Kendrick Johnson was like any other sports-loving teenager who aspired to finish his studies, played sports on the side, and dreamed of competing face to face with the biggest names in football. Unfortunately tragedy cut Kendrick’s life short, and what was initially ruled out as an accident slowly peeled away layers that revealed a more macabre outcome.
Kendrick Johnson in His Youth
Kendrick Lamar Johnson was born on October 10, 1995 to parents Kenneth and Jacquelyn “Jackie” Johnson in Valdosta, Georgia. He grew up with a passion for sports, good manners, and was described by his parents as the life of their house due to his jokester nature which persisted until his teenage years. He was known to wake everyone up in the household and easily made a laugh out of many things, sometimes at the cost of annoying his older sister.
The sporty and cheerful lad enjoyed playing basketball and football, and running track. He consistently joined sports teams and his love for football made it clear that he dreamed of playing for the Florida Gators football team in college, and eventually to the NFL after graduation. He wasn’t a troublemaker; his parents never received any calls regarding disciplinary problems, and he ensured his grades weren’t compromised by his active sports life.
Kendrick’s mother described him as someone who preferred to stay at home with friends he’d known since his elementary and middle school days, only to seldom go outside to grab something to eat or to visit the mall. He never liked hanging out with his friends in other places.
He enrolled in Lowndes High School in Valdosta, which in recent years became a football powerhouse, where he continued his athletic ventures. Standing at 5’10 and weighing at around 160 pounds, Kendrick played as a power forward in basketball, an undersized yet physical safety in football, and ran on track with boundless stamina. He now liked two more college football teams namely the Ohio Bobcats, and the UNLV Rebels. He dreamed of following his football idols Jeremiah Ratliff and Randall Godfrey, both Lowndes alumni, to the NFL. His football team played with Valdosta High and competed with the state’s greatest football squads.
Kendrick Johnson Disappearance & Death
On January 10, 2013, Kendrick arrived at school in the morning. He attended his classes, laughed with his friends, it was another ordinary day.
That is until he stepped into the gymnasium at around 1:00 in the afternoon. After that, Kendrick vanished without a trace.
His mother became worried as Kendrick still wasn’t home at 10 in the evening. An hour before midnight she patrolled the school and, an hour later, she called the police where the dispatcher dismissed her saying that Kendrick might just be out with a girl. She refused to believe that as Kendrick never failed to call whenever he goes home late.
The following morning she went to the school and waited in the guidance counselor’s office. The latter was on the phone, and due to the loud volume she heard the other line say something about a body found in the gym.
Based on the incident report from the sheriff’s department, a girl saw two feet inside one of the cheerleading mats that were rolled up vertically. Philip Pieplow, the head athletic trainer, pushed the mat onto its sides and revealed the corpse of a young black male from the waist up, along with some blood and vomit. Several called 911, officers arrived, students were interviewed, and in the afternoon the local coroner, Bill Watson, was called. Six hours after the arrival of the first officers, Kendrick Johnson was officially declared dead.
That night the sheriff’s department stated that it was an accident, and that no foul play was involved. The detectives continued with the investigation and connected the facts into a theory. The sheriff’s version declared that Kendrick hid his sneakers in the mat (a common practice by students to avoid paying for lockers) and due to the holiday break the mats were moved along with his shoes. Kendrick had to reach into a rolled mat and fell into the opening. His body became stuck vertically, causing blood to rush to his head, and the tightness of the mat around his body acted like a cocoon which asphyxiated him.
That version failed to convince Kendrick’s parents. The mat’s 14-inch hole wasn’t wide enough to accommodate Kendrick’s 19-inch shoulders. Aside from that, if he did fall into the hole with outstretched arms, his legs should’ve stuck out of the opening as they were only at around six feet tall. His parents also argued that it was impossible that nobody heard Kendrick cry out for help, provided that the next class began 14 minutes after his last sighting at the gym. Students played basketball at the gym in the afternoon, and a practice of the color guard was held at night.
It was impossible that not even a single person heard Kendrick’s screams, and even more impossible that Kendrick didn’t exert any verbal effort in seeking rescue.
Another inconsistency in the investigative report was the teenager’s other pair of shoes. It was claimed that Kendrick reached for the shoes at the mat’s bottom, but they were stuck between him and the mat. It appeared as if the shoes fell after him.
Blood was also discovered 50 feet away from the mats. DNA tests confirmed that it wasn’t Kendrick’s, along with a statement from a color guard member who claimed that she was injured the same night Kendrick disappeared. The Johnsons saw the efforts in determining whose blood was it to be lackluster.
Kendrick’s parents connected their own pieces of the puzzle and came up with a theory of their own: their boy was murdered.
They found it odd that the coroner was summoned six hours after the officers arrived on the scene, contrary to Georgia’s law where authorities must immediately inform the coroner at the discovery of the body. The local coroner Bill Watson himself expressed disappointment regarding that, saying that it was an unfair practice.
Eddie Tooley, the grandfather of Kendrick, came forward to see the body as the teenager’s father Kenneth was still on Pennsylvania. His request, however, was denied for reasons unknown despite Georgia law stating that a dead body must be released within 24 hours after a request was made unless foul play was officially suspected. The sheriff declared no trace of foul play and ruled Kendrick’s death as an accident. Eddie only managed to get a glimpse of his grandson’s body in a photograph, identified by his dreadlocks. Even when Kenneth Johnson got home the family was still denied access to the body. The father called for a press conference and spoke to the reporters about his wishes to see Kendrick’s body before it is moved to Macon for autopsy.
