On the morning of January 11th, 2013, the body of 17 year-old Kendrick Johnson was found inside the gymnasium at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Georgia. The teen was last seen alive at school the previous day. Surveillance cameras captured him walking into the gym shortly after 1pm. Kendrick did not attend any of his classes for the rest of the day, nor did he return home that afternoon. His parents reported him missing on the evening of January 10th.
The following morning, students at Lowndes discovered Kendrick's body inside a vertical rolled-up gym mat. He was positioned headfirst and he was not wearing any shoes. One arm was outstretched above his head, while his other arm was down by his waist. Within 24 hours of his body being found, Kendrick's death was ruled an accident caused by "positional asphyxiation." It was theorized that Kendrick fell headfirst into the mat while looking for one of his shoes, and was unable to get out. The shoe he was presumably reaching for was found on the ground inside the rolled-up mat. A few of Kendrick's classmates told investigators that Kendrick, along with a few other students, would sometimes store their items in the gym mats instead of paying for a gym locker. The Lowndes Sheriff's Office insisted that the autopsy did not reveal any evidence of trauma to Kendrick's body.
Kendrick's parents felt that their son's death was not investigated thoroughly enough to be so quickly labeled as an accident. Their feelings on the matter were not unfounded--as there were numerous details surrounding Kendrick's death that were seemingly ignored or overlooked by investigators. Kendrick's body was found in headfirst in the vertical position. If he fell headfirst inside the rolled-up mat, blood would have eventually rushed to his head, causing him to bleed from his facial orifices. While there was blood found in Kendrick's hair and on his face, there was no blood on the white sneaker found beneath him. There was, however, blood underneath the shoe. Additionally, another orange and black sneaker was found a few feet away from the mat that held Kendrick's body. The sneaker appeared to have blood spatters on it, but it was never submitted as evidence. Additionally, a hoodie found on the scene was never submitted either. There was also blood splatter on a nearby wall, which officials initially denied was blood at all. However, forensic testing later revealed that the splatter was, in fact, blood--but the blood did not belong to Kendrick.
These findings led Kendrick's parents to believe that Kendrick's body might have possibly been moved into the mat after his death. Georgia law requires that a coroner be contacted within an hour of a body being found--but after Kendrick's body was found, the coroner was not contacted until six hours later. Kendrick's parents felt that this, along with all the other seemingly ignored evidence, was a sign that the local authorities had not taken their son's case seriously. As a result, they hired a private pathologist to conduct a second autopsy. In May 2013, a judge allowed Kendrick's body to be exhumed so the autopsy could take place. During this autopsy, it was revealed that Kendrick had suffered from hemorrhaging on the right side of his neck, which indicates that he likely died from blunt force trauma. The pathologist who conducted the autopsy concluded that Kendrick's death was likely not an accident.
After all these findings, Kendrick's loved ones began to believe that Kendrick's death was not just quickly dismissed as an accident--it also might have been a murder that was covered-up by officials. Over the following months, more and more details were revealed that supported this theory.
When Kendrick's body was exhumed for the second autopsy, it was noted that some of his organs were missing and newspaper had been put inside his body in their place. The Georgia Bureau of Investigations (GBI) insisted that Kendrick's organs had been placed back inside his body after the first autopsy, before his body was sent to the funeral home. The coroner who conducted the first autopsy refutes this, though--as he stated certain organs were too decomposed to be sent to the funeral home and were disposed of beforehand. The funeral home explained that it is common for organs to be replaced with sawdust or paper, which explains why the newspaper was found inside Kendrick's body. Still, the fact that these organs were disposed of before a second autopsy could be conducted only further solidified the belief that this was part of a cover-up.
Surveillance footage from the day of Kendrick's death was eventually released. The footage showed Kendrick walking towards the gym and then jogging inside the gym. Footage from cameras pointed towards the gym mats was blurry and seemed to skip around. Furthermore, a whole hour's worth of footage from around the time Kendrick reportedly died was suspiciously missing. This provided additional evidence of a cover-up.
As rumors began to swirl about Kendrick possibly being murdered, two names were mentioned consistently: brothers named Brian Bell and Branden Bell. Brian and Branden were two white classmates of Kendrick's--and they had a contentious history with him. Over a year before his death, Kendrick was accused of fooling around with Brian's girlfriend. Brian, Branden, and Kendrick allegedly got into a physical altercation as a result, but no serious injuries were reported at that time. Additionally, Brian and Branden's father is an FBI agent and Kendrick's parents believe that he used his connections within law enforcement to cover-up their son's involvement in Kendrick's death.
In 2015, the Johnsons filed a civil lawsuit against 38 people, which stated that Brian and Branden killed Kendrick and various officials connected to their father helped them cover it up. The suit was eventually dropped after Kendrick's father stated they did not have enough physical evidence. In return, the Johnsons were sued for defamation charges. Eventually, in June 2016, Kendrick's case was closed and no criminal charges were filed.
Still, the Johnsons were not ready to give up yet. In June 2018, Kendrick's body was exhumed for a second time, and a third autopsy was conducted. The findings from this autopsy revealed that Kendrick's death was not an accident and was likely due to blunt force trauma caused by being struck by a 45lb dumbbell. Even with these findings, though, law enforcement has not reopened Kendrick's case.
The May 2020 murder of George Floyd has reignited a call for justice in Kendrick's case. A petition has been started in an effort to reopen the case. If you'd like to sign the petition, please go here.