New Investigation Explores What Happened To Kendrick Johnson, The Georgia Teen Found Dead In Gym Mat

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Family’s Fight For Justice Continues as The Kendrick Johnson Case is Reopened
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The death of Kendrick “KJ” Johnson has always seemed suspicious — even after it was ruled an accident. 

Now, the case has been re-opened and there's a new documentary looking to expose some of the inconsistencies and suspicious elements that have plagued this investigation from the beginning.

After Kendrick's family obtained a recording that appeared to contain a confession — later determined to have been a fake — it seems high time that this family receives answers about the death of their beloved son. 

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What happened to Kendrick Johnson? 

The 17 year-old was a three-sport athlete at Valdosta-Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Gorgia, and described by family and friends as a gentleman with good manners and a happy dispostion. 

Nobody seemed to hold any grudges against him, and he was a good student who was well-loved by those who knew him, so his death came as a shock.

The timeline

At 12:30 am on January 11, 2013, Kendick's mom, Jacquelyn, reported her son missing to the police. According to a local news report by the Valdosta Daily Times, she arrived at the school where school staff were already looking for her son, having received the missing person's report before 8am that day. 

While at the school, Jacquelyn spoke with school counselors and staff, and it was determined that Kendrick had not been in class.

"[Guidance Counselor, Dana] Hutchinson looked at attendance records and found that he had been marked absent during fourth block the previous day, Jan. 10. She called a few students from Kendrick’s classes and Krista Royal, Kendrick’s third block teacher, to her office to ask if Kendrick was present in his first three classes on Jan. 10. Each said he had been present.

Vikings Head Football Coach Randy MacPherson confirmed to Hutchinson that Kendrick was not present during fourth block weight training on Jan. 10. Jacquelyn said it was unlike her son to skip a class, and Hutchinson agreed.

Friends and fellow students were called into the office and asked about his whereabouts, and nobody could remember seeing him since the day before. 

He hadn't even been seen at a basketball game the night before.

That's when, according to the local news, Jacquelyn learned that an ambulance and other emergency vehicles were outside of the school.

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Who found Kendrick Johnson's body?

Tragically, despite the fact that school staff had been searching for Kendrick, it was fellow students who first discovered Kendrick. 

According to the local news source, students in an area of the school called the "old gym" were filling out surveys as an in-class assignment. 

The Valdosta Daily Times reports: 

"One student said she crawled from the bleachers onto the mats to lay down while she filled out the survey. After a few minutes, the student noticed “feet with socks on them” inside one of the mats.

She first thought it was a joke but then called for help. Another student, who was not on the bleachers or mats at the time, climbed on top of the bleachers and onto the mats. He stated that he “looked down into the mat” and saw what looked like a person."

That's when calls were made to 911, and Kendrick's body was discovered to be lifeless. At 10:32 am, a deputy was dispatched to the school and he arrived at 10:35am.

When the deputy arrived, the students had been sent out of the old gym, and the teacher reported that he didn't believe anything could be done for Kendrick. 

According to People Magazine, Kendrick's mother said, "The counselor hadn't heard [that Kendrick was missing]." But then the phone rang and someone told her a body had been discovered. 

"I'm breaking into pieces because I know it's my child," Jacquelyn said.

Four shoes were found near Kendrick's body: a pair of white Nikes and a pair of black and white Adidas. The Nikes and one Adidas shoe were inside the rolled mat, and the fourth shoe was found on the floor near the mats. One of the Adidas shoes was found near Kendrick's head, in a pool of his blood. 

A third pair of shoes, also Nikes, were photographed along the wall, a few bleachers away from where Kendrick's body was found, but were not taken into evidence. 

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Why were Kendrick's shoes inside the mat? 

According to the Valdosta Daily Times, multiple students reported that Kendrick often hid or kept his shoes inside the gym mats. One student reported that he and Kendrick shared shoes, and would leave them inside the mats for one another. 

That's where the leading theory that Kendrick climbed inside the mats and got stuck originated. 

People reports, "After an investigation and autopsy, authorities ruled Kendrick's death accidental, theorizing he'd fallen into the opening at the center of the rolled up mat — possibly to retrieve a shoe — and became trapped and suffocated."

Did Kendrick really suffocate? 

Kendrick's family doesn't think so. 

After their son's death was ruled accidental, the Johnson family hired their own investigators who allegedly found evidence of blunt force trauma. 

Is this a case of a freak, horrible accident, a prank gone wrong, or did someone intentionally harm Kendrick? 

In March of 2021, Kendrick Johnson's case was reopened.

March 5, 2021, was the case reopened. According to CNN, Ashley Paulk, Lowndes County Sherrif stated, "If there's questions — and they're legitimate — I need to know the answers myself. The only way I'm going to know is to look at the evidence myself."

In 2016, a two-and-a-half year long federal investigation into Kendrick's death was concluded with a decision reinforcing the original finding that Kendrick's death was an accident. 

"Investigators determined that there is 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,:

“We’re starting fresh, so it’s like a brand new investigation," Paulk said.

"I'm going to try and dispel all the rumors and accusations," he says. "I just want the truth. That's all I want."

In 2019, when Paulk first came out of retirement, he requested the files from the federal investigation and was denied. Fortunately, his request was granted this time around, and he was given access to 17 boxes of materials. 

Accoding to the Justice Department, "The investigation included, among other things, interviewing nearly 100 people; reviewing tens of thousands of emails and text messages; reviewing surveillance videos from Lowndes High School; and analyzing other available information regarding the events of January 10-11, 2013."

Hopefully this will lead to answers that will help Kendrick's family find peace. 

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Taped confession to Kendrick Johnson's death was a fake

One of the most shocking new pieces of apparent evidence was a recording obtained by Kendrick's family that seems to contain a confession. 

In a press conference, a transcript of the recording, which was allegedly secretly made by a family member of the confessor, was read aloud, including seemingly incriminating phrases such as, "They're gonna catch me anyways", "I should've never done this" and "Kendrick didn't deserve this, man."

According to 11Alive news reports that the family was offered the recording for $1000. The tape was handed over to the police, but it turned out to have been a cruel, heartless scam.

A new documentary aims to shine a light on the case

According to IMDB, "'Finding Kendric Johnson' is the feature documentary product of a 4 year undercover investigation into the facts of this case."

The film is directed by Jason Pollock, who also directed the film 'Strange Fruit' and packs a heavy Hollywood wollop with producers like CSI:NY actor Hill Harper and Malcolm D. Lee, the director of 'Space Jam'.

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The film, available via Prime Video, follows the struggles of Kendrick's family as they navigate the system looking for answers, exposes inconsistencies in the narrative surrounding how Kendrick died, and uncovers strange facts, such as the fact that Kendrick's body was stuffed with newspapers when it was re-examined, his organs missing. 

Some believe the investigation was intentionally misled or that it was simply poor police work. 

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

In an interview on Anderson Cooper 360, pundits 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. 

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Kendrick Johnson’s parents never believed his death was accidental. 

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

They had no 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. 

His parents also had his body exhumed for follow-up examinations. 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.

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."

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. Hopefully, along with help from the documentary, Kendrick's parents will be able to find some peace in the memory of their son.

Marcus Coleman, an activist who works closely with the family says, "They are grateful but cautiously optimistic."

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