In Kendrick Johnson case, a false confession leads to familiar targets

Jacquelyn and Kenneth Johnson do not believe the death of their son Kendrick at Lowndes County High School last January was accidental and are pushing to have surveillance footage from the gym released. The couple was in Atlanta on Thursday afternoon October 24, 2013 to meet with members of the media.
Jacquelyn and Kenneth Johnson do not believe the death of their son Kendrick at Lowndes County High School last January was accidental and are pushing to have surveillance footage from the gym released. The couple was in Atlanta on Thursday afternoon October 24, 2013 to meet with members of the media.

Credit: BEN GRAY / AJC

Credit: BEN GRAY / AJC

“He’s a known liar,” sheriff says of man who provided recording

One week after the investigation into their son’s 2013 death was reopened this spring, Jackie and Kenneth Johnson and their spokesman came to Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk with what they said was a smoking gun.

More than eight years had passed since Kendrick Johnson’s body was found in a rolled-up gym mat at Lowndes High School in Valdosta. Local and state investigators determined the death was an accident, while a three-year federal probe ended with no definitive conclusions about how KJ, as he was known, died.

ExploreEvidence or innuendo?

His parents have refused to accept law enforcement’s belief that their 17-year-old son likely fell into the mat while reaching for a pair of sneakers. They insist he was killed by a small group of people, and in a 2015 wrongful death lawsuit, they accused brothers Brian and Branden Bell and a friend of theirs. The lawsuit claimed the matter was covered up by Lowndes County Superintendent of Schools Wes Taylor and then-Sheriff Chris Prine, acting at the behest of the Bells’ father, former FBI agent Rick Bell.

In March, Paulk said, the Johnsons came to him with a recording they said they’d paid $1,000 for after they were contacted by a man claiming to be the Bells’ second cousin. On the recording, a male voice, advertised to be Brian Bell, says, “They are going to catch me anyway. I should’ve never done this. I was young and stupid. Kendrick didn’t deserve this, man.”

After a brief silence, the voice, sounding as if he was crying, repeats, “They’re going to catch me anyways.”

ExploreSheriff re-opens investigation into Kendrick Johnson's death

At the time, Paulk said he did not know if the Bells even had a second cousin. They don’t. But the sheriff knew the man who provided the Johnsons the tape and quickly determined the recording wasn’t authentic.

“He’s been (in jail) several times. What for? Giving false statements,” Paulk said. He had reopened the case in hopes of bringing closure to a community that’s been divided, mostly along racial lines, from the outset of the case.

Paulk said he told the Johnsons they had most likely been duped. A few weeks later, at a motel in Hahira, deputies tracked down the man who provided the recording. He eventually confessed that the recording was a fake, Paulk said.

But the man, whose identity is being withheld due to the ongoing probe, told investigators he didn’t act alone.

Paulk won’t say who the suspect named as his accomplices, only that they are connected to the case.

“He’s a known liar, so who knows if he’s telling the truth,” the sheriff said of the man who provided the recording.

Charges could be forthcoming if the Johnsons cooperate, but they have refused to answer any questions about their interactions with the man they said sold them the tape, he said.

“It’s kind of unusual when the victims refuse to participate,” Paulk said.

Brian and Branden Bell produced alibis, backed up by witnesses and video surveillance footage, showing they were nowhere near the gym where KJ was last seen Jan. 10, 2013.

The allegations made against them in the Johnsons’ civil lawsuit were dismissed by Lowndes County Superior Court Senior Judge Richard Porter, who accused the Johnsons and their former lawyer, Chevene King, of fabricating evidence.

There remains no known evidence linking the Bells to Kendrick Johnson’s death.

“They keep making stuff up because they have no evidence,” said their mother, Karen Bell.

The Johnsons’ spokesman, Marcus Coleman, said the family wants to conduct its own tests on the tape, to see whether it can be authenticated. He referred questions about the sheriff’s questions to the Johnsons’ new attorney, Clint Rucker.

“The more eyes the better,” said Coleman. Jackie Johnson, he added, is not convinced the recording was a fake.

Rucker could not be reached for comment.

THE STORY SO FAR

Kendrick Johnson’s body was discovered in rolled-up gym mat on Jan. 11, 2013. State and local law enforcement concluded the 17-year-old died accidentally but his parents insisted KJ was murdered. They blamed the sons of a former FBI agent, and a federal probe was opened. There remains no known evidence linking them to Kendrick Johnson’s death. After three years, the U.S. Department of Justice closed the case, citing insufficient evidence. Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk reopened the investigation in March.

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