Days after his family had reported him missing, 15-year-old Quawan Charles was found dead in a sugar cane field, more than 20 miles from his home in Baldwin, La., his face badly disfigured.
A preliminary autopsy found that his death had most likely been caused by drowning. But the circumstances surrounding his disappearance, and the local police’s slowness to take action, have prompted the boy’s family to commission an independent autopsy and question whether his death could have been prevented.
“It appears that something hateful happened to Bobby,” Ron Hall, a lawyer for the family, said in an interview, using Quawan’s nickname. “Whether this was an intentional act or grossly negligent indifference for human life, it’s still horrible.”
On Oct. 30, Quawan’s mother had planned to pick him up from his father’s home for a haircut at 3 p.m., but he didn’t answer his phone, according to Mr. Hall. When he hadn’t responded by 7 p.m., his parents began to worry. His father forced down his locked bedroom door, realized he was missing and called the Baldwin Police Department, Mr. Hall said.
The police assured Quawan’s parents that he was probably at a football game or with friends, Mr. Hall said. No Amber Alert was issued.
Frustrated, the family took matters into their own hands and learned that Quawan had been picked up by Janet Irvin and her son, without his parents’ permission, Mr. Hall said. He was taken to their home in the neighboring Iberia Parish, he said.
It is unclear when, why or how Quawan left the Irvin home, Mr. Hall said. Ms. Irvin did not respond to requests for comment on Saturday, and the Baldwin Police Department, which is investigating Quawan’s disappearance, did not respond to questions.
Quawan’s parents contacted the authorities in neighboring Iberia Parish on Nov. 3 to involve them in the search.
Within hours of being notified that Quawan might be in their jurisdiction, Iberia Parish sheriff’s deputies discovered the body of a teenage boy around 6 p.m. in a muddy field near Loreauville, a small rural community not far from the Irvins’ home, after they pinged Quawan’s cellphone, Mr. Hall said.
After they located the body, the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office opened a homicide investigation that included interviewing those who were believed to have been with Quawan before his disappearance and searching their home, the office said in a statement on Saturday. A spokeswoman declined to answer whether that included Ms. Irvin and her son.
“We interviewed these same individuals and are currently tracking their whereabouts,” the statement said. Video evidence recorded near the area where his body was found indicates that Quawan was alone for some time before and after he was seen on the recording, according to the statement.
A preliminary autopsy report released by the Iberia Parish coroner on Friday said the cause of Quawan’s death was drowning, citing muddy water found in his airways and hyperinflated lungs. In the report, the coroner attributed the scratches and wounds on Quawan’s face to “aquatic animal activity” and said that the boy had not sustained the injuries before his death.
A toxicology report has not yet been released.
There are several bodies of water near the sugar cane field where Quawan was found, Mr. Hall said, but none deeper than two feet.
“If in fact he did die of drowning — and we’re saying that as an if — we’re calling into question how exactly that would have happened,” Mr. Hall said. “Can somebody who’s 5-foot-6 typically drown in two feet of water? No, not unless there’s another cause associated with that.”
The Baldwin Police Department, which also did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Saturday, said in a statement on Tuesday that it would handle the investigation into his disappearance. Quawan’s death would be investigated — as a homicide — by the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office. The Police Department added that “proper protocol was used to report the juvenile as missing.”
The family has commissioned an independent autopsy and has sent an investigator to capture drone footage of the fields where Quawan was found, Mr. Hall said.
Quawan was a quiet teenager who had seven siblings, according to Mr. Hall. He had an understated sense of humor that would come out as he got to know a person and had recently adopted a dog he named My Baby, according to The Washington Post.
“Like a lot of teenagers, he was just at that age where you’re trying to figure out your place in this world,” said Andre Arceneaux, a local activist who founded Stand Black, an advocacy group. “He was just a good kid and something happened to him that we don’t know the ins and outs of yet.”
When his family saw photos of Quawan taken at the coroner’s office the night he was found — a quarter of his mangled face gone, revealing half his teeth in a gruesome, forced grin — they likened his appearance to that of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black youth who was killed in 1955, recalled Mr. Arceneaux, who was with them at the time.
Quawan’s mother decided to release one of the photos, Mr. Arceneaux said.
“She somehow had the bravery to say, ‘The world needs to see my child; the world needs to see what he looks like,’” Mr. Arceneaux said. “Sometimes it takes something like that for people to see the severity of what happened.”
On a GoFundMe page for Quawan’s family, Mr. Till and Mr. Charles are displayed side by side, their faces captioned “1955” and “2020.” By Saturday afternoon, more than $235,000 had been raised for autopsy and funeral costs.
Quawan’s death has not been deemed racially motivated by the authorities or his family, Mr. Hall said.
Mr. Arceneaux said the failure of the police to immediately look for Quawan at the football game or to issue an Amber Alert was 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,” Mr. Arceneaux said.
The American Civil Liberties Union has backed the call for an independent and transparent investigation, according to a statement from Alanah Odoms Hebert, executive director of the A.C.L.U. of Louisiana.
“The disrespect and lack of transparency demonstrated by local officials in response to Bobby’s tragic and suspicious death is unacceptable,” Ms. Odoms Hebert said in a statement. “We join the family in demanding a full and transparent investigation into the circumstances surrounding Bobby’s death.”
Quawan’s family has organized demonstrations outside the Baldwin Police Department and the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office to call for justice and answers. They feel that if action had been taken sooner, Quawan could be alive today, Mr. Hall said.
“He’s still a kid,” he said. “If there’s a 1 percent chance at preventing what happened to Bobby — whatever that was — if you put full resources into finding this kid, then you take that chance.”