Kenneth and Jackie Johnson continue to insist that the January 2013 death of their son, Kendrick, was no accident. (October 2013 photo: Mark Niesse/mark.niesse@ajc.com)

Parents of Kendrick Johnson ordered to pay attorney fees in gym mat death lawsuit

A judge has ordered the parents of a Valdosta teen found dead in a rolled-up gym mat to pay nearly $300,000 in attorney fees to those they accused of killing their son and the parties they alleged conspired to cover it up. 

The long-anticipated ruling by Lowndes County Superior Court Judge Richard Porter stems from a 2015 wrongful death lawsuit alleging brothers Brian and Branden Bell murdered 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson. The Lowndes High sophomore’s body was discovered on Jan. 11, 2013, in the school’s old gymnasium. State and local investigators concluded he died from positional asphyxia after he got stuck in the mat, presumably reaching for a pair of sneakers.

RELATED: FBI report raises serious questions about gym mat death investigation

But Kendrick’s parents, Kenneth and Jackie Johnson, never accepted the official finding. Their attorney, Chevene King, was also ordered to reimburse the nearly two dozen defendants named in the initial lawsuit. 

According to that suit, FBI agent Rick Bell, father of Brian and Branden, along with Lowndes County’s school superintendent and a former sheriff, rolled Kendrick’s body in the gym mat and devised a plan to make his death look like an accident. 

The vast conspiracy even included the superintendent’s daughters, enlisted by their father to “discover” Johnson’s body, according to the suit. 

“Judge Porter has now put those false accusations to rest and determined that the Johnsons’ and their lawyer’s accusations were substantially frivolous, groundless and vexatious,” said attorney Jim Elliott, who represents former Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine. “All of those who have been falsely accused have been vindicated. Truth prevails. Justice has been done.”

The Johnsons’ initial wrongful death suit was eventually withdrawn but just last month they filed another suit that contains similar accusations about a murder and cover-up

In 2016, The Justice Department concluded there was “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.”

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