Sheriff: No Foul Play in Teen's Gym Mat Death

Mother of Kendrick Johnson doesn't buy it
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 10, 2021 3:15 AM CST
Updated Jan 27, 2022 12:30 PM CST
Strange Case of Teen's Gym Mat Death Reopened
Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson stand next to a banner on their SUV showing their late son, Kendrick Johnson, on Dec. 13, 2013, in Valdosta, Ga. A Georgia sheriff, who reopened an investigation into the death last year, concluded Wednesday that there was no evidence of foul play.   (AP Photo/Russ Bynum, File)

(Newser) Update: There is no evidence of foul play in the 2013 death of Kendrick Johnson, whose body was found upside-down inside a rolled-up gym mat at his Georgia high school, Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk concluded Wednesday. He spoke after conducting a review of an FBI investigation six years ago that came to the same conclusion—it was a freak accident. Johnson's parents insist their son was murdered, and they accuse school officials and the previous sheriff of a cover-up. But Paulk says the evidence supports neither claim, per the AP. Mother Jaqueline Johnson now wants another federal investigation, calling Paulk's findings a "lie," per WSB. Our original story from March 2021 follows:

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.

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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