OPINION: Kendrick Johnson case solved but conspiracies never die

Protesters chant during a “Who Killed KJ” rally in front of the Georgia State Capitol in December 2013. PHIL SKINNER / PSKINNER@AJC.COM

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Protesters chant during a “Who Killed KJ” rally in front of the Georgia State Capitol in December 2013. PHIL SKINNER / PSKINNER@AJC.COM

A South Georgia sheriff is putting up a $500,000 reward — of his own cash — for information leading to the conviction of anyone who killed Kendrick Johnson, the high school student found dead inside a rolled-up wrestling mat.

He might as well offer $5 million or even $5 billion. Doesn’t matter. He’ll never have to pay. There was no murder here.

Last week, Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk released a finding saying there was no homicide, no coverup, no conspiracy in the January 2013 death of the teen. It was simply a tragic and bizarre accident.

He announced the reward, he said, after Johnson’s family called him a liar.

“Any person who looks at this case objectively would know it would be impossible to conceal any evidence due to the involvement of so many agencies and investigators,” Paulk wrote of the accusations that a cabal of law enforcement covered up the killing of the 17-year-old Lowndes High School.

This case involves race, so no explanation can quell the endless accusations from some, including requisite allegations that this was a modern-day lynching. Much of the public and media have agreeably nodded along with that notion. After all, this is the South. Terrible things happen here.

ExploreThe case of Kendrick Johnson tragedy becomes a travesty

A recent documentary, “Finding Kendrick Johnson,” narrated by the actress who plays the grandmother in the hit series “Black-ish,” mines that vein and digs deep into conspiracy and the horror of lynching.

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Sheriff reopens investigation into death of Kendrick Johnson, found dead inside gym mat

Sheriff reopens investigation into death of Kendrick Johnson, found dead inside gym mat

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Sheriff reopens investigation into death of Kendrick Johnson, found dead inside gym mat

In 2013, authorities determined Johnson got trapped in the mat and asphyxiated while trying to retrieve a sneaker. The Lowndes sheriff’s department (Paulk was not sheriff then) and the GBI concluded that early on.

Also, early on, came the “Who Killed KJ?” rallies and then malevolent accusations: that Brian and Branden Bell, sons of a local FBI agent, Rick Bell, beat KJ to death. In 2015, the grieving family filed a $100 million lawsuit that accused the former sheriff, the school superintendent and an FBI agent of stuffing the body inside the mat in the school gym to disguise it as an accident. Later, Chevene King, the Johnsons’ lawyer, said this insane claim was a “typographical error,” that he meant to say John Does hid the body in the mat.

That suit fell apart and a judge ordered the Johnsons and King to pay $292,000 to cover the attorney fees of those accused. Ebony magazine later agreed to pay Bells $500,000 following a $5 million defamation suit.

Paulk, a Democrat who’s white, was sheriff years ago and got reelected in 2016. He vowed to review the controversial case. It took a while to get the 17 boxes of files. Then, he said, he and two other investigators pored through the case for 13 months before coming to his conclusions last month.

“All of the evidence, testimony, interviews, grand jury testimony and even the blatant coercion and intimidation of some persons being questioned does not produce anything to prove any criminal act by anyone that would have resulted in the death of KJ,” he wrote.

School video cameras and other evidence showed Johnson entering the gym at the same time one Bell brother was on the other side of the sprawling school and another was on a school bus headed to Macon.

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The death of Kendrick Johnson

The death of Kendrick Johnson

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The death of Kendrick Johnson

Johnson’s body underwent three autopsies, including one at the family’s request. That one determined the cause of death as “blunt force trauma.” In that autopsy, the pathologist discovered Johnson’s organs were missing, removed during the first. This has fueled endless, and wild, speculation.

Paulk could not determine what happened to the organs but figures the GBI disposed of them because of “advanced decomposition.”

He then took aim at Michael Moore, the former U.S. attorney for Middle Georgia, whose investigation ended up having an armored car and teams of heavily armed federal agents swarm the Bells’ home in an early morning raid in 2015.

“I do find it disturbing and unethical that this investigation seemed to turn into a ‘witch hunt’ after the FBI told (Moore in late 2014) that they had found nothing criminal and they consequently were closing the case,” Paulk wrote.

After three years of investigation, the feds dropped the case saying they could not prove a crime occurred.

In an interview, Paulk said that Moore told FBI agents, who wanted to drop the case, “I’m going to move on. This is going to make me famous.”

Paulk also said Moore “was talking to Ebony magazine” and that the affidavits to get search warrants from judges “contained blatant errors.”

Moore declined to address Paulk’s allegations, saying: “The only instruction that we got was to look at the evidence and follow where it leads you. Any time you have the inexplicable death of a young man and there are conflicting reports out there, it is the job of law enforcement to look into those things.”

Kenneth Johnson, the teen’s father, told me Paulk couldn’t have dug deeply into the files to come up with the conclusions he did.

He contends the files would say the family’s autopsy was “the most accurate” and that Rick Bell was forced to leave the FBI. (Bell’s wife says he retired of his own choice.)

“They would have never raided his house if (the Bells) had nothing to do with it,” Mr. Johnson said. He added the feds didn’t clear the Bells, they just couldn’t prove a crime occurred.

“We won’t stop,” he said.

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U.S. marshals pile out of an armored personnel carrier last summer on a pre-dawn raid at the home of an FBI agent in a far-reaching and never-ending investigation.

U.S. marshals pile out of an armored personnel carrier last summer on a pre-dawn raid at the home of an FBI agent in a far-reaching and never-ending investigation.

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U.S. marshals pile out of an armored personnel carrier last summer on a pre-dawn raid at the home of an FBI agent in a far-reaching and never-ending investigation.

As I noted earlier, the conspiracy narrative is constantly fed, most recently with a documentary that does deep into the family’s assertions of intrigue.

The film is narrated by actress Jenifer Lewis, whose mellifluous and recognizable voice is known to fans of “Black-ish.”

The documentary repeatedly portrays images of lynchings, including the infamous murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955. Till’s mother publicized images of her dead son’s face to bring home the horror of the crime. The Johnsons also publicized their son’s face after death — a comparison the documentary hammered home.

On an interview with MSNBC host Joy Reid, Lewis summed up the case, saying, “Imagine being the mother of this child, 17 years old, knowing somebody, probably rich and white, is walking around with his organs. It’s not right!”

“It’s not right,” agreed the host, Reid, adding there needs to be lynching laws enacted because, “it feels like that is what we are talking about here.”

And so it goes.

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