidentified adult Hispanic male,” according to a spokesperson.
For reasons that remain unclear, police did not quickly notify the public about the hit-and-run after it happened and provide a description of the vehicle involved in order to generate leads in the case. The officer’s incident report says, “Unable to upload hit and run card due to error message,” but police did not respond to a question about what that means or whether that was the reason police didn’t promptly notify the public about the case.
According to the police report obtained by Decaturish, surveillance footage reviewed by police showed a white or light-colored vehicle struck Poe while traveling east on Covington Highway, but police didn’t know the make and model, according to the incident report. There was no vehicle evidence located at the scene of the crash.
Jones, Poe’s sister-in-law, said police officials implied that they may have more information about the suspect’s vehicle than they are willing to release publicly at this time.
“I think they’ve got some kind of leads,” she said. “We understood not to ask too many questions about that.”
Poe was alive when police found him, but it’s unclear whether he was conscious. First responders performed life-saving procedures, according to information relayed to Poe’s family. He wasn’t wearing a helmet and didn’t have identification on him. He was sent to Atlanta Medical Center for treatment and died at 8:19 a.m. Saturday morning, Nov. 14, the family said.
The family had no idea that Poe had died when his father reported him missing.
On Saturday, Nov. 14, Poe’s father — also named John Poe — contacted Decatur Police to report his son had gone missing. They informed him that since his son was last seen in DeKalb County, it would be under the DeKalb County Police jurisdiction.
The family has described Decatur Police as helpful and said they took their concerns seriously after Poe’s father noted that the teenager had abruptly stopped communicating with his friends via text. DeKalb Police appeared less concerned with his father’s report, according to the records obtained by Decaturish. Police took the call around 7 p.m. on Nov. 14.
DeKalb Police categorized Poe’s disappearance as a “runaway juvenile call,” but a police spokesperson declined to say why.
“As there was no reported medical or mental conditions, the officer placed a look-out over DeKalb Police radio channels and per policy, the juvenile was entered on the National Crime Information Center’s (NCIC) database,” police spokesperson Michaela Vincent said.
The officer writing the report clearly thought that Poe had run away even though his father insisted that something was amiss.
“The father stated that his son is a normal kid with no mental illness and that he has never done anything like this before,” the officer wrote.
The missing person report contained the details that should’ve allowed police to easily connect the dots between Poe’s disappearance and the unidentified hit-and-run victim, including the date and location where Poe was last seen as well as information about his method of travel. Poe’s father told DeKalb Police that his son was visiting a friend on Mercer Road and left on his bicycle.
“The occupant at Mercer Road stated that the son left his home at around 3 a.m. in the morning on his bicycle heading towards Covington Highway,” the DeKalb County police officer wrote in the report.
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DeKalb Police said they connected the hit-and-run and the missing person report early Monday morning.
“On Monday, Nov. 16, the Medical Examiner’s Office notified our Traffic Specialist Unit at 8 a.m. regarding the unidentified male being deceased,” Vincent said. “DeKalb County detectives identified the connection between the missing person’s case and the hit and run [crash] shortly after notification. Mr. Poe later positively identified the victim as his son.”
But as of 11 a.m. on Nov. 16 DeKalb Police were insisting that they weren’t handling Poe’s case.
“It’s not our case,” Vincent said at that time.
That stance changed when Decaturish provided Vincent with the DeKalb County Police case number that was given to Poe’s father.
While police said they connected the two cases shortly after 8 a.m. on Nov. 16, they didn’t get in touch with Poe’s father until just before 2 p.m. that day, according to the family.
Decaturish asked Vincent what prevented police from connecting the hit-and-run to the missing person case and how that could be rectified. Vincent responded that the time between the hit-and-run and the missing person report was the reason that the two cases weren’t immediately connected.
“Reporting delays from victims will occur and may contribute to delays,” Vincent said. “In this case, a DKPD report wasn’t filed until 15 hours after the [crash].”
While the family appreciated the police chief’s apology, they were still frustrated by what happened. DeKalb Police promised to keep them in the loop about all developments in the investigation.
Poe was a sophomore at Decatur High and described as a young man with an open mind and loving heart.
Visitation services for Poe will be held Friday, November 20, 2020, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at A.S. Turner & Sons Funeral Home and Crematory in Decatur. Masks will be required and attendance limited to 25 people at one time to ensure social distancing.
Vincent said the police department sympathizes with the family’s situation and asked the public for help finding the driver who struck and killed Poe.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the Poe family during this time,” Vincent said. “We ask anyone with information to please call 911 or Crime Stoppers at 404-577-TIPS.”
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