The Mysterious Death of Kendrick Johnson

On January 11, 2013, 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson was found dead inside of a rolled up wrestling mat in the gymnasium of his Georgia high school.  A preliminary investigation determined that his death was caused by accidental asphyxiation.  Johnson’s family hired a private pathologist who concluded that his death was a homicide, caused by blunt force trauma.  U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia began an investigation into Johnson’s death in the fall of 2013.

Johnson was found headfirst in the center of a rolled up wrestling mat.  His body was discovered by fellow students who had climbed up to the top of a cluster of mats.  Each mat was 6 ft. tall and 3 ft. wide.

The GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) performed the autopsy.  They hypothesized that Johnson had fallen into the mat while looking for a shoe and died after suffocated when he got stuck.  Three students that were interviewed by investigators stated that it was common for students to store their shoes behind the mats or under the mats to avoid having to pay for a locker to keep them in.  Johnson was found without shoes on.

Another student that was interviewed stated that he and Johnson shared a pair of sneakers and that after gym; Johnson would throw the pair inside the middle of the mats.

“We never had credible information that indicated this was anything other than an accident,” said Lt. Stryde Jones.

Johnson’s family has always maintained that the investigation was substandard and that their son was killed.  An independent autopsy concluded that he was killed by blunt force trauma.  After the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia announced they would review the case, the FBI announced they were participating jointly with the office.

Johnson’s family then subsequently filed legal action to open a coroner’s inquiry into the strange case of Kendrick Johnson’s death.  A judge delayed the decision pending the federal investigation’s outcome.  The family demanded that the governor of Georgia authorize the action.  The family, with the NAACP, held a rally in Atlanta to push the governor for action.  The governor decided to wait for the federal investigation to conclude.

To make matters worse, the independent autopsy found that after the initial autopsy, Kendrick Johnson’s body had been stuffed with newspapers.  The funeral home, which processed the body after the GBI investigation, stated they never received Johnson’s organs.

Johnson’s internal organs were said to have been “destroyed through natural process” and “discarded by the prosecutor,” according to the funeral home.  That left a void, so the funeral home did the best they could.  It is standard practice, according to the funeral home director, to fill a body with other items, including cotton, if necessary.

Johnson’s family filed a complaint against the funeral home with the Georgia Secretary of State.  The government agency concluded that the funeral home did not follow best practices and could have used a material more acceptable.  The investigation did clear the funeral home of any improprieties.  The Johnson family has filed a lawsuit against the funeral home seeking damages.  In the fall of 2013, CNN filed a FOIA request, which resulted in the release of 290 hours of surveillance video from 35 cameras at the school.

CNN hired forensic analyst Grant Fredericks to review the footage.  He stated that there was at least 3 hours of video missing from 2 different cameras.  In addition, the mat area of the gym is believed to be a blind spot in the school’s security system.

The two cameras covering the entrance of the gym should have shown who (if anyone) entered before or after Johnson, but they showed nothing.  The family expressed concerns that that was the missing footage and that it could have been purposefully edited.  President of the Valdosta-Lowndes County chapter of the SCLC, a civil rights organization, and the lead investigator for the SCLC, stated that they believed there is no official cover-up.

The family of Kendrick Johnson filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Lowndes County Board of Education, its superintendent and the high school principal.  The lawsuit states that Johnson was “violently assaulted, severely injured, suffered great physical pain and mental anguish, and subjected to insult and loss of life”.  The lawsuit also implies a possible race-based hate crime.  The lawsuit goes on to allege that the defendants were negligent in their duty to make sure that Johnson’s right to equal protection was upheld.

The lawsuit mentions a previous incident where another student attacked Johnson.  According to the lawsuit, the other student “had a history of provoking and attacking” Johnson at school even in the presence of the “coaching staff” for the school.  The suit also alleges that school officials failed to “properly monitor the activities of students throughout all areas” of the campus and to “maintain a properly functioning video surveillance system.”

Almost from the beginning of the case, the public and the Johnson family focused on the Bell family and their two sons as suspects in Johnson’s death.

In 2014, the parents of two former students (the Bells) sued Ebony Magazine for a series of articles that named the students and implied they killed Johnson.  The magazine used pseudonyms, but otherwise accurately reported identifiable characteristics including that their father was an FBI agent.  This allowed others who knew the boys to identify them, which led to harassment.  The article alleged that the motivation for the murder was that Johnson was intimate with their son’s girlfriend.  The article cited an anonymous source at the sheriff’s office.

In January of 2015, the Johnson family filed another lawsuit against 38 individuals.  The defendants include 3 former classmates of Johnson, local, state, and federal officials, the school superintendent, the crime lab, the police chief, sheriff’s deputies involved in the investigation, the city of Valdosta, the state medical examiner, the GBI, the 5 agents who investigated the case, and an FBI agent.

The lawsuit alleges that the FBI agent (the father of the two Bell boys) ordered his two sons and another student to attack Johnson.

U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, Michael J. Moore, said in a statement that a federal investigation is still open, and that “the investigation has proven more complicated and taken longer than originally anticipated.”