Baton Rouge's first homicide of 2020 almost went undiscovered and unreported after detectives and death investigators made an incorrect assumption while processing the scene, overlooking the victim's gunshot wound and declaring his death an accidental drug overdose.
It was funeral home workers who uncovered the mistake while preparing the body the following day.
That prompted the coroner's office to reconsider their assessment and left homicide detectives scrambling to collect evidence. Now the family of Joah Ross is worried the investigation was compromised from the beginning.
"Somebody's got to be held accountable," his sister Jamie Edwards said Saturday. "That one mistake could be what turns this into a cold case while my brother's killer goes free."
Ross, 26, was pronounced dead New Years Day after his mother found him unresponsive inside their Fairfields area home late that afternoon and called 911.
Both police and the coroner's office said investigators initially assumed the death was an overdose because they found drugs in the room, but later became aware of the gunshot wound and launched a homicide investigation. Officials didn't disclose what kind of drugs were found.
A man was found shot to death inside his house on New Year's Day, Baton Rouge police announced Friday — marking the first homicide of 2020 dur…
Court records indicate Ross had a history of drug possession, but his family said they don't believe he was struggling with addiction.
Baton Rouge police said in a news release Friday that the victim had received a gunshot wound to the chest, though it's unclear when the shooting itself occurred.
Relatives reported finding "blood everywhere" in the living room and soaked through Ross' clothes when they discovered his body.
Shane Evans, chief of investigations for the East Baton Rouge Coroner's Office, said he couldn't comment on the specifics of this investigation but noted that it's not uncommon to find blood at an overdose scene because there's often some discharge from the person's nose and mouth.
Evans said autopsies typically aren't completed unless foul play is suspected. So Ross' body was released to the funeral home when investigators made their initial assessment, then returned to the coroner's office for an autopsy once the gunshot wound was discovered.
Evans said he didn't want to make excuses for the error. He said the coroner's office has conducted an internal investigation but declined to disclose the outcome.
Ross' sister said she can't help but wonder whether investigators assumed his death was drug related when they saw the neighborhood where he was killed — a series of residential streets off Plank Road whose residents have long complained of drug activity.
Detectives returned to the scene the next day to explain their mistake to Ross' relatives and collect additional evidence, but Edwards said that was after the scene had been contaminated: blood wiped up and furniture rearranged.
"I just feel like nobody was taking this seriously from the start," Edwards said. "I hope they're doing everything they can to make up for it now."
Ross spent most of his life in the house where he died, which is near the corner of Plank Road and Jackson Avenue. It's an area that historically has seen a high rate of gun violence and unsolved crime — more than a dozen people killed within a few blocks over the past several years.
A man was found shot to death in summer 2018 a short distance from Ross' house and near a neighborhood convenience store on the corner.
Relatives described Ross as funny and lovable, the youngest of three siblings who was always ready with a joke that could cheer them up on even the worst days. He left behind two daughters, ages 7 and 3, whom he loved dearly, they said. His Facebook page is filled with photos of them together.
Edwards said she texted her baby brother wishing him happy new year around midnight Tuesday, never suspecting it would be their last conversation. His death marks Baton Rouge's first homicide of 2020 during a continued spike in gun violence over the past several weeks.
"This brought in our new year with a bang," Edwards said. "Now we're just hoping for justice."