Authorities Insist Kendrick Johnson Died From A Tragic Accident, But His Family Thinks Otherwise
Kendrick Johnson was last seen on January 10, 2013, walking into the gymnasium of Lowndes High School in Valdosta, GA. He was reported missing that night by his mother, and the next day, after climbing on top of rolled-up mats in the gym, fellow students discovered his body.
When investigators were called to the scene, they quickly concluded Kendrick’s death was accidental. Due to the location Kendrick’s body was found, investigators believed positional asphyxiation was a reasonable cause of death. However, multiple inconsistencies within official reports led Kendrick’s family and community to question if his death was accidental or a cover-up by local authorities.
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Kendrick Johnson Was Found Dead Inside A Rolled-Up Gym Mat On January 11, 2013
On the morning of January 11, 2013, students participating in gym class began gathering around a group of wrestling mats in the corner of the gymnasium. When students approached their usual hangout spot, they noticed an odd smell in the air and the feet of a body peeking out from the top of a mat.
After students notified their teacher and the administration, the local sheriff's department was contacted and dispatched to Lowndes High School. Upon entering the gym, investigators found the body of a student stuck upside down in the gym mat. Having been aware of Kendrick Johnson’s missing person report from the day prior, investigators were quickly able to identify the body as that of 17-year-old Kendrick.
Local Authorities Ruled Kendrick's Death An Accident
Investigators believed Kendrick most likely crawled headfirst into the mat to retrieve a pair of sneakers. Students frequently threw their sneakers on top of the mats in the gym when they were not in use.
Due to this, investigators assumed Kendrick’s death was due to him becoming trapped within the mat. Sheriff Ashley Paulk of Lowndes County said, “It’s a weird accident […] There is nothing to substantiate a homicide." Investigators were ready to close the case by deeming Kendrick’s cause of death positional asphyxiation.
A Private Medical Examiner Hired By Kendrick's Family Determined The Cause Of Death Was Blunt Force Trauma
Kendrick’s family believed their son’s death was not an accident but a homicide. They were determined to find answers to bring Kendrick’s assailants to justice, so the family hired a private medical examiner. Dr. Bill Anderson performed a second autopsy on Kendrick’s body and determined his cause of death was due to "unexplained, apparent non-accidental, blunt force trauma" to the neck. However, the autopsy results did not convince investigators Kendrick’s death was due to homicide.
Anderson also found Kendrick’s body missing organs and stuffed with newspapers. Anderson stated, "When we got the body for the second autopsy, the organs - the heart, lungs, liver, etc. - were not with the body; they were all absent." Every organ from the top of Kendrick's head to his pelvis was gone. The Johnsons were unaware of Kendrick’s missing organs until Anderson's discovery. Only two organizations had custody of Kendrick's body and access to his organs the first time he was buried: the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, who were responsible for conducting the first autopsy in January, and Harrington Funeral Home, who was responsible for embalming Kendrick's body for burial, days later.
In a letter to the Johnsons' attorney, Harrington Funeral Home owner Antonio Harrington denies he received Kendrick's organs. He writes, "His internal organs were destroyed through a natural process and henceforth were discarded before the body was sent back to Valdosta." The funeral home was investigated and found to have not done anything wrong, and again the Johnson family was left with no answers.
A Third Autopsy In 2014 Initially Indicated Accidental Death, But Was Later Amended To 'Undetermined'
In August 2014, the Armed Forces Medical Examiner conducted the third and final autopsy on Kendrick's body. The death was then listed again as positional asphyxiation and the manner accidental. In 2016, the agency amended the autopsy to say the cause and manner of death were “undetermined,” according to the sheriff.
Paulk, the county sheriff, stated in his report:
This change is attributed to the fact that additional materials were submitted for evaluation by the United States Department of Justice; the most significant item appears to be a report that states a bruise was found on the right side of the jaw.
Although Kendrick’s cause of death had been changed to undetermined, the courts struggled to find additional evidence to prove Kendrick’s death was due to homicide, and the Johnson family was left again to find their own answers.
A 2015 Wrongful Death Suit Alleges The Sons Of A Former FBI Agent May Know More Than They're Telling
In 2015, attorneys for Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson filed a $100 million lawsuit in an attempt to land Kendrick’s assailants in prison for good. The lawsuit claimed several former classmates beat their son to death inside the gym of his Georgia high school in January 2013. Naming 37 people in total as defendants, including members of local law enforcement and Valdosta, Kendrick’s lawsuit was deemed “frivolous” by Brice Ladson, the attorney for two boys at the forefront of the investigation.
Two students whose father was an FBI agent were the prime suspects of the investigations after they were accused of Kendrick’s wrongful death. Attorneys claimed the brothers “violently assaulted” Kendrick in response to their father’s command and Kendrick “suffered a fatal injury, which led to his death.” These claims were made after an alleged recording was released of Brian Bell confessing to the slaying. Sheriff Paulk said the Johnsons came to him with a recording they had paid $1,000 for after they were contacted by a man claiming to be the Bells’ second cousin. On the recording, a male voice stated:
They will catch me anyway. I should’ve never done this. I was young and stupid. Kendrick didn’t deserve this, man. They’re going to catch me anyways.
However, the legitimacy of the tape had been questioned. The man who provided the videotape had previously been arrested for falsifying information. This discovery led investigators to drop all charges against the named assailants.
The Bells Have Alibis For The Time Of Kendrick's Death
The two boys accused of killing Kendrick had solid alibis to absolve them of any accusations against them. Subsequent testimony placed Branden Bell on a school bus on the way to a wrestling tournament when Kendrick was last seen alive, and surveillance footage showed Brian in class on the other side of the campus.
Although both were nowhere near the gym when Kendrick's death occurred, the phones and computers belonging to Brian, Branden, the Bell parents, and Brian’s girlfriend were all seized by investigators. When local and state investigators concluded Kendrick had died accidentally, both brothers were cleared of any involvement in the case.