*When Karen and Jay Priest knocked on the door of their son’s long-time girlfriend Thursday, they didn’t have good news. It was their intent to inform her that Justin had been killed in a car accident.
So you can imagine their utter amazement when the 29-year-old Justin Priest, answered the door.
As it turns out, the Juneau police made a mistake. Their son had not been in a car crash at all.
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 was about to let his 9-week-old puppy out and just happened to be 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. They were awakened at 3 a.m. 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; and gave them a number to call for more detail.
They called and was told by another officer that Justin’s car had crashed into a tree at high speed. Karen Priest said that didn’t sound like her son. They were told that 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 before getting dressed and driving 45 miles to Anchorage to tell another son, Cody, who collapsed when he heard the news, Karen said.
This is when the parents and Cody drove to find Justin’s long-time girlfriend, Julia. News like this had to be served 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!'”
While it took a few minutes to sort out what happened, they did. But at first, Justin believed his parents had been 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.
“I’m almost speechless for words,” said Chief Bryce Johnson, who along with the Juneau police, apologized for the anguish their mistake caused the family.
“This shouldn’t happen,” he said.
Juneau police are reviewing audio tapes and other records to find out what went wrong.
Police had wanted troopers to contact the Priest family to find out if the crash victim was their son. The request was not transmitted clearly or it was 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.