VALDOSTA, Ga. — Each weekday, the mother and father come to the same corner outside the county courthouse and spend hours camped out with cardboard signs. As cars stream past, some drivers wave and honk. Others occasionally shout jeers: “Go home!” or “Give it a rest!”
It’s been a year since Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson’s son was found dead inside a rolled-up gym mat at his high school — the victim, investigators concluded, of a freak accident. Authorities determined 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson fell head-first while reaching for a shoe and was trapped. Almost a full day passed before his body was discovered.
The Johnsons, however, do not accept those findings. Their attorneys say authorities may have covered up evidence that someone killed the teenager. A grim post-mortem photo of his swollen, distorted face has been posted by the family on protest signs and websites to help rally support for reopening the investigation.
“My family won’t be satisfied until someone is behind bars and someone is convicted for what happened,” says Kenneth Johnson, pacing the sidewalk one Friday afternoon as his wife sat with her sister and mother. “Going over it with common sense, how can it be an accident?”
He’s not alone in wondering. Last month, about 200 people joined Johnson’s family outside the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta for a rally calling for answers. The gathering was billed as: “Who Killed K.J.?”
Word has spread through social media, with one Facebook page — “R.I.P. Kendrick Johnson” — drawing more than 25,000 followers. The Florida attorney who represented Trayvon Martin’s family took up the Johnsons’ cause in October, drawing more attention to the case. Now the U.S. attorney for middle Georgia is conducting a formal review.
Perhaps it’s the bizarre manner in which the teenager was found dead that leaves some disbelieving. Or lingering doubts about how police in the South treat cases involving black victims. Or that a grieving family simply cannot come to terms with a tragic loss.
Johnson’s supporters won’t let his case be put to rest. But is there evidence someone killed him?
It was the morning of Jan. 11, 2013, at Lowndes High School, a sprawling campus attended by 3,000 students near the Georgia-Florida state line. Philip Pieplow’s gym class was filling out a survey. Some students sat on the bleachers in the school gymnasium, while others climbed atop a cluster of 21 wrestling and cheerleading mats standing three-deep against a wall.
The rolled-up mats stood just over 6 feet high, each measuring nearly 3 feet across. Soon students who had clambered on top of them began yelling for help. A pair of feet clad in socks could be seen inside the center hole of one mat.
“I reached (and) grabbed one of his ankles hoping for a response,” Pieplow said in a written statement included in the investigative file on Kendrick’s death. “There was none, and I knew he was lifeless at that point.”
Students began calling 911 and, within minutes, police and paramedics arrived.
At the same time, Jacquelyn Johnson was at the school asking if her son had shown up for class, guidance counselor Dana Hutchinson later told investigators. Kendrick hadn’t come home the night before.
The youngest of four children, Kendrick grew up in Valdosta, one of the largest cities in rural south Georgia. His grandmother affectionately called him her “peculiar grandchild,” because he tended to be quieter than his brothers and sisters.
A junior at Lowndes High, Kendrick made average grades but had a knack for numbers. He kept accounts in his head of his allowances, his father says, and saved cash in stashes throughout his bedroom.
He also liked sports, having played 8th-grade basketball and football and track when he started high school. After taking a year off from team sports, Kendrick was working toward rejoining the football team, his father says.
Matthew Mark Carron, an 18-year-old former football teammate who was among the students investigators interviewed, remembered Kendrick once got into a fight with another player before a game. Carron told investigators it was the only negative thing he could remember about Kendrick.
Deputies found nothing to dispute the portrait family and friends painted of a well-liked and responsible teenager, says sheriff’s Lt. Stryde Jones, who oversaw the investigation.
“He just seemed like a good American kid,” Jones says.
Lowndes High School has dozens of security cameras watching over its hallways, entrances and parking lots. Four motion-activated cameras are posted in the gym where Kendrick was last spotted on Jan. 10, 2013.
Surveillance footage shows him entering the gym shortly after 1 p.m. and walking toward the far corner where the mats were stored. It doesn’t capture him leaving, and Kendrick never showed up for his fourth-period weight training class.
Footage released by the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office fails to show what led to Kendrick’s death. Investigators suspect he was outside the range of the nearest camera’s motion sensor. Instead, detectives tried to piece together how he died based on clues at the scene, interviews with friends and autopsy findings.
The Associated Press obtained the 522-page case file through an open records request and reviewed it, along with security camera footage and crime scene and autopsy photographs, for this story.
Three students told deputies that some classmates kept gym shoes stashed behind or beneath the gym mats, especially if they didn’t rent school lockers. One said he and Kendrick shared a pair of Adidas shoes and that after class the student always would “go to the mats, jump up and toss the shoes inside the middle of the hole.”
