Quawan’s parents say the sheriff’s office told them that their son had drowned and water was found in his lungs. A preliminary autopsy report by the Iberia Parish coroner listed the cause of death as “likely drowning” with muddy water in his airways and hyperinflated lungs. The preliminary report indicated he did not have injuries before his death and the condition of his face was likely caused by “aquatic animals” while he was in the water, it read.
Quawan’s cousin Celina Charles on Wednesday called the drowning explanation “bogus.”
“His face says different,” Charles said. In a photo the family has published online, the teen appears so disfigured that his teeth are visible outside of his mouth. The family has ordered an independent autopsy.
Quawan’s parents reported his disappearance from his father’s home in Baldwin, La., on Oct. 30, according to family attorney Ron Haley. The Baldwin Police Department took a report, Haley said, but gave no indication over the next few days that they were searching for the teen or actively investigating his disappearance. Instead, they suggested Quawan might have gone to a football game and asked if the boy had a troubled past, he said.
Baldwin’s assistant police chief has not responded to calls from The Washington Post, and the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office referred questions to a Tuesday news release stating its investigators “have interviewed multiple individuals and collected physical evidence which is being processed.”
Quawan’s family said they learned through a third party that a 17-year-old friend and his mother, Gavin and Janet Irvin, had picked up Quawan around 3 p.m. the day he went missing, while his father was at a store. Kenneth Jacko, Quawan’s father, said neither he nor Quawan’s mother knew the Irvins, who are White, and had not given them permission to take Quawan.
Jacko said Iberia Parish officers accompanied Quawan’s family to the Irvins’ home on Nov. 3 — four days after Quawan disappeared but before his body was found. Gavin confirmed the story, Jacko said, explaining that the boys had wanted to spend time together that day but that Quawan later left, alone.
“[Gavin] said Quawan got up and said he was leaving. [Gavin] asked about where Quawan was going, and after that, he disappeared,” Jacko said. Officers searched the Irvins’ home but did not find anything suspicious, Jacko said.
Later that day, police discovered Quawan’s body in a nearby field. The family has not heard from the Irvins since, Haley said.
The Post’s attempts to reach the Irvins by phone and at their home in a Loreauville trailer park on Wednesday were unsuccessful. A relative of the trailer park’s owner said the Irvins recently had been evicted, but he did not say why.
A spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office said she could not comment on whether investigators were communicating with the Irvins. No suspects have been named in the case, and it has not been designated a homicide.
“I want the lady who came to get my son without my permission, his dad’s permission, to be held accountable,” said Quawan’s mother, Roxanne Nelson, during a vigil for her son last week. “She took them to her house. He was alive and well when he was here, and now he is dead.”
Relatives described Quawan, nicknamed “Bobby,” as a quiet boy who loved animals and the outdoors. He was the youngest of Nelson’s eight children, finally on the cusp of outgrowing his baby-faced looks.
At 5-foot-7, Quawan had been trying to bulk up his slight 112-pound frame with weightlifting and peanut butter protein snacks. Jacko teased his son about his new habits, warning him, “Once you start, you’ll gain it in the wrong spots.”
Quawan was starting to mature emotionally, too, his father said.
“He was growing up and talking to me and stuff. Father-to-son stuff,” Jacko said.
Earlier this year, Quawan saved enough of his weekly allowance to buy a computer. He also had taken in a dog he named “My Baby.” Quawan’s devotion to the dog was so strong that despite having allergies, Jacko allowed it to join the household when Quawan moved in.
“That’s why, when Quawan came up missing, I couldn’t understand why he left the dog behind,” Jacko said.
Gavin, the 17-year-old who Quawan’s parents believe was among the last to see their son alive, gave Quawan the dog this year, Jacko said. He was unsure how the teens knew each other but guessed they met at Southside High School in Youngsville; Quawan recently left that school after moving to live with his father and had started at his new school the week he went missing.
Multiple neighbors in the Irvins’ mobile home community said they saw the family packing a U-Haul truck this week before moving out Wednesday. Residents Tambara Bonnet and her fiance Kevin Archon said the Irvins had just moved in two trailers down from them in recent months.
Bonnet, who is Black, said she is not surprised by what she called a “weak” investigation by the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office.
“If it was a White kid, they would have looked for him right then and there,” she said.
Archon, who also is Black, said he didn’t know Quawan’s family but helped them look through the sugar cane field where Quawan’s body had been discovered. He finds it implausible that Quawan could have drowned in the ankle-high water they found there.
Archon said he knows some sheriff’s officers whom he would describe as “cool people.” But he thinks race has been a factor in the police response to Quawan’s disappearance.
“If it was a White person — if it was one of their kids — people would have probably been in jail by now,” Archon said.
Relatives of Quawan have criticized authorities for not alerting local news or sending out an Amber Alert for Quawan when they reported him missing. They said the Baldwin police told them his disappearance was entered into an Amber Alert database but that state police must activate it. Louisiana State Police spokesman Lt. Nick Manale said the agency “was not contacted in reference to the missing individual and is not currently part of the ongoing investigation.”
“Once this became public, almost every local news station said, ‘We had no idea a child was even missing,’ ” Haley said. He added that authorities hadn’t tried pinging Quawan’s cellphone until three days after he disappeared. “That’s how they knew where to narrow the search for him.”
Local activists have joined Quawan’s family in questioning whether racial bias influenced the initial response to Quawan’s disappearance, noting what Haley described as a “fractured” relationship between the sheriff’s office and local residents due to past allegations of racism and abuse.
“Systemic racism and bias is not just pulling someone over on the highway, or the police shooting them while unarmed,” Haley said. “It goes deeper; it’s a lack of empathy.”
The dearth of information around Quawan’s death also has gnawed at some Loreauville residents and area activists who have joined the family in calling for more answers.
“Police and people in this state that have perversely racially biased tendencies, when they see our children, they don’t see their children,” said Jamal Taylor, who leads the local advocacy group Stand Black.
Celina Charles, the cousin who is serving as a family spokeswoman, said she watched last week as Nelson ran from a viewing room screaming in anguish at the sight of her son’s mutilated face.
“Is it Emmett Till bad?” she said she asked Nelson, referring to the 14-year-old Black boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955.
After seeing Quawan’s body herself, Celina Charles urged Nelson to do the same thing Till’s mother had done 65 years earlier, sharing a photo of Till’s mangled body with news media in an act that helped spark the civil rights movement.
Nelson pulled out her phone, snapped a photo of her son and then shared it with the world.
“The people needed to see what he was looking like,” Charles said.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.
This article has been updated with comments from the Iberia Parish Coroner’s Office.