A recent article in In the Game magazine highlighted the “damage of rumor”, innuendo, and speculation in criminal cases.  Brian Bell (left) was accused by the parents of Georgia teen Kendrick Johnson of having something to do with their son’s death.  Kendrick Johnson, 17, was last seen alive on January 10, 2013.  The next morning, his body was found in the center of a rolled up gym mat at the local high school.  Sheriff’s Office investigators concluded that the death was an accident and that he died due to “positional asphyxia”.

Johnson’s parents, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, have raised questions over the investigation and believe their son was murdered.  A forensic pathologist hired by the family concluded that there was “unexplained, apparent non-accidental blunt force trauma” to the neck area.  He concluded the death was a homicide.  In January, Johnson’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit naming 38 defendants, including three high school classmates of their son that they contend attacked Johnson the day he died.  One of those students was Brian Bell.

Brian told the magazine that he considered Kendrick Johnson a friend, they were football players together on the Lowndes High Vikings squad, but on November 18, 2011, they had a small falling out.  That night the Vikings played the Grayson Rams, on the way to the game, Bell said that Kendrick and another classmate began to tease him and he got upset.  He warned them to stop and when they didn’t, he threw a punch at Kendrick, missing.  Kendrick threw a punch back, also missing.  The coaches broke it up at that point and that was the end.  The team lost the playoff game and they were both given suspensions.

“After the scuffle, everything was fine. Neither one of us thought it was a big deal,” he said.

A year and a half later, the freshmen exchange would come back to haunt the Bell family.

On January 10, 2013 at 1:30 p.m., Kendrick, now a sophomore and no longer a football player, had Phys. Ed. with non-football players, per school policy, while players went to the field house for weightlifting.  Video shows Kendrick entering the gym alone and he was never seen alive again.  His body was discovered by other students the next day.  As usual, with the news came rumors and false accusations.  But, for the Bell family, it was more.  Bell said that the day before Kendrick’s death, they were paired in math class and that he had no idea that would be the last time he would see him.

Brian’s mother, who was attending a wrestling match for her younger son, heard the bus driver received a message that something bad had happened at the school.  Concerned, she called her husband, an FBI agent, to see if he knew anything, but he didn’t.  Before long, the event was revealed as the death of Kendrick Johnson, 17, which would set off a firestorm of press.  Less than 24 hours later, friends and family of the Johnsons held a rally on the courthouse steps.

Four days later, one of Brian’s mother, Karen’s friends called her and asked her if she had seen any coverage on the rally.  She told her to watch a YouTube video of it.  Karen watched the video a week before the autopsy was completed and only a day after Kendrick’s death, the Johnson family named Brian as one of the ones responsible.  He wasn’t mentioned by name, but the person at the rally said that he was the son of a GBI agent (he meant an FBI agent) and referred to the bus incident more than a year earlier as the motive.  To this day, the Bell family can’t understand why their two sons were accused.

“Kendrick stayed at our house one weekend – from Friday to Sunday. On Sunday night, I took him home, to his grandmother’s house in Clyattville,” Karen said.

There was no physical evidence or circumstantial evidence, the incident happened more than a year before, one of the boys was off campus at the time of the tragedy, and the other was across campus as proven by security cameras.  They were friends and football teammates before the fight (if you can call it that). But none of that mattered.

Karen didn’t tell her sons about the video and when Brian said he wanted to go to the funeral, she forbid it. When Brian wouldn’t agree not to go, she showed him the video.

Word spread that the family thought that the Bells were responsible and several students threatened Brian, “I didn’t want to go to school. Kids were telling me that I was going to be jumped after school. The worst part of it wasn’t the threat of being physically attacked, but that some of the kids talking about doing it…[were] my friends.”

No one made good on their threats and a week after the funeral things calmed down.

Brian’s future looked bright, a number of colleges had expressed interest in him for their football program.

