Lacking obvious answers, only far-fetched theories remain when trying to explain the death of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson, found head-down inside a rolled-up mat standing beside a school gym’s wall.
Was the Valdosta teen the victim of a brutal killing, or a freak accident? And why did his organs go missing after his death, with his body stuffed with newspaper?
The case, now 9 months old, has sparked a swelling clamor from all corners of the country for justice that many observers believe has been denied. Johnson’s case has been a hot topic on websites, talk shows and social media.
Johnson’s parents said the evidence is too fishy to believe anything other than that their son was attacked, killed and hidden in the mat.
They don’t buy the official police explanation that Johnson died after reaching into the upright mat for a shoe, got stuck and couldn’t breathe.
Johnson, a boisterous sophomore and athlete at South Georgia’s Lowndes High School, was last seen Jan. 10 as he walked into the school’s old gym. He was headed to weightlifting class — his favorite class as he tried to earn his way back onto the football team, which he’d quit the year before because he felt coaches were picking on him, said his mother, Jacquelyn Johnson.
He never made it to weightlifting and was marked absent.
Students found his body the next morning.
Police believe Johnson walked toward several large mats in the gym — used for wrestling and cheerleading — that were rolled into cylinders and stacked vertically in the corner. Students were known to store shoes in or around the 6-foot-tall mats, and police determined that Johnson was probably trying to retrieve one of his shoes to change into before class by climbing on top of the mats and reaching in.
That version of events doesn’t make sense to his father, Kenneth Johnson. How would his son, whose shoulders were 19 inches wide, fit inside the mat’s 14-inch hole? Why would he even try to reach into the mat, knowing that it was too tall for him to grasp at the shoe?
“He was a young man with his head screwed on tight. He wasn’t a kid who went out and got into all types of trouble,” his father said.
Indeed, the Johnsons say their son, known for his outgoing attitude and dreadlocked hair, never had any run-ins with police.
His mother’s theory?
“I think he was beaten by multiple kids, and adults stepped in to cover up for the kids,” Jacquelyn Johnson said. “He wouldn’t climb into a mat. He would have picked up those mats and thrown them down.”
She said a private pathologist hired by the family to perform a second autopsy confirmed her suspicions. After the family dug up Kendrick Johnson’s remains from a city cemetery, Dr. Bill Anderson concluded in an Aug. 15 report that the teenager had died from a blow to his face that caused a heart attack.
But authorities stand by their conclusion that he died from positional asphyxia, in which his face-down position in the mat restricted his breathing.
NOT OPEN AND SHUT
The case has generated questions ever since in Valdosta, a town of 55,000 residents about four hours south of Atlanta with two high schools known for football championships.
Lt. Stryde Jones, who supervised the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office investigation of Johnson’s death, said he sympathizes with the parents, but investigators couldn’t find evidence of foul play.
“Most likely, Kendrick was quite simply trying to reach into the mat and get his shoe out,” Jones said. “I don’t think it’s open and shut. We put a lot of personnel into this. It was the finding we determined. If new evidence comes forward, we’re open to looking at that.”
Then there’s the question of what happened to Johnson’s organs and who stuffed his body with newspaper, outraging his parents and arousing their suspicions that police were covering up evidence.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation conducted the first autopsy on Jan. 14 and released an autopsy report on May 2. After doing the autopsy, the GBI returned Johnson’s organs to his body before shipping it to a funeral home in Valdosta, said GBI spokeswoman Sherry Lang.
But an attorney for Harrington Funeral Home, Roy Copeland, wrote in an letter emailed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that, according to the county coroner, the internal organs were not sent back to Valdosta. Rather, the organs were disposed of by the State Crime Lab because of decomposition. Copeland wrote that the county coroner has said a death investigator with the State Crime Lab confirmed the disposal of the organs.
Copeland also wrote that Harrington Funeral Home prepared Johnson’s body in compliance with the standard of care for a decomposed body with missing organs.
“A young man is dead and there does not appear to be a plausible explanation for the cause of his death. Mr. (Antonio) Harrington, Harrington Funeral Home Inc. and all members of his staff … empathize with the Johnson family and are hopeful that whomever perpetrated this terrible crime against the Johnsons’ son will be brought to justice,” Copeland wrote.
The Georgia secretary of state’s office, which regulates funeral homes, has opened an investigation into Harrington Funeral Home, said spokesman Jared Thomas.
Anderson, the doctor who conducted the second autopsy, said he found evidence of bleeding and bruising on the right side of Johnson’s neck and jaw that the state autopsy had missed because that area of his head hadn’t been dissected. The injury was about 2 or 3 centimeters long and led Anderson to conclude Johnson died of “blunt force trauma.”
Stimulation of the carotid body, a nerve that monitors blood pressure, can slow the heart rate to a standstill, causing death, he said.
“He was beaten to death,” Anderson said. “I’m very confident that there was no more than one blow, and that blow happened to be in the one spot that caused cardiac arrest.”
CASE CLOSED, FOR NOW
At the 3,000-student Lowndes High, several of Johnson’s former classmates said they don’t believe his death was an accident.
“Someone killed him, because you can’t fall into a mat,” said Dalton Arnold, a sophomore, who spoke while surrounded by tailgaters preparing for Friday night’s football game.
Roger Manning, a senior, said the facts don’t add up to the conclusion that Johnson somehow wedged himself into the mat.
“The mats are too tight for anyone his size to fit in,” Manning said.
For now, the sheriff’s investigation is closed unless a witness comes forward or new evidence is found, Jones said.
Johnson’s family will seek a court order allowing them to review the school’s video footage of the gym, said their attorney, Chevene King. Student privacy laws have prevented the video’s release so far, and Jones said the video showed Johnson entering the gym — but not what happened afterward.
King also wants federal authorities to get involved. Michael Moore, the U.S. attorney for Georgia’s Middle District, couldn’t be reached for comment, but his office’s voicemail system asks callers to leave a message if they have information about the Kendrick Johnson case.
Johnson’s parents also asked the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to get involved because their son was black, and they believe race could have played a role in the motives of his attackers or in law enforcement’s handling of the case. The Justice Department didn’t find sufficient evidence to support an investigation.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent reporter Mark Niesse to Valdosta to ask hard questions about a case that is drawing widespread attention nationwide. He spoke with Kendrick Johnson’s family, students, police and lawyers to find out more about how the 17-year-old student died. Christian Boone researched the case and interviewed the GBI and secretary of state’s office from Atlanta to shed light on an increasingly baffling story.