In Valdosta, a shocking death, a family shattered, a city torn asunder

Roughly two dozen U.S. marshals, most of them heavily armed and wearing tactical gear – and supported by an armored personnel carrier – poured into the northern Florida subdivision in the predawn shadows. Ready for anything, they had not come to arrest a terrorist or apprehend a fugitive.

They were serving a search warrant.

And there were more of them, simultaneously swooping down on other homes, apartments and dorm rooms in similar numbers with similar firepower. And similar warrants.

Like the military-style operation to serve search warrants in July, so much about the death of Kendrick Johnson, 17, seems to defy explanation. Kendrick’s body was found in a rolled-up gym mat at Lowndes High School in Valdosta three years ago, and his passing still baffles and tears at the community. Foul play or accident? Conspiracy, cover-up, neither, both?

Kendrick’s parents are certain his death was no accident, and they blame two of his classmates at Lowndes High, Branden and Brian Bell. Neither has been charged, and both have alibis that place them elsewhere when Kendrick died. Those federal search warrants were served at the home of Brian’s and Branden’s parents — their father, Rick, is an FBI agent — at Brian’s dorm room at the University of Akron, Ohio; Branden’s apartment in Valdosta; the Valdosta apartment of Brian’s girlfriend, Taylor Eakin; the home of Eakin’s parents; and the home of a classmate of the Bell brothers who was also being investigated by the government.

Taylor Eakin says she was awakened by “15 men in SWAT gear” shortly after 5 a.m. that day.

“They treated me and my friends like criminals. They took my phone, iPod, computer, my roommate’s computer,” said Eakin, now 18. “They wouldn’t tell me what was going on.”

Finally, nearly two hours into their search of her apartment, Eakin said, one of the marshals told her, “There’s holes in the KJ case that we’re trying to fill.”

The holes remain, in the case and in the community. KJ was black; the Bells are white, and Lowndes County has divided largely along racial lines over the case.

“A lot of innocent people are suffering,” said state Rep. Dexter Sharper, D-Valdosta. “It’s time the federal government put up or shut up.”

The Justice Department has investigated for two years now. Those midsummer raids were a clear sign to the Bells that the government was far from finished with their family. The government has not disclosed what it found in those raids, nor will it release the papers it filed with the court when it requested the warrants.

‘We’re going to clear our name’

Rick Bell was being investigated for suspected witness tampering and obstruction in the Johnson investigation, which apparently led to the search warrants. He won’t comment, citing his job as an FBI special agent. No charges have been filed against him.

After the federal agents left his dorm room, Brian Bell poured out his frustrations on Instagram.

“So this is what America has come to?” wrote Bell, now 18. “Government barging into your home with a search warrant for your cellphone?! Trying to figure out a case that was figured out a long time ago?!”

He continued, “So I said, ‘Take the (expletive) phone, take all of my family members phones. We’ve had nothing to hide from the beginning.’ They won’t stop until they charge someone with a petty crime.”

His family knows their names will be forever intertwined in the Kendrick Johnson affair.

The Johnsons filed a wrongful death suit in which they accuse Branden Bell, now 20, of helping his brother in a fatal ambush of Kendrick inside Lowndes High’s old gym. But Branden’s teammates, his coach and the driver have confirmed he was on a bus headed to Macon for a wrestling tournament.

The suit alleges that law enforcement, school officials and even state agents conspired to make Kendrick’s murder look like an accident.

“They picked us out from the beginning,” said Branden, adding that the experience has him considering a career as an attorney. “If my dad was a firefighter this never would’ve happened.”

Because his father is an FBI agent, “their evidence is having no evidence. They say they can’t get any because my dad is helping cover it up. That’s the real conspiracy.”

Those who believe the Bells were complicit in KJ’s murder point to their refusal to consent to interviews with law enforcement, a right protected under the Fifth Amendment.

“They’ll make you say you did something you didn’t do,” Branden Bell said. “We didn’t want our words to be misconstrued. They know how to get the answers they want.”

‘Our community has changed’

Like many people, Rep. Sharper was puzzled by the freakish nature of Johnson’s death. State and local investigators believe that Kendrick died by accident, suffocating after getting trapped in a vertically stacked gymnastics mat while reaching for a pair of sneakers. Sharper, a paramedic, decided to test the theory.

“I proceeded to get inside (one of the mats),” he wrote recently in a Facebook post. “As I went in, even though the bottom was open, my breathing became a little more shallow once I reached the bottom end. I was pulling my way out with my feet and legs and my breathing was even more shallow. Then I got to the point where my legs could no longer help leverage me out.”

He says he told the Johnsons he was “98 percent sure” Kendrick’s death was an accident. According to Sharper, who is black, the family’s supporters “continue to attack me every chance they get.”

“It’s a pattern that has existed almost from the start,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And if you’re African-American you’re immediately labeled a sellout or an Uncle Tom if you don’t believe KJ was murdered.”

Marcus Coleman, spokesman for the Johnson family, said, “No one in the KJ movement has harassed Dexter Sharper. His comments have galvanized the base that is anti-Kendrick Johnson, which leads me to believe his motives were political.”

Sharper is not the only prominent black leader in Valdosta to break with the Johnsons. Longtime SCLC president Floyd Rose held two rallies in support of the family at first. But Rose said once he started questioning their conspiracy theory — “If this was the 1950s, I might have believed it,” he told the AJC last year — the assaults on his character began.

Another outspoken critic, former Valdosta NAACP president Leigh Touchton, who is white, said race relations in Valdosta have suffered since the federal probe began.

“White people who were moderates that we could count on in the civil rights community now see this as proof that there can never be harmony between the races,” she said. “They now see it as ‘us versus them.’”

Brian Bell’s lawyer says the FBI has told him that Brian is in the the clear. But Coleman, the Johnson family spokesman, said he has been assured federal prosecutors are still on the case.

“It is my belief that when that happens there will be more people named that haven’t even been discussed publicly,” he said.

‘Eventually the truth wins out’

A thousand miles from home, playing football at Akron, Brian Bell has achieved welcome distance from the KJ saga.

“I’m well-liked by the other players. It’s not an issue up here,” he said. He lost a scholarship to play at Florida State University because of the suspicion around him. He turned to other schools that had once expressed an interest in him but says they were concerned that he would divide the team.

Recently, a black teammate received a message on Twitter from someone telling him he was playing alongside a killer. The teammate blocked the messenger, according to Brian.

“The truth always comes out,” said his older brother. “It might be a year. It might be 10. But eventually the truth wins out.”

Whatever the truth is, it’s unlikely to overcome the deeply held suspicions of both sides.

Writing on Instagram following the raid of his dorm room, Brian Bell turned to the only person who knows for sure.

“Rest in peace, Kendrick,” he wrote. “I know you’re looking down on all this and shaking your head. I just wish you could come back somehow and tell these people what happened. Because no one seems to know down here.”