A former Doraville police officer accused of kidnapping and killing a 16-year-old Gwinnett County student was indicted Wednesday on murder and other charges, court records show.
Miles Bryant, 22, faces four charges in the disappearance and death of Susana Morales, who vanished last July while walking home from a friend’s house.
The skeletal remains of the missing Meadowcreek High School student were discovered in February in a wooded area near Dacula, some 20 miles from her home. Investigators believe Bryant, a former Berkmar High School football player, killed the teen before hiding her naked body in a secluded area off Ga. 316.
He was quickly fired and charged with concealing the teen’s death and falsely reporting a crime. Those chargers were later upgraded to include kidnapping and murder.
According to Gwinnett investigators, Bryant reported his personal gun had been stolen just hours after Morales’ disappearance.
Bryant’s weapon was found near Morales’ body during a search of the woods, authorities said. On Wednesday, a grand jury returned an indictment formally charging the ex-cop with murder, felony murder, kidnapping and falsely reporting a crime, records show.
He remains held in the Gwinnett jail without bond.
The exact cause of Morales’ death is still unknown, even to the Gwinnett grand jury, records show. Gwinnett police recently said Morales’ bones were sent to an anthropologist for further analysis.
Records show Bryant received relatively minor reprimands during his 21-month stint with the Doraville Police Department. A supervisor wrote in a 2021 performance review that Bryant was well-liked by his peers and had the potential to become “an exemplary officer.”
In an email to the city manager, Doraville police Chief Chuck Atkinson said he made the decision to fire Bryant after meeting with Gwinnett detectives and discussing some of the evidence that led them to bring the initial charges in the Morales case. At the time, Bryant hadn’t been charged with the teen’s murder.
“Although the evidence they described to me was troubling, I have no idea whether Bryant actually did the things he’s accused of doing,” the police chief said, explaining his rationale for firing Bryant that day.
Had the officer been charged with driving under the influence or some type of domestic violence where the facts weren’t exactly clear, Atkinson said he might have placed Bryant on administrative leave until the completion of that investigation.
“Although Bryant’s innocence is presumed, his arrest puts the department under too much of a cloud to justify keeping him on leave while all this runs its course,” Atkinson wrote. “Due to the seriousness of the charges and the amount of time that’s passed since the child’s body was discovered, I’m convinced that public trust and confidence in the department was at stake and that immediate steps had to be taken to protect it.”
The Gwinnett Police Department has come under scrutiny for its handling of the case, mainly because officers first believed the teen may have run away.
Investigators first turned to the public for help in August. At the time, they wrote there was “no indication that Morales is in any specific danger, and it is not believed that she is being held against her will.”
Morales’ heartbroken family has said they knew she didn’t run away, and that things may have ended differently had police taken the case more seriously from the beginning.
“Maybe we would have found her little body together in one piece and not the way it was found,” Morales’ mother, Maria Bran, told reporters this month. “We do not want any other families to go through what we are going through.”
The Gwinnett Police Department has defended its handling of the case, saying it began searching for the teen immediately and followed up on every lead.
“The initial information we received was that there was a possibility that Susana had run away,” Gwinnett police Chief J.D. McClure said during a recent town hall. “As more facts became available, that case transitioned to a (case) where we suspected foul play could be involved.”
He said his department was devastated when Morales’ remains were discovered. What makes the case even worse, McClure said, is that the lone suspect was a law enforcement officer.
“Making an arrest in that case is something that brings justice to the situation,” said McClure, who called Morales’ death “an unspeakable tragedy.”
© 2023 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.