Kendrick Johnson: Was the student a victim of a tragic accident or a race hate murder?

Kendrick Johnson's face pictured up close
The death of Kendrick Johnson is still mired in controversy. Pic credit: @ABCNews/YouTube

Kendrick Johnson was a high school teenager from Valdosta, Georgia, with a promising future when his life was cut short in mysterious circumstances.

On January 11, 2013, the body of 17-year-old Kendrick was discovered lying upside down inside a vertically placed wrestling mat in the gymnasium of Lowndes High School in southern Georgia.

The Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office eventually ruled Kendrick’s death a tragic accident, and the federal government agreed. However, Kendrick’s family believes he was murdered, and the authorities engaged in a cover-up to avoid prosecuting anyone for the crime.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation carried out an autopsy. It ruled that Kendrick had died from positional asphyxia, which is caused when an individual cannot breathe because of their body’s position.

The investigators learned that the students often stored equipment, such as sneakers, inside the mats. The students would usually tip over the mats to retrieve their items. These huge mats were nearly 6 feet high and 3 feet wide, and a number of them were stored vertically in a corner of the gym.

But sometimes, the kids would climb up onto the mats, something which Kendrick was known to have done in the past.

Lowndes County cops say Kendrick Johnson fell into a gym mat

Many of the mats had been moved about during the Holiday period. The cops suspect Kendrick had climbed up, perhaps looking for his sneakers, and had tragically fallen inside and suffocated.

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A large wrestling map
Kendrick Johnson’s body was found inside this wrestling mat, which had been placed in a vertical position. Pic credit: Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office

However, the victim’s family, led by father and mother Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, have refused to believe this version of events.

They suspect that their son, who was Black, was the victim of a violent racist attack by White students.

They also believe that law enforcement covered up the killing because it was likely committed by the sons of a former FBI agent.

Kendrick’s parents say their son was victim of a race-hate murder

Kendrick’s parents have now spent over a decade trying to prove that their son was murdered. Kenneth even filmed himself trying to crawl inside one of the gym mats in an attempt to prove it would be impossible to fall into one.

Kenneth Johnson tries to squeeze into a mat
Kenneth Johnson tried to squeeze into a mat to prove Kendrick’s death was murder. Pic credit: @ABCNews/YouTube

Kendrick’s family wasn’t buying the results of the autopsy, so they arranged to have their own autopsy done privately after Kendrick’s remains had been embalmed and buried.

Dr. William Anderson reported in August 2013 that the cause of death was a “blunt force trauma to the right neck involving the right mandible.” In 2018, he added a note to his original report, “Blunt force trauma, right thorax.” This appeared to validate Kendrick’s family’s fears that he was attacked.

Anderson also revealed that Kendrick’s vital organs were missing, and the GBI could not adequately explain what had happened to them. It is now suspected that the organs had likely reached a stage of advanced decomposition and were thrown out. But this all added to the family’s suspicion of a cover-up.

The high school had a reasonably extensive surveillance system in place, which was actually able to track Kendrick’s movements throughout the day he died. The footage showed him entering the gym alone, but unfortunately, the cameras inside the gym were not pointed at the gym mats.

Surveillance footage of Kendrick
This grainy surveillance footage shows Kendrick walking toward the gym. Pic credit: Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office

The Johnsons seized on what seemed to be time lapses in the footage to argue that some footage had been removed. However, these lapses were later explained as being caused by the cameras having different servers. And the choppiness of the footage was caused by the pixels of the images.

Kendrick’s family accused sons of FBI Agent Rick Bell of murder

Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson formed a theory that their son was attacked and murdered by fellow students Brian and Brandon Bell, both sons of former FBI agent Rick Bell.

In 2015, the couple launched a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit against the Bells boys. They also accused their father, the school’s superintendent, and the Lowndes County Sheriff of staging Kendrick’s body and covering up the crime.

However, the investigators could find no evidence that Brian or Brandon Bell had had any contact with Kendrick on the day he died.

There had been a fight between Kendrick and Brian two years previously on a school bus, which proponents of the murder theory used to argue that there was animosity between the pair.

However, fellow students told the cops that Kendrick and Brian appeared to have put their differences aside and had even worked on a school project together since the incident.

The family was forced to withdraw the suit after Kenneth Johnson admitted he had no evidence to support their accusations.

In the meantime, all local Georgia-based Superior Court judges recused themselves from any future investigation into the case, and in 2015, the Northern District of Ohio took over the case.

The Justice Department continued to examine the files until June 2016, when it was announced that no criminal charges would be brought in Kendrick’s case.

A new sheriff reopened the Kendrick Johnson case in 2021

The case was opened once more in 2021 by the new Lowndes County Sheriff, Ashley Paulk. He had not been part of the original investigation and promised to reexamine the case during his 2017 election campaign.

Paulk had officially requested all the files from Justice Department in 2019 but was initially refused. However, after the Johnson family visited with officials, the files were eventually released to Paulk.

In January 2022, Sheriff Paulk released a report and declared Kendrick’s death was just a “weird accident.” He told the press, “There is nothing to substantiate a homicide. Nothing criminal happened.”

Paulk added that he had studied every inch of the files for 15 months and was satisfied that there had been no “criminal action whatsoever.”

The sheriff produced a couple of images showing how the wrestling mats were placed in the gymnasium, and he identified the one where Kendrick was found.

Image of stored mats in the high school gym
This is how the mats were arranged when Kendrick’s body was discovered. Pic credit: Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office

The sheriff believes the 17-year-old had climbed up and clambered along the mats before falling into one.

Tragically he suffocated before he was able to escape or raise the alarm. It’s thought that his remains lay inside the mat for 19 hours before he was discovered.

An image showing the mat Kendrick was found in.
Kendrick’s remains were found inside a mat placed at the back. Pic credit: Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office

Kenneth Johnson maintains his son’s murder was covered up

Perhaps understandably, Kendrick’s parents were still convinced their son was murdered. Kendrick’s father, Kenneth Johnson, said at the time, “We have not had faith in Lowndes County.”

“We knew what the outcome would be from the very beginning. You can’t do an investigation with the same investigators who covered it up. They’re not going to uncover something that they covered up.” He added it “doesn’t make sense.”

In a speech outside the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office, Johnson warned members of the public not to trust the sheriff’s department, and he vowed to continue fighting to find out what happened to his son.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Paulk responded by stating he would put up $500,000 of his own money as a reward.

He stated, “[Kendrick’s] parents have called me a liar and continue to state that Kendrick was murdered. Because of these statements, I am personally — with my own funds — offering a reward of one-half million dollars … to anyone who comes forward with information that results in the arrest and conviction.”

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