Although 10 years have passed since the death of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson, whose body was found inside a rolled-up wrestling mat, a day after he reportedly went missing inside a Valdosta, Georgia, high school in 2013, his parents, Kenneth and Jackie Johnson, have not stopped fighting for justice.
The Johnsons filed a federal lawsuit, on September 19 this year, against the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office, alleging a decade of racial harassment, official cover-up, and conspiracy depriving the plaintiffs of their civil rights.
The Johnsons maintain they have yet to receive consistent answers from either Lowndes High School, the Sheriff’s office, or the GBI, regarding the mysterious death of their student athlete son, who was last seen walking between classes on camera the day prior to the discovery of his body.
According to 11 Alive Atlanta, classmates found the young man’s body on January 11, 2013, the cause of which investigators deemed a freak accident. “The GBI Medical Examiner’s Office conducted a thorough autopsy on this case. The case is closed, and we stand behind our original findings,” the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said in a recent media release.
Valdosta is a city of just over 55,000 people located in South Central Georgia near the Florida border. According to the 2022 census, its population is 56.3 percent Black and 36.6 percent White. According to Public School Review, the school Kendrick attended, Lowndes High School, has a student body of about 3,079 students.
Rejecting an ‘invented’ narrative
Speaking on behalf of the Johnsons, Jonathan Burrs, their family’s representative and advocate, said they all reject the official narrative as a blatant falsehood. “What the Johnsons found was that there was materially false information in (Sheriff Paulk’s) synopsis that could have only come from the medical examiner who invented this narrative, and we say invented because there’s no evidence to support it, and all the evidence that they collected contradicts both the cause of death on the death certificate as well as the synopsis,” he said during a news conference on the day of the suit’s filing.
According to the GBI Division of Forensic Sciences, Regional Medical Examiner Maryanne Gaffney-Kraft said: “The cause of death in this case is positional asphyxia and the manner of death is accident (sic),” she concluded in her autopsy report dated May 2, 2013. Officials reportedly closed the case three years later stating there was insufficient evidence to support federal criminal charges.
The GBI narrative still insists that Kendrick purportedly crawled across several rolled-up gym mats lined up vertically along a wall and dropped head-first into one of them, attempting to retrieve a pair of shoes. A diagram provided by investigators revealed the rolled mat stood six feet in height, two feet and six inches in width, and the opening through which he reportedly fell, measured one foot, two-inches in diameter. The family noted Kendrick’s width at the shoulders was 19 inches and said it was impossible for him to fall through the opening.
On June 15, 2013, a Florida-based independent forensic pathologist, Dr. William R. Anderson, issued a second autopsy report and said Kendrick’s cause of death was from “blunt force trauma to his right neck” and “blunt force trauma to his right antero-lateral thorax,” consistent with an inflicted injury.
A note on the report further stated the cause of death was from: “Unexplained, apparent non-accidental, blunt force trauma: further investigation is indicated to determine etiology of the injuries,” it read. The Johnson family also said there were scars consistent with the use of a stun gun along with bruises across his body and on at least one hand.
“Sheriff Ashley Paulk said there was no bruising on Kendrick’s face (and) there was no bruising on his body,” the young man’s father, Kenneth Johnson, said during an interview with local news media. “We pulled pictures from the crime scene photos that they gave us,” sharing them with the assembled media outlets attending the press conference at the federal courthouse in Atlanta.
Speaking on behalf of the family, Mr. Burrs told media interviewers that written reports and statements from the Sheriff’s office, when compared to the physical evidence, did not match. “The evidence that they collected and all the statements that they made to the press was that there was one shoe, so clearly they fabricated the diagram in the synopsis,” he said during an interview with 11 Alive Atlanta. “What the Johnsons want is a full and fair opportunity to litigate, and that’s what the Constitution allows.”
Mr. Burrs also told The Final Call that he believes malfeasance has occupied the center of the investigation and alleges more than just a cover-up between the Sheriff’s office, the medical examiner, and the GBI, who all reaffirmed their initial conclusions. “The Sheriff’s office, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, they deliberately overlooked (and) ignored all of these injuries, and it’s a host of injuries. They took pictures of these injuries, then didn’t report on these injuries in their certificate of death, the autopsy, or the synopsis from January 25, 2020,” he insisted.
