Family, police search for answers 2 years after Muncie man’s body found in city wastewater treatment plant

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MUNCIE, Ind. — A Muncie family has been dealing with heartbreak and uncertainty for the last two years surrounding the death of their loved one, 41-year-old Michael Coates.

On May 19, 2019, Coates was last seen at his home in Muncie. The next day, his body was found by workers inside the Muncie wastewater treatment plant on a conveyer used to filter out debris.

Coates’ older sister, Teresa Dodd, said she remembers that week vividly. She was asked to identify her brother through a photo she was shown, something she never imagined she’d have to do.

“He was an awesome, awesome brother. The baby brother,” she said.

Teresa never had the chance to say goodbye. She said when her brother was found, he was missing his shirt, shoes, hat, and cell phone, none of which have been recovered to this day.

“It’s hard. There’s so much pain that it’s put all of us through,” she said.

Teresa said Coates was a joker, always teasing her and making everyone around him laugh.

“He was a very caring person. I mean he would do anything for anybody,” she remembered. “It’s hard. I mean, just knowing he’s not there, knowing you can’t get that phone call or he’s not gonna show up at my door.”

Teresa said Coates’ son, who was 16 at the time of his passing, has had to navigate milestones without the support of his father by his side.

“He missed out on him teaching him how to drive. He’s not gonna be there for anything, all the things he needs him there for,” she shared.

It’s now been two years since Coates’ death, and investigators are still working to answer several major questions, including the biggest of all, ‘what happened to Michael Coates?’

“I wait and hope my phone will ring and it’ll be — they’ll call and say we know what happened,” said Teresa.

Muncie Police Detective Dustin Lee, the lead detective on this case, told CBS4 some of those answers they’re hoping to get include what Coates was doing prior to his death, where he was, what led to his death, and whether anyone witnessed what happened.

Perhaps one of the biggest questions of all is, ‘was foul play involved?’

From the beginning of the investigation, police told CBS4 they don’t believe Coates’ death to be an accident, and neither do family members, however, the autopsy results have complicated the investigation, with the pathologist finding no clear answer on how he died.

“The cause of death was unknown,” said Lee. “Due to traveling of the body through the water system, there was obviously some trauma from that.”

Lee said, in order to prove this case is anything other than a death investigation at this point, they need cooperation from the community in helping provide any information that may help investigators.

“Due to the undetermined manner of death, we can’t prove that there was foul play at this time,” said Lee. “Like I said, there was a lot of stories that are circulating out there that may seem that there was something that went on prior to.”

“Without the help from the community and eyewitnesses, or people who have heard firsthand from someone who was there, it’s very hard to change that from a death investigation to a homicide,” said Lee.

He said they are also seeing a lack of cooperation from several people who “probably were there or around him at the time.”

“I know that there’s people out there who have more information and who are probably living with the burden of not coming forward and telling us what they know,” he said.

Lee shared, “It’s a different case, I’ve never encountered anything like it. I don’t know that we’ve ever had anything like it, but that’s what makes it harder to kind of go through and figure out exactly what occurred and what led up to it.”

“I know my brother well, and I know my brother would not have taken his own life,” said Teresa. “Somebody’s done this to my brother. They just put him down the sewer or somebody just threw him away like trash.”

Teresa said she hoped her family would never see the day her brother’s case remained open with no clear answers on how he died.

“Two years of unanswered questions and just not knowing what happened to a loved one can really weigh on someone,” said Lee. “That’s my main goal in this investigation is to figure out what happened for the family.”

“Multiple interviews were conducted, and they still are being conducted at this time,” said Lee.

There are still questions surrounding whether Coates entered the water in the plant or could have gotten into the system himself. In a 2019 interview with CBS4, Muncie Police Capt. Todd said, “I’ve lifted weights most of my adult life and I’m not strong enough to climb into one of those holes and then pull the manhole cover back over top of me.”

Todd said, “We’re confident that didn’t happen. We feel he was either thrown in at the plant, which are two open cylinder pools, or he was thrown in and they put the cover back over him.”

Lee also said at one point in the investigation, detectives spent an entire day following routes from manhole covers that the water treatment facility management provided to them in the form of a map and explained where a human body could fit through the pipes.

He said, they discovered there are several areas where someone could not fit.

The investigation continues, and both police and family hope anyone who knows anything, will come forward to help clarify what happened to Coates.

“I just would again, implore anyone to come forward and feel some sort of sympathy for the family and what they’ve been going through,” said Lee.

He said no tip is too small. Any piece of information may help investigators.

“A puzzle’s solved by a tiny little piece. So, this is a puzzle, we just need to know the answers,” said David Dodd, Teresa’s husband.

“Even though time keeps passing and we’re working and living day by day, your time stops, you can’t move forward until you actually find out,” he said.

If you have any information related to this case, contact the Muncie Police Department or Muncie Crime Stoppers at (765) 749-4933. You could be eligible for a reward of up to $1,000.

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