Nearly 4 months later, in May of 2013, the Sheriff’s Office concluded their investigation.  The GBI concurred that Johnson’s death was an accident.  Investigators theorized that Kendrick had placed his shoes inside the mat and he attempted to retrieve them becoming trapped, suffocating.

The threats stopped. It was customary at the school for students to keep their shoes in the mats because lockers were $10. Kendrick’s family was unconvinced and some members of the media saw an opportunity.

On November 19, 2013, ebony.com (the website for Ebony Magazine) published another one of its articles in their series on the Johnson case.  Written by true crime author Fred Rosen the first article stated that Kendrick Johnson had been murdered and that the suspects were being narrowed down. The second article was entitled Did a Fight Lead to Kendrick Johnson’s Murder? and the third article named the Bell boys as prime suspects, utilizing fictitious police interviews in the reporting.

Rosen changed the names of the Bells to Chris and Clark Martin, but left all descriptors unaltered, allowing for them to be easily identified by anyone who knew them, this included that their father was an FBI agents and one of the sons had been in a fight with Kendrick on a bus.

“The Ebony stories started everything all over again. People took it as the gospel truth just because it was written in Ebony,” said Karen.

Just like others who had suffered from inaccurate, quick, and sensational reporting, the Bells were once again in everyone’s crosshairs.  Brian, 16 at the time, found himself the chief suspect in the court of public opinion, despite the fact there was absolutely zero evidence and he had an alibi.  By the summer of 2014, Ebony was still running articles accusing Brian Bell.  Investigators from the Sheriff’s Office, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, nor the FBI have ever mentioned the Bells as even remote suspects and they maintain the death was not caused by foul play.

That summer, the Bells filed a libel and slander lawsuit against Ebony’s parent company and Fred Rosen for defamation due to false allegations of criminal conduct.  The case is still pending, but Ebony has pulled the articles.

On January 9, 2015, one day before the two year anniversary of Kendrick’s death and one day before the statute of limitations ran out for a wrongful death lawsuit, the family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against 30 defendants including the Bells.

Three weeks later, Brian’s dreams were shattered.  Brian, who had committed to playing football at Florida State University was supposed to sign with the Seminoles, but the program pulled out.  The program had suffered scrutiny over the preceding years and didn’t want to sign a player with a pending lawsuit.  Brian Bell, who was never even accused of the crime, was contacted by FSU coach Jimbo Fisher who was sympathetic, but there was nothing that could be done.

In the sports world, response to FSU’s decision was in Brian’s favor, but the damage was done.  Brian was one of the top linebackers in the country and one of the best prospects in the state and he couldn’t land a team.  His grades were good and he had never gotten in trouble during school.

Brian Bell became a pariah because of false reporting and accusations.

Brian has been continuing to receive threats over the last two years, “People don’t know how bad it’s been. It certainly brought me closer to God and my family.  It was also mentally draining. I’ve lost friends. At times, I lost the desire to play football. I lost my desire to attend school.  I’ve been depressed, and my family had to move. My parents urged me to press on and not allow hate and false accusations to control my life. It is sad how rumors get started and spread like wildfire. No one can stop them. Rumors are like sheets of paper blowing in the wind and can never be recovered. I used to love it here in Valdosta. Not anymore.”

He told In the Game that he isn’t resentful of the Johnson family, “They lost a son.  That’s a horrible thing for any family to experience.”

His brother, Branden, did make it into college, despite the controversy, but their father Rick could no longer work in the FBI’s local office.  He was reassigned out of state.

Karen Bell wants to warn parents of the tremendous power of social media,

“…Because of what happened to my children on social media, stronger language in our current laws is needed to protect them. No child should ever receive tweets from known adults who tell them to ‘go die…I have complained many times to Twitter with a response from them stating that these types of tweets do not conflict with their policy. Children have committed suicide due to such harassment…”

Brian still hopes to play college football somewhere once he leaves Valdosta.  He said he probably will never go back.

“I’d rather be dead than go through what I’ve been through again.”

Go here to read the full article:  Brian Bell:  The Damage of Rumor


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