Lawsuit alleges massive conspiracy in Valdosta gym mat death

Lawyers for the parents of the Valdosta teen whose body was found two years ago in a rolled-up gym mat have for the first time identified the two brothers they say killed their son.

In a new wrongful death lawsuit filed Monday, Jacquelyn and Kenneth Johnson’s attorneys allege an unnamed female lured their son into the old gym at Lowndes High School where he was fatally beaten by the brothers — whose names are being withheld because they were juveniles at the time — at the behest of their father, FBI agent Rick Bell. The Johnsons seek $100 million in damages.

Virtually everyone — including the GBI, local law enforcement and school officials — involved in the investigation into Johnson’s death, which was ruled an accident, conspired to protect the brothers, the suit alleges.

“This is yet another frivolous lawsuit filed by Chevene King in connection with the death of Kendrick Johnson,” said the Bell’s attorney, Brice Ladson. “It contains allegations against [the brothers] and Rick Bell that he and his clients know are untrue and defamatory.”

The brothers were informed last year by U.S. Attorney Michael Moore — who launched his own probe more than a year ago — that they were “target(s) of the grand jury’s investigation” into Johnson’s death. Benjamin Crump, co-counsel for the Johnsons, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that federal prosecutors are now convinced the 17-year didn’t die accidentally.

“They’re investigating it as a homicide,” Crump said of the case that’s attracted national headlines and divided the south Georgia town.

“While our investigation has proven more complicated and taken longer than I had originally anticipated, we remain committed to following the facts wherever they may lead,” Moore said in a statement.

Just what those facts are, and how they’ve led the Johnson’s legal team to adopt a more aggressive strategy, remains unclear.

Recently, King produced a copy of a bus reservation that listed a 4 p.m. departure time for a wrestling tournament in which the older brother was competing — roughly three hours after Johnson, 17, was last seen alive.

But a subsequent investigation by the Lowndes sheriff’s office only served to bolster the older brother’s alibi as the school’s wrestling coach, the bus driver and several teammates told police they left Valdosta around lunchtime. School surveillance footage showed the younger brother in class at the time Johnson was seen entering the old gym.

“This nonsense has been going on nearly two years,” said former Valdosta NAACP President Leigh Touchton, who conducted her own investigation into Johnson’s death for the local SCLC. “If there is any evidence that these boys had anything to do with his death, then charge them!”

Touchton, who lobbied for a federal review in the months following Johnson’s death, said the family and their representatives have conducted a smear campaign that, “because of social media, has legs.”

“Our entire community has been suffering from non-stop, constant, bullying and agitation, while the family and their supporters publicly accuse an innocent family of murder and conspiracy to hide murder,” Touchton wrote in a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Complaints.

Touchton is not the only local civil rights official to break with the Johnson family. Longtime Valdosta SCLC President Floyd Rose said the idea of such a massive cover-up is not credible.

“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,” Rose told the AJC last November.

The Johnsons’ spokesman, Marcus Coleman, said Touchton and Rose lack the information necessary to conclude anything about the merits of their allegations.

As for the prolonged federal probe, Coleman said the family “has complete confidence that Michael Moore will conduct a thorough and fair investigation.”