As the federal probe into the unusual death of Kendrick Johnson progressed, it seemed investigators and the Valdosta teen’s parents were on the same page.
Benjamin Crump, former co-counsel for Johnson’s parents, confirmed as much in January 2015 when he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Michael Moore, the former U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia who opened the investigation, believed Kendrick was murdered. By then investigators had zeroed in on Brian and Branden Bell, sending them target letters indicating “substantial evidence” linking them to a crime.
Now, newly released evidence uncovered in a civil suit filed by the Bells reveal just how open the lines of communication were between federal investigators and the Johnson family.
They show a blogger — identified as Ralph Moss, or Ralph James Moss — with close ties to the Johnson family posting, in March 2015 and again three months later, about raids to be conducted by federal marshals at the Bells’ homes in Valdosta and Jacksonville. Those military-style raids were carried out on July 21 of that year.
The federal investigation was closed last summer with the Justice Department concluding it found insufficient evidence that would “prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone or some group of people willfully violated Kendrick Johnson’s civil rights or committed any other prosecutable federal crime.”
Johnson’s body was discovered in a rolled-up gym mat in January 2013 in the old gymnasium at Lowndes High School. Local and state investigators ruled his death an accident, determining he had died of “positional asphyxia.”
While Moss could have simply surmised that search warrants would be executed, the timing is suspicious. And Karen Bell, Brian and Branden’s mother, said only the Johnsons’ attorneys would have known they had moved to Jacksonville.
“No one would have ever said the U.S. marshals (were leading the raid) if they didn’t absolutely know from the inside, because at that time everyone was talking about how the FBI was investigating,” she said.
A former federal prosecutor told The AJC that repercussions from such a disclosure are significant.
“You’ve got someone from the inside who is compromising the integrity of the investigation at a minimum,” said former Assistant U.S. Attorney Buddy Parker. “I can’t say if it’s criminal or not, but clearly it shouldn’t be done.”
The source of the leak is unclear, though the FBI can probably be ruled out since it had withdrawn from the investigation in September 2014 after it turned over a video analysis showing the Bell brothers were nowhere near the old gym. Prosecutors utilized a Washington, D.C., police officer, Nelson Rhone, in place of the FBI.
“This is unusual in the extreme,” said Savannah defense attorney Tom Withers, a former federal prosecutor. “You don’t want to lose that element of surprise or risk the officers’ safety.”
That wouldn’t have been an issue in this case, since the Johnsons wouldn’t want to do anything that would help the Bells. But it leads to questions about the influence the Johnsons and their supporters may have exerted on the investigation.
“I wouldn’t be providing the substance of interviews. You run the risk of compromising the integrity of the investigation,” Parker said. “You’ve got to be able to prove that the local investigators were wrong. You can’t presume corruption. You can’t assume collusion.”
TIMELINE IN KENDRICK JOHNSON CASE
Jan. 11, 2013: The body of Kendrick Johnson, a 17-year-old Lowndes High sophomore, is found inside a rolled-up gym mat in the school’s old gymnasium.
Oct. 21, 2013: Kendrick’s parents, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, request a coroner’s inquest they hope will force the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office to reopen the case.
Oct. 31, 2013: Michael Moore, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, announces a formal review “of the facts and investigation surrounding the death of Kendrick Johnson.”
Sept. 9, 2014: FBI completes video analysis concluding “persons of interest” — including Brian Bell, targeted by prosecutors — were in “different areas” of the Lowndes High campus at the time Johnson was seen entering the school’s old gym.
Jan. 12, 2015: Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson file a $100 million lawsuit alleging local and state law enforcement conspired with school officials to cover up the involvement of two classmates in their son’s death.
March 6, 2015: The parents of the teenage brothers named in the Johnson’s wrongful death lawsuit countersue, alleging libel and slander and seeking $1 million in damages.
July 21, 2015: Federal agents seize computers and cellphones belonging to the brothers and their parents.
Nov. 4, 2015: Judge denies Justice Department’s request to delay evidence-gathering in the countersuit; U.S. attorney Moore announces his resignation.
June 20, 2016: Justice Department announces “there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone or some group of people willfully violated Kendrick Johnson’s civil rights or committed any other prosecutable federal crime.” The decision came following more than 100 interviews, the review of “tens of thousands” of emails and text messages, and the review of surveillance videos from Lowndes High.