For more than two years, two Valdosta families have anxiously awaited the findings of a federal investigation into how Kendrick Johnson came to die in a rolled-up gym mat.
One is the family of the dead 17-year-old. Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson remain confident that investigators will ultimately bring charges against two brothers they believe killed their son, according to a family spokesman.
The other is the family of Brian and Branden Bell, the teenagers named in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Johnsons earlier this year. The Johnsons claim that the brothers killed Kendrick at the behest of their father, FBI agent Rick Bell.
Despite alibis supported by witnesses and by surveillance video — evidence that led the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department to rule Johnson’s death an accident — a cloud of suspicion still hovers over the Bell family. Rick and Karen Bell countersued the Johnsons to clear the family’s name.
“Let’s get the veil of a murder accusation off these young men,” said Brice Ladson, lawyer for the brothers. “There’s no reason for prosecutors not to state that the investigation into Brian and Branden Bell is over.”
But U.S. Attorney Michael Moore, who championed the investigation for two years, has just resigned, and he left office without ever revealing key evidence that seemingly would go a long way toward settling this mystery.
That evidence: first, the FBI long ago reviewed the school surveillance video amid claims by the Johnsons’ attorneys that the video had been doctored. Moore told the Johnsons he would release the FBI’s findings on the video but never did, according to the Johnson family’s spokesman, Marcus Coleman.
Second, the results of a second official autopsy, requested by Moore, also remain under wraps. Attorneys for the Bells so far have been rebuffed in their efforts to view that report.
After 2 years, ‘there is no indictment’
Investigators had sought to delay the Bell family’s civil lawsuit for six months, claiming that it might compromise their criminal investigation. But a federal judge refused to grant the delay.
“This investigation has been going on for two years, and there is no indictment,” said South Georgia Circuit Superior Court Judge J. Richard Porter. “It would not be appropriate to intervene without an indictment.”
That same day, U.S. Attorney Moore announced his resignation. The investigation he opened nearly 25 months ago, even after the Justice Department turned down an initial request for a civil rights inquiry, is now being run out of the U.S. attorney’s office in northern Ohio.
Why it was moved out of state is open to interpretation. Moore has declined to comment on the case. A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Steven Dettlebach of the northern Ohio office would confirm only his involvement in the case
Former federal prosecutor Tom Withers, who is not connected to the Johnson case, said transferring the case to northern Ohio indicates “this case is going nowhere.”
“Goodness gracious, it’s been two years. The whole thing is bizarre” said Withers, a Savannah criminal defense lawyer. “I think Justice wants to have an adult pair of eyes take look at it.”
‘Rumor and the politics of race’
Supporters of the Johnsons, meanwhile, view it differently.
“The request (to stay the civil case) for six months speaks volumes,” Coleman said. “We still feel extremely confident.”
Coleman pointed to testimony from Nelson Rhone, an investigator with the Justice Department assigned to the case in October 2014, who, in affidavit filed to suspend the civil case, said “substantial evidence is under review,” including allegations of witness tampering and obstruction of justice.
Rhone said the Bell’s lawsuit could “seriously jeopardize the federal investigation” and would have a “chilling effect on witnesses who have yet to testify before the grand jury and may result in additional witness tampering.”
Ladson, the Bell brother’s lawyer, said it’s clear federal prosecutors are now focused on the boys’ father, Rick Bell.
In July, phones and computers belonging to the Bell family were seized during an early morning raid by federal agents. The U.S. attorney also collected emails related to the case from the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office.
Critics of Moore say he needs to reveal his findings once and for all.
“Moore’s investigation began with nothing more than rumor and the politics of race, he should know he has violated his oath of office and should hang his head in disgrace as he leaves,” Ron Hosko, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, wrote in a letter to the Valdosta Daily Times.
‘Cover up what really happened’
But Coleman, speaking for the Johnsons, said Moore’s investigation has met with resistance because “members of the community have conspired to cover up what really happened to K.J.”
“There seems to be a position that Michael Moore owes the public an apology for uncovering evidence,” Coleman said. “It’s ridiculous.”
Whatever the result, Karen Bell said the damage to her family is done. They’ve received numerous death threats that forced them to leave Valdosta, she said. And Brian Bell’s promising football career took a big hit when Florida State University, wary of negative publicity, withdrew its scholarship offer. He now plays for Akron University.
“This whole case has been run on the backs of unsubstantiated high school gossip,” Karen Bell told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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.”
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.