Sheriff reopens Kendrick Johnson case in Valdosta

Jackie and Kenny Johnson (center) speak to the crowd during a “Who Killed K.J.” rally for their son Kendrick Johnson in Atlanta in December 2013. PHIL SKINNER / PSKINNER@AJC.COM
Jackie and Kenny Johnson (center) speak to the crowd during a “Who Killed K.J.” rally for their son Kendrick Johnson in Atlanta in December 2013. PHIL SKINNER / PSKINNER@AJC.COM

Federal investigators dropped probe into student’s death in 2016

To some, the thought that Kendrick Johnson died after being trapped upside-down in a rolled-up gym mat defies logic.

But to others, the theory explaining KJ’s alleged homicide, and how it was allegedly covered up by powerful local interests, is just as far-fetched.

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On Tuesday, eight years after his body was discovered in a gymnasium at his Valdosta area high school, Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk announced he had reopened the investigation into the 17-year-old’s death — a victory for Johnson’s parents, who remain convinced their son met with foul play.

“We ain’t cheering, but we know this is the only path that we can get for justice for Kendrick Johnson,” family spokesman Marcus Coleman said after meeting with the sheriff.

The investigation was closed nearly five years ago, after federal investigators 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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Local and state investigators had already determined Johnson’s death was an accident. They say the Lowndes High School sophomore died from positional asphyxia after he got stuck inside the mat, presumably by falling while reaching for a pair of sneakers.

Undeterred, parents Kenneth and Jackie Johnson filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2015, contending that brothers Brian and Branden Bell, allegedly along with their friend Ryan Hall, killed KJ. The lawsuit claimed the crime 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.

Conspirators included Taylor’s daughter, according to the lawsuit. She discovered the body — by design, the Johnsons alleged.

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Lowndes County Superior Court Senior Judge Richard Porter ruled against the parents, accusing the Johnsons and their attorney, Chevene King, of fabricating evidence to support their claims.

“Their testimony shows they had no evidence,” Porter wrote.

But the Johnsons were unbowed.

Paulk told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he first met with Kenneth Johnson five years ago. In 2019, they wrote the Justice Department asking for documents but were initially rebuffed, the sheriff said. Last week, federal officials finally agreed to turn over 17 boxes of materials from their three-year probe into Johnson’s death.

“I’m treating it like it’s a brand new case,” said Paulk, who will lead the probe. “There’s still a lot of questions people want answered.”

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Leigh Touchton, former president of the Valdosta NAACP, said that’s not true.

“If there was something there, don’t you think the feds would’ve pursued it?” said Touchton, who was initially supportive of the Johnsons’ claims but now believes their son’s death was an accident.

Revisiting the case will only open old wounds, said Touchton. Racial and class divides — Johnson was Black and working class, while the Bells are white and affluent — have fueled the controversy over Johnson’s death.

‘It is what it is’

Karen Bell, mother of Brian and Branden Bell, said she was disappointed with Paulk’s decision but wasn’t surprised.

“I just keep waiting for someone to be honest with (the Johnsons),” she said. “But it doesn’t look like that’s ever going to happen.”

Her sons continue to live under a cloud of suspicion despite FBI video analysis that showed Brian Bell and Hall were in different areas of the school campus during the time in question.

Branden Bell, meanwhile, was participating in a wrestling tournament in Macon at the time.

That analysis, collected from campus surveillance cameras, included time stamps that adjusted discrepancies between multiple video systems that had not been synchronized, according to the FBI.

“You want to go on the top of a mountain and scream, ‘Look, people, the evidence is there,’” Karen Bell said. “But it is what it is.”

Paulk said he doesn’t consider the Bell brothers or Hall to be suspects.

“There are no suspects because we haven’t made a determination as to whether or not this was murder,” he said.

Answers of clarification’

But not everyone in the Sheriff’s Office appears to be on the same page.

In an email sent last week, Capt. Stryde Jones, commander of the criminal investigation division, told an inquiring law student the case has not been reopened. And in a separate email, Jim Elliott, the attorney for the Sheriff’s Office, also said the case remained closed. The law student has shared those emails online.

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“The family has provided a list of questions they seek to have answered and the sheriff has agreed to research those answers and provide answers of clarification,” wrote Jones, who has been involved in the investigation from the beginning.

Meanwhile, Paulk said he hopes his probe will bring some closure but acknowledged some minds will never be changed.

“This will be the final (investigation), as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

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. Suspicion centered on two brothers, sons of a former FBI agent, and a federal probe was opened. But after three years, the U.S. Department of Justice closed the case, citing insufficient evidence.

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