Investigation For Georgia Teen Found Dead In Gym Mat 8 Years Ago Reopened After New Evidence Discovered

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Family’s Fight For Justice Continues as The Kendrick Johnson Case is Reopened

Kendrick “KJ” Johnson was a son, brother, and a three-sport athlete. He's described as having been a gentleman with good manners and a happy disposition. His mother says, “He was a jokester. He was the life of our house.” He attended Valdosta-Lowndes Highschool is Valdosta, GA."

On January 11, 2013, the body of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson was found rolled up inside a gym mat in Valdosta-Lowndes High’s gymnasium. It was alleged that he climbed on top of a mat to grab his shoes at the bottom, whereupon he then fell in and died of accidental asphyxia. 

On January 25, 2013, a report by the Valdosta-Lowndes County Regional Crime Laboratory claims they found no signs of blunt force trauma. In May, the cause of his death was ruled accidental asphyxia.  

“KJ was a loving son. Good brother. He had good manners. He was a nice child. Everyone would have liked to have a son like Kendrick." — Kenneth Johnson 

March 5, 2021, was the case reopened. Ashley Paulk, Lowndes County sherrif states, “We’re starting fresh, so it’s like a brand new investigation, no predisposed opinions, can’t have that.” They received 17 boxes of federal documents. When this case was first presented, the sherriff wasn’t sure if this was an accident. This is the first time every piece of information will be reviewed together.

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Some people believe that the investigation was intentionally misled or that this was a case of negligence and poor police work. 

There were many instances where the investigation took a strange turn. 

In an interview on Anderson Cooper 360, Cooper sits down with  Jeffrey Toobin & Sunny Hostin to discuss details of the case. Jeffrey Toobin claims “this was a chaotic bad investigation from the start.” For one, the school did not hand over all of the videotape evidence.

There are two different reports from the coroner. One from 1/15/13 and another from 1/22/13. In the initial report, the coroner states in the comment section that the scene was compromised and the body was moved. And he did not approve of how the case was being handled. Even revealing that information about the case was withheld. But in the latter report, there were no comments.

The mistakes in the handling of the crime scene make it difficult to determine what happened. Sunny Hostin notes that the fact that all these mistakes were made in one case is, “Curious, at best.”

In the crime scene, there were streaks of blood on a nearby wall that some reported wasn’t Johnson's. No updates have been made about whether or not the blood was further tested. 

Kendrick Johnson’s parents never believed his death was accidental. There were details of the crime scene that did not make sense to them. 

From the beginning, KJ’s parent believed that their son’s death was a homicide.

They had no confidence in the sherrif or any reason to trust the police department. Johnson’s family went to great lengths to advocate for justice on their son’s behalf — filing lawsuits, protesting, and raising awareness about the mishandling of the case.

In 2013, his parents and five other family members were arrested and charged with misdemeanors for protesting in front of Lowndes County Courthouse in Valdosta, Georgia. They formed a blockade and blocked access into the building. 

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His parents had his body exhumed for multiple autopsies. The first ocurred in June 2013 and the third in January 2018.

This final autopsy raised more questions and some major concerns. When the pathologist the family hired did the autopsy, he found that the brain, heart, lung, and liver were all missing from the body. In place of the organs were crumpled pieces of newspaper.

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The clothing he was wearing when he was found also was missing. This 2018 autopsy concludes that the cause of death was "apparent non-accidental, blunt force trauma.” 

The family sued the Harrington funeral home for misleading the investigation. The parents want to know where his organs went and why that happened. They filed two lawsuits and claim that “Kendrick’s organs, clothes, and brain were disposed of to interfere with law enforcement’s investigation."

On October 19, 2019, Kendrick’s family and a group of supporters gathered to protest. They wanted to reopen the federal and state case, citing the unethical behavior of the federal government and the mishandling of the local investigation. 

KJ's father and the sheriff sent handwritten letters asking for federal documents to be released. Due to their efforts, they received seventeen boxes of documents pertaining to the case. Starting fresh, the sheriff hopes to come to a definitive conclusion for this case.

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The case is reopened, but with so little to go on in a botched investigation, it's hard to determine if there will be conclusive results.

In an interview with CNN, Johnson’s mother said, “It's been eight long years. I'm feeling hopeful.” Marcus Coleman, an activist who works closely with the family says, "They are grateful but cautiously optimistic."

Leeann Reed is a textile artist, poet, and writer who covers news, entertainment, and lifestyle.