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Valdosta gym mat death: Cover-up or political football?

It's been nearly two years since Kendrick Johnson's body was found in a gym mat and just more than a year since a federal investigation was launched into the Lowndes High School sophomore's death and the subsequent findings by state and local law enforcement.

And still, the mystery lingers, at least to the 17-year-old's parents and their supporters who point to the ongoing federal probe as confirmation foul play was involved. Michael Moore, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, has declined comment.

The Johnsons have have never believed their son died accidentally, as the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office concluded last year. Rumors that two teen sons of a Valdosta FBI agent were involved persist despite seemingly ironclad alibis that have not been publicly contradicted. And the cover-up that's been alleged would require the involvement of both the sheriff's office and Lowndes High School, along with the state medical examiner's office, which ruled Johnson suffocated when he was trapped in the mat, presumably while reaching for a sneaker.

"The GBI would have absolutely no motive to cover up anything," Chief Medical Examiner Kris Sperry, who consulted with the GBI's crime lab in Macon on the autopsy,  told Channel 2 Action News last year, adding he would "stake his reputation" that Johnson's death was not a homicide.

Sperry is well-regarded by prosecutors and defense attorneys alike, and in 2003 he demonstrated his independence when he took the unusual step of testifying against his employer in the murder trial of Lawrenceville teen Christopher Routh. His testimony was pivotal in Routh's acquittal.

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But despite that, and despite the alibis of the FBI agent's sons, the siblings remain a part of the federal probe. Last week I reported that the brothers, along with their father, had received target letters from U.S. Attorney Michael Moore. Such letters are required to be sent whenever a prosecutor believes they have "substantial evidence linking (the recipient) to a commission of a crime and who, in the judgment of the prosecutor, is a putative defendant,” according to the United States Attorneys’ Manual.

So what is that evidence? The U.S. Attorney's Office won't say.

Meanwhile, the Lowndes Sheriff's office said they confirmed the brothers' alibis after learning of a 2011 scuffle between the youngest sibling and Johnson. Lowndes Sheriff’s Dept. Lt. Stryde Jones told the AJC the brothers were never considered suspects.

Their mother, Karen Bell, said her sons are being targeted because their father is an FBI agent, adding, "It fits into their claim that this is a conspiracy."

Either that, or the freakish of accidents. No easy answers in this case.

Follow me on Twitter @ReporterJCB


About the Author

A native Atlantan, Boone joined the AJC staff in 2005. He quickly found his niche covering crime, taking over the public safety beat in 2014. Boone has chronicled some of the most infamous trials in recent history, from Hemy Neuman to Ross Harris to, most recently, Claud “Tex” McIver. 

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