Suspicion lingers in controversial gym mat death

Despite seemingly ironclad alibis, two teen sons of an FBI agent remain part of the focus of the federal probe into the January 2013 death of a Valdosta high school student found dead inside a rolled-up gym mat.

Michael Moore, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, has said little beyond his initial pronouncement on Halloween 2013 “that a sufficient basis exists for my office to conduct a formal review of the facts and investigation surrounding the death of Kendrick Johnson.”

Letters he sent to the brothers in February informing them they were “target(s) of the grand jury’s investigation” into Johnson’s death indicate Moore is skeptical about the official finding that the 17-year-old’s death was accidental. A “target” is a person “to whom the prosecutor or the grand jury has substantial evidence linking him or her to the commission of a crime and who, in the judgment of the prosecutor, is a putative defendant,” according to the United States Attorneys’ Manual.

The boys’ father, FBI agent Rick Bell, also received a target letter, alleging possible civil rights violations. It’s not known whether target letters were sent to anyone else.

“This is a witch hunt,” said the boys’ mother, Karen Bell. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is not naming the brothers because they were juveniles at the time of the alleged incident. “The only reason our sons are being attacked is because their dad is an FBI agent. It fits into their claim that this is a conspiracy.”

Moore declined comment, but the AJC has learned that, as recently as four weeks ago, witnesses were still being questioned about the brothers’ possible involvement.

Kennedy Cowart appeared before the grand jury Oct. 10 where, according to her mother, she was asked whether she had any information that might clear her boyfriend — one of the teenage brothers. Among the questions posed to her daughter, said Kim Cowart: “Wouldn’t you want to know if your boyfriend is a murderer?”

“She knows he didn’t have anything to do with it, but it was clear they didn’t believe her,” Kim Cowart said.

Johnson died sometime between the afternoon of Jan. 10 and the morning of Jan. 11. He was last seen entering the gym on a school surveillance camera. Before that, on the morning of Jan. 10, Kennedy’s boyfriend traveled with the Lowndes wrestling team to a tournament in Macon, 152 miles away. The wrestling team remained in Macon overnight and was still competing there when Johnson’s body was found the following day.

“Are they claiming (he) hijacked the bus and drove back to Valdosta and killed K.J.?” said Karen Bell, adding that her son shared a motel room that night with two teammates.

Meanwhile, the younger brother — whose 2011 scuffle with Johnson on a school bus prompted suspicions he was involved in the death — was in class and accounted for when Johnson was seen entering the gym.

“Our attorney and investigator walked the school of 40-plus cameras and picked out 12 cameras that caught (the younger brother) on camera and at no time was he in the old gym or old gym hallway on January 10th,” Karen Bell said. “My worry is that exculpable material has not been presented to the grand jury. They’re presenting one side.”

Lowndes County Sheriff’s Dept. Lt. Stryde Jones told the AJC last year that the brothers were never considered suspects.

“We pulled the class attendance records, ” he said. “One of the brothers had checked out prior to Kendrick entering the gym (where he was found dead) for a state wrestling tournament. The other brother was in his class, was not tardy. And then we checked the video of the gym and we don’t see him anywhere around the gym area.”

Jones said last week that no one in the sheriff’s office has been subpoenaed by the grand jury or interviewed by federal investigators. The state medical examiner ruled Johnson’s death an accident caused by positional asphyxia, supporting local law enforcement’s theory that the teen got trapped in the upright mat, measuring 6 feet high and 3 feet across, while reaching for a pair of sneakers.

Johnson’s parents have from the beginning insisted that their son was murdered. The case has attracted national attention, and underlying themes of race and class — the alleged suspects are white and affluent; Johnson was African-American and working-class — have only fueled suspicions of a cover-up.

But a prominent local civil rights leader isn’t buying it.

“By my count, you would’ve had to have 17 people involved in the conspiracy to cover up a murder that they haven’t even proven,” said the Rev. Floyd Rose, longtime president of the local branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “If this was the 1950s, I might have believed it. But why would all those people risk their jobs, risk going to prison? I just don’t see it.”

Like many in Valdosta, Rose is anxious for closure.

“This was supposed to a non-political investigation,” Rose said. “If they find something, say it. If they don’t find anything, say that, too. This has gone on long enough. Those boys weren’t involved in this.”

Meanwhile, Johnson’s parents won’t be content unless charges are brought, said their attorney, Benjamin Crump.

“They want the people who killed their son to be held accountable,” he said.

Asked whether the Johnsons are satisfied with the U.S. Attorney’s investigation thus far, Crump replied: “They’ve done a lot to assure the family that they are taking their allegations seriously.”

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