When Kendrick was found, the Nike shoes he’d worn to school were tucked behind his legs inside the mat. A science textbook and a folder containing his class schedule and latest report card lay on the floor near the mats. Also on the floor was an Adidas shoe. Deputies found its match pinned beneath Kendrick’s arm and head.
Medical Examiner Maryanne Gaffney-Kraft found no wounds except for a scrape on the back of Kendrick’s right wrist and three small injuries on his right pinky. She determined he died accidentally from “positional asphyxia,” meaning his body was stuck in a position that prevented him from breathing.
After receiving the autopsy, investigators concluded Kendrick fell into the mat while trying to retrieve one of his gym shoes. Nobody saw him struggling or heard him cry out, though a steady stream of students were in and out of the gym until 8 p.m. It’s unclear how long Kendrick could have survived, but he likely passed out soon from blood rushing to his head, Lt. Jones says.
“We never had credible information that indicated this was anything other than an accident,” he says.
The case was closed May 2. But to Kendrick’s family, it remained an unsolved crime.
Kenneth Johnson doesn’t say much when asked why someone might have wanted to kill his son, or who he thinks could have done it. The family’s attorneys told him not to discuss the case, and they also won’t discuss possible suspects or motives.
“I can go as far as to say that if they’re covering it up, they’re not covering it up for a nobody,” Kendrick’s father says. “It’s got to be a somebody.”
For those inclined to reject the official findings, the case has its share of stumbles and loose ends to fuel alternate theories.
The lack of camera footage showing Kendrick’s last moments has been seized on by family attorneys, who say they fear the footage was edited as part of a cover-up. Images from the camera pointed toward the gym mats are also blurred. School officials told investigators a basketball had knocked the camera out of focus.
A paramedics’ report noted bruising near Kendrick’s right jaw, but no bruises were mentioned in the autopsy report. Jones says the bruising was likely discoloration caused by lividity, which occurs when the heart stops pumping and blood settles in the body.
Investigators also waited to call the county coroner until six hours after the body was found, though state law requires immediate notification. It was standard practice in Lowndes County to process potential crime scenes first, but that has since changed, Jones says. While critical of the delay, the coroner agreed the death was accidental.
“At best it was incompetence,” says Benjamin Crump, an attorney for the Johnson family. “At worst it was some conspiracy to conceal the truth.”
Authorities did look into tips that two teenagers might have wanted to harm Kendrick. One was a 16-year-old dropout who told police he didn’t know Kendrick and hadn’t been to the school in at least two years. Jones says alibis also ruled him out as a suspect.
Detectives also tried to interview the football teammate with whom Kendrick had fought a year earlier, as well as the boy’s brother, who also attended Lowndes High. Their father referred investigators to an attorney, who declined to let authorities interview the boys. The attorney, Jason Ferguson, did not return phone messages.
School records included in the investigative file show one brother was absent the day Kendrick vanished. The other shared a morning class with Kendrick. But investigators reviewing surveillance footage determined the boy never entered the gym around the time Kendrick went missing, Jones says.
Kendrick’s parents obtained a court order to exhume their son’s body and hired a private pathologist to perform a second autopsy. Dr. William Anderson reported finding hemorrhaging beneath the skin of Kendrick’s jaw and neck and concluded he suffered a fatal blow near his carotid artery that appeared to be “non-accidental.”
U.S. Attorney Michael Moore in Macon stepped in Oct. 31, announcing his office would review the case, including the school video and conflicting autopsies. Those findings have not yet been released.
In Valdosta, any new information regarding Kendrick’s death stirs conversation at the Hair Works salon. Stylist Janis Freeman says few of her customers believe the sheriff’s findings.
“There are too many unanswered questions,” she says.
The Rev. Floyd Rose, a longtime local civil rights activist, says he also assumed at first that Kendrick had been killed. He organized an early march and hosted the Rev. Al Sharpton at his church to draw attention to the case.
Rose still has questions but says he has trouble believing in a cover-up. Rose says he broke ranks with the Johnson family when the message shifted from questioning how Kendrick died to asking point-blank who killed him.
“I understand they’re hurt. Nobody has suffered more than they have,” he says. “But they’re not the only ones who have suffered. … This community is divided.”
Kenneth Johnson says neither he nor his wife has returned to work since that January day. He is a long-haul trucker, and she a school bus driver.
Instead, they continue their street-corner vigils. Supporters drop off cushions for their chairs or cookies. Others stop and pray with the family.
And Johnson makes clear: No one will ever persuade them that their son’s death was accidental.
“I want the world to know what happened to Kendrick,” he says. “I want the world to know what these animals did to our child.”