Eventually he was allowed access in the Valdosta-Lowndes Regional Crime Laboratory. Kendrick’s body bore blackened skin, swollen lips, misshapen head, scratches on his hands, facial discoloration, and even clipped fingernails despite the fact that Kendrick always kept them long. The autopsy results supported the sheriff’s version of the story where the teenager suffocated with just minor tears and scratches. What Kenneth saw strongly contradicted the results.
After the autopsy in Macon, Kendrick’s body was returned to Valdosta. The one who transported the corpse, Steve Owens, signed an acknowledgement sheet which indicated three t-shirts, black shorts, a pair of pants, boxes, and two white socks that came along with the body. Georgia law states that the items found along with the body must be returned the family. Instead the Johnsons only received broken earphones. They believe that the clothing must’ve contained evidence that suggested physical resistance or at least DNA and the disappearance of the items just gave more weight to their theory.
Dissatisfied with the findings on the autopsy, the Johnsons had their boy’s body exhumed from the cemetery and sent to Florida for another autopsy and a second opinion. Dr. William Anderson, the pathologist who conducted the second autopsy, noted blunt force trauma to the right of the jaw and neck. The first autopsy only noted bruising on that same part. Also the injuries were close to the lower part of Kendrick’s brain stem, a location where physical trauma can easily incapacitate and kill a person.
Also, during this autopsy, Kendrick’s body was revealed to be stuffed full of paper. The funeral home that received his body mentioned that the organs were nowhere to be found, and the police said that the organs were discarded.
The Johnsons submitted Dr. Anderson’s autopsy results to the local coroner, the United States Department of Justice, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). The GBI announced that they are satisfied with their own autopsy, while the Department of Justice reported that the case is still being reviewed and formal investigation has not yet been launched. Eventually a federal investigation was launched by the U.S. Attorney Michael Moore ten months after Kendrick’s death but so far no findings have ever been released.
Following a court request by CNN, surveillance tapes from the cameras on the gym were released which contained 290 hours of footage. Grant Federicks, a forensic analyst, noted that two cameras have tapes with almost two hours worth of missing footage.
Kendrick Johnson – The Aftermath
Kenneth and Jackie Johnson furiously worked to have their message heard, to reveal the truth of what happened to their son, and to put those responsible behind bars. They sat on chairs near the Lowndes County courthouse, and wore white shirts with the words I AM KENDRICK JOHNSON written in red. They gave away shirts with different slogans to their supporters who related or sympathized with their plight, and there are those who made fun of their struggle and even tried to convince them to let Kendrick rest in peace. They also use their son’s death picture to show the damage on his face that contradicts the fact that it was an accident.
A wrongful death lawsuit was filed by the Johnsons against the Board of Education of Lowndes County, along with its superintendent and the principal. It bore no names of those who were directly responsible, but instead pointed out the ignorance of the defendants to the reports that a white student harassed Kendrick multiple times, even in the presence of school staff.
Two students were named as possible suspects to Kendrick’s death by several articles published in Ebony Magazine. Even though the articles resorted to pseudonyms, their vivid descriptions of the students were accurate enough to identify who they were. An anonymous email sent to the sheriff’s department was the basis, which claimed that the younger of the two suspects planned Kendrick’s death after the latter’s sexual relations with the older suspect’s girlfriend. Their parents filed a lawsuit amounting to $5 million against the magazine as they were being harassed after the publication of the articles.
Kendrick Johnson’s Legacy in 2016
As Kendrick’s parents continue the fight for justice, circumstances have came and went that are both in and against their favor.
On April 2013 the parents, along with five other family members (who collectively named their group the KJ 7) formed a human barricade and blocked access to the Lowndes County Courthouse as part of their protest as they weren’t given cooperation by the sheriff’s department. They were informed to stop the act, but their refusal to oblige charged them with civil disobedience. In January 2015, they were handed a guilty verdict and slapped with a 12 month suspended sentence given that they don’t get arrested for the same charge again. The Johnson’s attorney, Chevene King, expressed disappointment as the family only sought to bring Kendrick’s injustice to light.
On the same month, in the DeKalb County Superior Court, the Johnsons filed a civil lawsuit against 38 people ranging FBI agent Rick Bell and his sons Brian and Branden, the Lowndes County school superintendent Wes Taylor, federal, local, and state officials, the crime lab of Valdosta-Lowndes, the Valdosta police chief, several deputies of the sheriff, the medical examiner of Georgia, the GBI and five of its agents, and the city of Valdosta itself. The lawsuit stems from the allegation that a girl lured Kendrick into the gymnasium where he was attacked and killed by Brian and Branden, at the orders of their father, and the rest were involved due to creating a conspiracy that ensured the murder was covered up. The Bells filed a countersuit in March, denying the accusations and claiming that the Johnsons spread defamatory messages on the internet.
Brian claimed that he was in class during Kendrick’s alleged murder while Branden was preparing for his trip to Macon with members of the wrestling team. Federal investigators seized the computers and other electronic gadgets of the Bell family as part of their investigation. The two brothers were also interviewed by WSB-TV Atlanta in August 2015 wherein they denied all accusations against them.