Citing more than 10 years of fighting to demand answers, the father told The Final Call that both he and his wife, Jackie, remain resolute and that as parents, will not stop in their quest to uncover the truth. “January (2024) will be 11 years, it’s been a long 11 years, it gets frustrating at times, but we’ve got to stay strong and keep fighting for what is right,” Mr. Johnson said.
“When my son went missing, when he didn’t come home and no one had heard from him, that was suspicious from the very beginning,” Mr. Johnson recalled. “By that night, by 12, it started to become a reality, something is majorly wrong here. I’ll never forget that night. He was seen in school, he was in his first couple of classes,” he said of his son and of the school’s surveillance video showing him inside the school until he went into the gym where he subsequently disappeared.
Jackie Johnson, Kendrick’s mother, said to the news media that she will demand justice for her son for as long as it takes. “We’re going to continue to keep fighting for Kendrick because his life mattered,” she said, remaining adamant that foul play and a cover-up continue to surround her son’s death.
Truth of guilty made known?
Leading to even more questions as to why no one knew of Kendrick’s whereabouts when he disappeared, or why inconsistencies in the investigation were not questioned more deeply when presented to authorities, the Johnsons agreed that such a high-profile case, which garnered national media attention, could so easily dismiss how a popular student-athlete could just vanish into thin air on school grounds only to be found dead the next day in its gym. “This didn’t happen after school, this happened during school,” Mr. Johnson said of his son’s disappearance and subsequent death.
Nation of Islam Student Minister, Aaron Muhammad, of Muhammad Mosque No. 100 in Albany, Georgia, located about an hour West of Valdosta, told The Final Call that members of the mosque received instructions from the Nation of Islam’s Southern Regional headquarters in Atlanta, to escort and support the Johnsons during the aftermath of their son’s death in 2013.
“We went in and out of the city and sat with the family and escorted them to certain meetings per instructions (from) the Student Southern Regional Minister, Abdul Sharrieff Muhammad. He received a call, and he called us,” Student Minister Aaron Muhammad said.
He explained that rural Georgia has long endured much of the same animosity and cynicism that has poisoned relationships between law enforcement entities and Black communities across the country. Student Minister Aaron Muhammad said bad relationships can heal and mutual feelings of dislike or mistrust can begin to subside perhaps creating better cooperation. However, distrust and frustration in how investigations are handled by law enforcement when it comes to Black victims continues.
The Johnson family also expressed frustration over how their son’s body was returned to them with large portions of flesh cut out from his back and neck. Alleging these were removed to conceal evidence of physical trauma against his person, their September 1 media release said hired independent investigators “were unable to locate any medical professional in the United States that could identify a medical explanation or technique used for the butchery and mutilation performed on the corpse of young Kendrick.”
An additional statement released by the Kendrick Johnson Foundation, on October 5, said the case of its namesake, Kendrick, and an unrelated party also having grievances with the GBI, on behalf of Renee McGhee of Macon, regarding her son Steven, were both sent to the United Nations Human Rights Council regarding egregious human rights abuses in the United States.
The statement read in part that, “the Kendrick Johnson Foundation submitted an official complaint to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights against the United States of America for patterns, if not outright policy of states like Georgia and Mississippi, to violate the civil and human rights of African Americans with impunity. The original complaint was mailed to Geneva, Switzerland and a digital copy of the complaint was submitted to a UN member and investigator,” it said.
Kendrick’s mother expressed in a text message to The Final Call that for her, there is no such thing as justice because justice would mean her son would be here with her. But she explained that those responsible for her son’s death must be held accountable as well as those that reportedly covered up what happened.
She stated that their fight over the last 10-plus years has been “nothing but pure hell,” but that “we demand justice and we’re not going nowhere and we’re going to continue to fight (for) Kendrick and let the people know that it is not OK. We’re not only fighting for Kendrick but other children that are Black and Brown and (to) make sure no other family has to go (through what) Mr. Johnson and I and my family has had to endure these last 10-plus years.”