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Strange Case of Teen's Gym Mat Death Reopened

Kendrick Johnson died 8 years ago in Georgia
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 10, 2021 3:15 AM CST

(Newser) – On January 11, 2013, 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson was found dead upside-down inside a rolled-up gym mat at his high school in Valdosta, Ga. Authorities have long maintained his death was accidental, caused by positional asphyxia as he got stuck while reaching for a pair of shoes, but his parents continue to insist foul play was involved. On Tuesday they got a victory, as the Lowndes County Sheriff announced the investigation will be reopened five years after it was closed, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. Johnson's parents, Kenneth and Jackie, alleged in a 2015 wrongful death lawsuit that brothers Brian and Branden Bell and a friend, Ryan Hall, killed their son, and the superintendent of schools (and his daughter, who discovered Johnson's body) and the sheriff at the time covered up the crime to help the Bells' father, a former FBI agent.

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A judge ruled against the Johnsons, citing no evidence, and the Bell brothers' parents say FBI video analysis found one brother, and Hall, were in other parts of the school when Johnson died; the other Bell brother was at a wrestling tournament off-campus. Even so, the current sheriff will personally lead the reopened probe, saying, "I’m treating it like it’s a brand new case. There’s still a lot of questions people want answered." The former president of the Valdosta NAACP, who once supported the Johnsons, now says the case should not be reopened: "If there was something there, don’t you think the feds would’ve pursued it?" Others at the sheriff's office say the case is not officially back open, but the sheriff has agreed to look into some answers the family wants. But Johnson's mom tells CNN, "It's been eight long years. I'm feeling hopeful." (Read more Kendrick Johnson stories.)

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