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‘No cover-up or conspiracy’: Sheriff releases synopsis of Kendrick Johnson’s death investigation

Demonstrators join hands in a moment of prayer during a "Who Killed K.J." rally in memory of...
Demonstrators join hands in a moment of prayer during a "Who Killed K.J." rally in memory of Kendrick Johnson, seen on the banner at right, the south Georgia teenager found dead inside a rolled-up wrestling mat in his school, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013, in Atlanta. Lawyers for the parents of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson are calling on the governor to order a coroner's inquest. The body of Johnson was found Jan. 11, and sheriff's investigators concluded that he died in a freak accident. Johnson's parents insist someone must have killed him.(AP Photo/David Goldman)
Published: Jan. 26, 2022 at 3:35 PM EST
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VALDOSTA, Ga. (WCTV) - More than nine years after 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson’s death and nearly 10 months after the case was reopened, Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk has released a synopsis of the years-long investigation.

Johnson’s body was found on Jan. 11, 2013, in a vertical rolled-up mat in the old Lowndes High School gymnasium in Valdosta, Georgia, according to WCTV.

The story has since garnered national and international attention.

In a 16-page document provided to WCTV, the sheriff’s office attempted to “address all the rumors” that have swirled since the case first came to light.

Paulk said he poured through federal case documents for more than a year before publishing the synopsis. Approximately 17 boxes of files related to the case from various agencies, including the FBI, Department of Justice and local law enforcement, were researched in producing the document.

“We finally obtained them. I tried for five years to obtain the files,” he said. “We’ve been verifying data and talking to people that were involved in the investigation.”

The question at the center of the case has been the circumstances of Johnson’s death. According to the synopsis, Johnson was last seen alive at 1:27 p.m. on Jan. 10, 2013, near the area of the gym mats.

His body was discovered “head down” inside a mat the next morning.

“From the documents I’ve read and the investigation I’ve seen, I feel 100% sure there was no foul play,” Paulk said. “It’s a terrible accident, in my opinion.”

Seven different people testified that students stored shoes and other items in the gym mats, according to the synopsis. One person also testified students would often crawl down into the mats to retrieve their items and another stated that he and Johnson stored items in mats together in the past.

A document cited in the synopsis indicated there were no apparent signs of blunt force trauma on Johnson’s face or body.

Johnson’s death was ruled an accident in May 2013, but his body has been exhumed multiple times as his family questioned the investigation.

Three autopsies were performed on Johnson’s body several years apart, according to the synopsis. The first was conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation two days after Johnson died. The cause of death was listed as positional asphyxia, and the manner was accidental.

A second autopsy was performed by Dr. William Anderson, as requested by Johnson’s family. It reportedly listed the cause of death as “blunt force trauma to the right neck involving the right mandible.” Five years later, an addendum was made to the report, adding “blunt force trauma, right thorax,” which Paulk noted required Johnson’s body to be exhumed again.

The third autopsy, performed by the Office of Armed Forces Medical Examiner in August 2014, listed the cause of death as positional asphyxia and the manner as accidental. An amended report issued nearly two years later stated the cause of death and manner of death were undetermined.

In the synopsis the timing of the amended report is questioned. Around the time of the amended report was issued a woman working with the Department of Justice and the man performing the autopsies reportedly developed a close relations that could have influenced it.

The synopsis highlights allegations that then-classmates Brian and Brandon Bell had something to do with Johnson’s death.

Rumors the brothers had a reason to target Johnson were dispelled by the investigation, according to Paulk. In the synopsis, he wrote approximately 62 school cameras, viewed by the FBI, showed Johnson never crossed paths with the Bells the day he died.

The synopsis also reported several pieces of evidence show Brandon Bell had left campus an hour before Johnson was last seen alive.

Johnson’s parents filed a $100 million wrongful death suit against the brothers on Jan. 15, 2015, but dropped it on March 2, 2016.

Another suit was filed in August 2016 and named 42 defendants, including classmates and school board members. A judge dismissed it and Johnson’s parents were ordered to pay attorneys’ fees associated with the lawsuits.

Questions about a camera that should have been facing the corner of the gym where Johnson was found dead were mentioned in the sheriff’s synopsis. Video evidence proved the camera was realigned after a basketball hit it roughly a year before Johnson’s death, on Feb. 13, 2012.

“We can tell you the day, the hour, the minute and the second that camera was moved 13 months before Johnson died,” Paulk said.

The Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office received possible evidence in the case on March 17, 2021, but it proved to be short-lived. An audio recording of a possible confession was reviewed and later determined to be a hoax, according to Paulk. Since then, he’s continued to pore over the documents, computer towers and hard drives that were turned over at the reopening of the case.

“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 Kendrick Johnson,” Paulk wrote in the synopsis.

Paulk said he initially applied to the DOJ for the case files alongside Johnson’s father, but the relationship between the sheriff’s office and Johnson’s family has since deteriorated. He said the Johnsons have not responded to “correspondence” from the sheriff’s office and were not notified ahead of the synopsis’ release.

The Bell family was notified since they reached out to the office, according to the sheriff.

In the report, Paulk acknowledged there will still be parties who believe foul play was involved in Johnson’s death. He urged anyone that may have other “tangible evidence” related to the case to turn it over with a source in writing for review.

WCTV has also reached out to the Johnson family for their response.

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