On January 11, 2013, tragedy struck an unsuspecting family in Lowndes Country, Georgia. Kendrick Johnson's parents, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, frantically reported their son missing after he failed to return home from school on January 10. His worried mother drove to the school the next day to try to find him. Shortly after (8:30am), his body was found in a rolled up wrestling mat in the gym of the Lowndes High School, where he was a student. The school, located in Valdosta, Georgia, reportedly notified authorities, who conducted an 'investigation' and eventually ruled the death as 'accidental.' Not only were the circumstances surrounding Johnson's death questionable at best, the evidence since released reeks of a massive cover-up of epic proportions. But, the truth is coming and it can't be stopped.
Who was Kendrick Johnson?
Johnson, 17, was an outgoing, multi-sport athlete who was a "good student," according to his aunt, Anastasia Roe. Johnson, a 5-foot-10, 160-pound athlete, played basketball, football, and ran track. Roe also said he "was the life of the party but reserved when he met new people."
How Did Kendrick Johnson Die?
Johnson's body was discovered in a rolled up wrestling mat in the Lowndes High School gym. The body was found by students who climbed up to the top of several mats during, each of which stood approximately six feet tall. Students gathered on the bleachers and across the 21 wrestling mats while filling out a survey for Philip Pieplow's gym class. Several students yelled for help after they discovered a pair of feet in the center hole of one of the mats.
"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."
Paramedics were called to the scene, but Johnson was found without any sign of life. The paramedics noted bruising on Johnson's left jaw in their report, but this was not noted on the first autopsy. The death was not reported to the country coroner for at least 6 hours, although the coroner is supposed to be notified immediately.
The initial autopsy, conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, ruled that Johnson died from positional asphyxia. The Lowndes County Sheriff's Office ruled that the death was accidental and no foul play was suspected. The department claimed that Johnson may have attempted to retrieve his shoe from the mat after it fell into the middle of the mat. According to students interviewed during the investigation, some students stored their shoes behind over under the rolled up gym mats. Specifically speaking of Johnson, students claimed he shared a pair of Adidas shoes with another student and would "go to the mats, jump up and toss the shoes inside the middle of the hole," after gym class. The case was closed on May 2, 2013.
Unconvinced by the shoddy investigation and the lack of a solid, substantive explanation for Johnson's death, his parents requested that another autopsy be conducted. The parents were granted their wishes after they won a court order to have their son's body exhumed and for a second, independent autopsy to be performed. Shockingly, the teen's organs were missing and his body was stuffed with newspaper. His mortified parents demanded answers. It is standard practice to remove the organs during autopsy, but the organs are to be returned prior to burial.
'I'm not sure at this point who did not return the organs to the body,' Dr. Bill Anderson, the private pathologist who conducted the second autopsy, told CNN. 'But I know when we got the body, the organs were not there.'
The startling discovery most certainly emboldened the Johnson's suspicions, but it was the revelation of the second autopsy that raised nearly everyone's suspicions. Dr. Anderson concluded that Kendrick Johnson did not die from positional asphyxiation but rather 'blunt force trauma to the neck.' Shortly after receiving the autopsy report, Johnson's family retained the services of attorney Benjamin Crump, due to their belief that their son had been murdered.
Benjamin Crump immediately went to work and requested that the school release the school video surveillance tapes, which were previously behind withheld. Approximately 290 hours of surveillance tapes from a total of 35 cameras throughout the school were released to CNN. The Johnson's found that the tapes actually raised more questions than answers and experts claimed the footage was 'suspicious.' The footage inside the gym (four cameras), only showed a few seconds of Johnson while he was jogging. The camera that was fixed on the gym mats, where his body was found, was blurry. Even more concerning, the tapes contained no time stamps and the footage seemed to be sporadic. Footage showed students intermittently appearing then suddenly vanishing.
Attorney Chevene King questioned the veracity of the footage due to the lack of time stamps:
"We don't have any time code with which to synchronize the events that are shown in the video. ... Either the cameras did this on their own or a human being interacted to make these cameras do these things," King said.
Lowndes High School, however, claims the video is "a raw feed with no edits" and the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office stands by its investigation.
CNN hired a forensic video expert analyst, Grant Fredricks, to analyze the footage from all 35 cameras inside the school. He concluded that the footage had been altered and it could not be trusted.
"Those files are not original files," Fredericks said. "They're not something investigators should rely on for the truth of the video."
"(The surveillance video has) been altered in a number of ways, primarily in image quality and likely in dropped information, information loss," he said. "There are also a number of files that are corrupted because they've not been processed correctly and they're not playable. I can't say why they were done that way, but they were not done correctly, and they were not done thoroughly. So we're missing information."
What Really Happened to Kendrick Johnson?
On January 12, 2015, Kendrick Johnson's family filed a civil lawsuit against 38 individuals, including "local, state, and federal officials: the school superintendent of Lowndes County, the Valdosta-Lowndes crime lab, the police chief of Valdosta, many sheriff's deputies, the city of Valdosta, the state medical examiner, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and its five agents, and an FBI agent." The Johnson's maintain that their son was murdered and the aforementioned parties are involved in a massive coverup. The Middle District of Georgia has opened a federal investigation but has not made any conclusions. Attorney, Michael J. Moore, said in a statement that he investigation is ongoing and "the investigation has proven more complicated and taken longer than originally anticipated."
The Johnson family was hit with a lawsuit by the family of high school football star, Brian Bell, after his scholarship to Florida State University was suddenly withdrawn days before national signing day.
The defamation lawsuit alleges the Johnson family has caused irreparable harm by claiming the Bell brothers are implicated in the death of their son:
"The Johnsons, individually and through others, made numerous false and defamatory statements, using social media and otherwise, encouraging other persons to contact Florida State University and urge FSU not to honor its scholarship offer to Brian Bell for 2015 on the grounds that he was a 'murderer,' a 'murder suspect,' a 'violent psychopath,' or words to that effect."
Bell's father was also implicated in the original Johnson lawsuit. Bell's father, an FBI agent, was implicated for his role in the alleged 'cover-up' as claimed by the Johnson family. The Bell family has also filed a $5 million lawsuit against Ebony Magazine for a story the magazine published that indicated the Bell brothers as possible suspects in the Johnson death. Although the magazine used pseudonyms, the description of the 'alleged suspects' was descriptive enough to identify the Bell brothers.
The hacktivist group, Anonymous, became involved and launched an operation, dubbed #OpTitleTown, to shed light on the mysterious death of the innocent teen. Twitter user, @anondad, posted a video detailing the suspicious nature of the case. Watch the video here.
What happened to Kendrick Johnson? Did he suffocate after falling into the hole in a gym mat, as local authorities claim? Was he murdered? If so, was his murder covered-up?
Although the world does not yet know what happened to Kendrick Johnson, the truth is coming and it cannot be stopped. Let's just hope that the family gets some closure AND justice.
*This story was updated (April 12, 2015) to include more details about the Bell lawsuits.