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Police apologize for telling wrong family of man’s death

A miscommunication led troopers to believe they were supposed to tell a couple that there son was killed in a car accident


Justin Priest holds his 9-week-old yellow lab Lily in Anchorage on Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014.

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By Dan Joling
Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — An Alaska couple knocked on the door of their son’s long-time girlfriend Thursday, intending to inform her that he’d been killed in a car accident.

Karen and Jay Priest instead were stunned when the son, 29-year-old Justin Priest, answered the door. They had mistakenly been told by Juneau police that he’d been killed in the crash.

Karen Priest said her husband started sobbing, and she was in shock.

“There are no words,” she said on Friday, still wrung out from what she called an emotional roller coaster. “We just kept staring at him.”

Justin Priest said he’d gotten up to let out his 9-week-old puppy and was near the door at 5:30 a.m. when his parents and brother knocked. They started screaming when he opened the door.

The Priests live outside of Palmer. At 3 a.m. Thursday, they were awakened by their barking dogs and a knock on the door. Through a window, Jay saw a man with the drill sergeant hat of an Alaska State Trooper.

“He knew right away, the dread. It’s not good when a trooper knocks on your door at three o’clock in the morning,” Karen Priest said.

The trooper informed them that Justin, a private fisheries biologist in Anchorage, had died in Juneau.

The trooper gave them a Juneau police phone number. When the couple called there, an officer said Justin’s car had crashed into a tree at high speed. That didn’t sound like Justin, Karen said. The officer said the investigation was ongoing, which to her implied alcohol use, and that didn’t sound right either, she said.

They started calling out-of-state relatives. The Priests dressed and drove 45 miles to Anchorage to tell another son, Cody. Awakened at 4:30 a.m., Cody collapsed when he heard the news, Karen said.

The parents and Cody drove to find Justin’s long-time girlfriend, Julia, so she could hear the news in person. Jay knocked on the door.

“It opens and right here is Justin. I don’t even see it but Jay is sobbing. It doesn’t compute to me. Then I see him,” she said. “You want it to be true, but you go, ‘Am I hallucinating?’ Justin didn’t know what was going on.”

“I didn’t know why they were yelling and screaming,” Justin Priest said. “I was mostly asleep. They were yelling, ‘Praise Jesus! It’s a miracle!’”

It took a few minutes to sort out what happened. Justin initially thought his parents were the victims of a scam. After “lots of hugging, lots of tears,” he called Juneau police to tell them they had identified the wrong Justin Priest.

Juneau police have apologized for the anguish the mistake caused and are reviewing audio tapes and other records to find out what went wrong.

“I’m almost speechless for words,” Chief Bryce Johnson said. “This shouldn’t happen.”

Police wanted troopers to contact the Priest family to find out if the crash victim was their son. The request was unclearly transmitted or misinterpreted, Johnson said, and the officer took the assignment as a death notification.

“We have to take responsibility for that,” Johnson said. “It was our case.”

Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said the message they received was for a death notification.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press