Jay and Karen Priest of Alaska were on a grim mission. Tasked with informing their son’s girlfriend of many years that he had died in an auto wreck, they knocked on her door with heavy hearts. Sorrow turned to shock for the parents when the door was opened by none other than their “dead”son, Justin Priest.
Justin’s parents had been notified by Juneau, Alaska, police that Justin, 29, had been killed in a car crash. As they stared in disbelief at their son, Karen Priest was in a state of shock, later saying that she and her husband “just kept staring at him.” Jay Priest began to sob. On Friday, Karen Priest described the ordeal as an emotional roller coaster.
For his part, Justin Priest, who works in Anchorage, Alaska, as a private fisheries biologist, had been up early in the morning to let his puppy out. Hearing the knock on the door at 5:30 a.m. on Thursday, he opened the door only to see his brother and his parents begin to scream.
Hours earlier, at 3:00 a.m., Jay and Karen Priest had been asleep in their home outside of the city of Palmer when knocking on their door and the sounds of their dogs barking woke them. Peering through a window, Jay spotted a man wearing an Alaska state trooper’s hat. According to Karen, Jay was filled with dread immediately because “It’s not good” to be awoken in the middle of the night by a state trooper at your door.
The Priests opened the door only to be informed that their son, Justin, had been killed in Juneau. The Alaska state trooper left them with the phone number of the Juneau police department. When they called the number, they were informed that Justin had died after hitting a tree at a high speed. Karen remembers thinking that it was out of character for Justin to speed. The officer then told her that the accident was still being investigated, which caused Karen to think that perhaps alcohol had been a factor in the crash which, again, was not like their son.
The parents started the grim task of informing extended family of Justin’s death. After notifying relatives in other states, they got dressed and traveled to Anchorage, Alaska, 45 miles away, in order to notify their other son, Cody, that his brother had died. At 4:30 a.m., the Priests woke up Cody, who collapsed upon hearing the news.
All three family members then drove to the house of Justin’s girlfriend, Julia, with the intention of telling her of his death in person. After Jay knocked, Justin opened the door to find his parents and his brother screaming, yelling and praising Jesus for the miracle. Justin, half-asleep still and with no idea of why his family was so excited, listened as his family explained what had happened. The mixed-up tale took some time to unravel, but once the details were clear, Justin figured his parents had been scammed. The family shared “lots of hugging, lots of tears,” said Justin, who then picked up the telephone and dialed the Juneau police to inform them of their mistake.
The Juneau police have offered their apologies to the Priests. Chief Bryce Johnson was at an almost complete loss for words, saying “This shouldn’t happen.” The department is poring over recordings and paperwork in order to determine how the horrible mistaken identification occurred. Johnson said that his department had asked the state troopers to speak with the Priests in order to determine if the victim of the car accident was Justin. However it happened, the request was misunderstood to be a notification of death.
Sadly, Justin Priest had died in a car crash late on Wednesday night, but this Justin Priest was 33 and from the city of Juneau, Alaska. In addition, two passengers in the car were injured in the wreck, one whose injuries were described as “life-threatening,” in a police news release.
This incident has spurred Chief Johnson to fully review the department’s dispatch systems, reinforce the importance of all officers following procedures, and make changes if warranted. Describing his family as “very private,” the very-much-alive Justin Priest said on Friday that they were going public with the story in order to prevent another family from experiencing a similar horrific event in the future.
By Jennifer Pfalz