Law enforcement mistake briefly leaves Alaska couple grieving living son

Justin Priest, 29, heard knocking on his South Anchorage door Thursday, the last thing he expected at 5:30 a.m.

He rose early because Lily, a yellow lab puppy, needed to go for a walk. Justin opened the door and found his parents and his brother. They had been grief-stricken. Now they were shocked.

"Justin?" his dad shouted. "It's Justin! Praise Jesus, we thought you were dead."

"You're alive!" his mother shouted. They wondered if this was real.

Justin, who was not fully awake, had no idea why his parents and his brother were shouting and crying. He thought that his neighbors would think he was crazy.

In the minutes that followed, Jay and Karen Priest explained that they had just driven to Anchorage from Palmer, trying to fathom the worst news of their lives.

At about 3 a.m. or so, an Alaska State Trooper arrived at their house to say that they were sorry, but that Justin had been killed the night before in a Juneau traffic accident. Jay said the trooper used the phrase "I regret to inform you" and was nothing but professional as they spoke outside the house. Jay said he steadied himself and went in to tell his wife. It was the saddest day in his 63 years.


It would not have been unusual for Justin, a biologist, to travel to Juneau. The Priests called the Juneau Police Department to confirm the identification and the department said he was the victim.

It turned out that the real accident victim had the same name, but he was a different age with a different birthdate and middle name. Juneau police said they notified his family Thursday afternoon.

Jay said he hopes what comes out of this difficult episode is a change in protocol so that it never happens again in Alaska.

Juneau Police Chief Bryce Johnson said he feels horrible about the mistaken identity and apologized to Jay and Karen. "He told me the story of what they went through and it left me in tears and speechless," Johnson said.

Police Lt. Dave Campbell said in his 19 years on the department he does not know of a similar circumstance. Campbell said it's like "compounding a tragedy," as there was a death in one family, while a second family received a devastating false report.

But the Priests did not know it was false on that sleepless night.

They called relatives to let them know of the loss. The hardest part was telling a family member who had lost a loved one months ago in a car accident, Jay said.

They drove to Anchorage in the dark to tell another son, Cody, in person. After picking him up, they went to Justin's house to break the news to Justin's girlfriend Julia. The two have been together five years and she is part of the family, Jay and Karen said.

On the way, they prayed in the car and discussed how they planned to help her deal with the loss as much as they could, both financially and otherwise.

After Justin stepped out of the house and the immediate shock subsided, the parents and children hugged, cried and said they loved each other. This went on for about a half-hour, Justin said.

"I was shocked and astonished and had to keep grabbing him and hugging him," Jay said. The saddest day became the happiest. "I never cried so much in all my life."

Justin said for all of them the sense of relief is tempered by the knowledge that another family lost a son. He said the day was heart-wrenching for his parents.

"Think of them this week," he said about his parents in a message on Facebook, "as well as the family of the other Justin."

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.