Kenneth and Jackie Johnson, front, react to the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision not to bring criminal charges in their son Kendrick’s death. Christian Boone / cboone@ajc.com

Parents of teen found dead in gym mat ordered to pay legal fees

The parents of a Valdosta teen found dead in a rolled-up gym mat were ordered Thursday to pay the legal fees of the brothers they alleged killed their son and the local officials they accused of covering for Brian and Branden Bell.

The decision by Lowndes County Superior Court Judge Richard Porter was the latest blow to Kenneth and Jackie Johnson’s contention that their son Kendrick’s death was no accident, as state and local investigators concluded.

Two months ago, the U.S. Department of Justice, following a nearly three-year probe, 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.”

Johnson’s body was discovered on Jan. 11, 2013, in the old gymnasium at Lowndes High School. The state medical examiner ruled the 17-year-old died of positional asphyxia after he got stuck in the mat, presumably reaching for a pair of sneakers.

Controversy has followed the case ever since, leading to sharp divisions, largely along racial lines, in Valdosta and beyond.

Porter said he spent “considerable time” reviewing the motions for reimbursement, filed in March after the Johnsons withdrew their $100 million wrongful death lawsuit that accused the Bell brothers of killing Kendrick. Despite alibis backed up by witnesses and video surveillance, Brian and Branden Bell were targeted by federal investigators but no charges were ever brought.

The Johnsons’ suit alleged that virtually every entity involved in the investigation into their son’s death conspired to protect the Bell brothers, whose father is an FBI agent. The alleged conspirators included the daughters of Lowndes school superintendent Wes Taylor, who, according to the wrongful death suit, discovered Kendrick’s body as planned.

“I’m satisfied with the ruling and looking forward to our counterclaim against the Johnsons,” Karen Bell, Brian and Branden’s mother, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday.

That countersuit, alleging libel and slander, seeks $1 million in damages.

“Since January 12, 2014, the Johnsons used others as their authorized agents to post messages on various social media, including Facebook, Twitter, blogs, instant messaging, and the like, that were defamatory of the Bells,” the counterclaim states.

A hearing on how much the Johnsons will be forced to pay attorneys for the defendants is scheduled for Monday. The motions filed by the Bells and the Lowndes County sheriff and school system requested $900,000.

The ruling will likely preclude the Johnsons from refiling the wrongful death suit by the Sept. 1 deadline, as they had planned.

Though their legal options appear to be dwindling, the Johnsons still have plenty of support.

A spokesman for the family did not respond to a request for comment, but in a Facebook post Jackie Johnson said Thursday’s ruling was just the latest attempt to “forever silence (Kendrick’s) parents.” They are urging supporters to “pack the courthouse” for Monday’s hearing.

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