Accident or Homicide?: The Death of Kendrick Johnson

I started writing this particular blog entry about a year ago. While doing research on the death of 17 year old Kendrick Johnson, I accidentally viewed some of his postmortem photos, taken by his parents at a funeral home. The photos were released to the public by his parents in hopes of calling attention to the case and to the startling, disturbing nature of his appearance after death. I will not be sharing his postmortem photos here; if you are interested in viewing them, they can easily be found with a basic Google search, but be warned that they are graphic and disturbing. So disturbing, in fact, that I had nightmares about them, which caused me to abandon the half-finished blog post.

However, this year, after the murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, I began to see mentions of Kendrick Johnson’s case popping up in media and even a new petition to reopen his case emerged. I then knew that now was the time to finish what I started a year ago. This is the case of the mysterious death of Kendrick Johnson.

Online petition starts to reopen Kendrick Johnson case
Kendrick Johnson (photo courtesy of WTOC News).

At the time of his death in January of 2013, Kendrick “KJ” Johnson was a seventeen year old student at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Georgia. KJ was described by friends and family as quiet and sweet, yet a jokester who loved to make his family and friends laugh. He enjoyed math and was extremely athletic, playing 3 sports and aspiring to play college football after his graduation from high school, with the ultimate dream of playing in the NFL.

Kendrick’s last known sighting was on the high school’s CCTV footage on January 10, 2013 at 1:09PM (more on this footage later). Lowndes High School had both a “new gym” and a much smaller “old gym” and the footage puts him outside the old gym at that time. He’s reported to have been headed to an afternoon weight lifting class to which he never arrived. Kendrick had told his mother Jacquelyn Johnson that he planned to attend a freshmen basketball game after school, so she did not expect him to come home until evening. When he wasn’t home by midnight, Jacquelyn contacted the police and filed a police report, but the officer taking the report wasn’t very concerned, thinking Kendrick probably was out with friends or decided to spend the night at a friend’s house and just forgot to tell his mother.

When Kendrick was still nowhere to be found the next morning, on January 11, Jacquelyn went to the high school, where they realized that not only had he not reported to his classes that morning, but he had missed his last class the afternoon before. At the very same time Jacquelyn found out this information, the school was alerted to a disturbing discovery in the old gym. A bunch of students were gathered in the old gym that morning when one student spotted something white sticking out of the top of one of the nearby rolled-up wrestling mats. There were several of these mats in the old gym, all rolled up and positioned vertically, standing up to about 6 feet tall. When students went to look more closely at whatever was sticking out from the mat, they were able to see what appeared to be feet in socks inside the mat. Students alerted a faculty member, who was able to move the mat down to a horizontal position on the floor. This is when they discovered the body of Kendrick Johnson stuck inside.

The official ruling on Kendrick’s death by the Lowndes County Medical Examiner was that he died due to positional asphyxia (meaning that he basically suffocated to death due to being stuck upside down in the wrestling mat) and that his death was a tragic accident. Now, if you’re asking yourself, “How does someone accidentally get rolled up in a wrestling mat?!”, the theory is as follows:

At Lowndes High School, students had to pay to use gym lockers, and many of them didn’t want to do so. (And I don’t blame them. Making students pay for gym lockers at a public school when gym is a required class is kind of garbage in my opinion. But I digress.) So what many students, including Kendrick, did was store gym sneakers and other various items in the rolled-up wrestling mats in the old gym, which normally rested on the floor horizontally. Over the winter break, the gym was cleaned up a bit and the mats moved to standing vertical positions. So the theory is that Kendrick went to the gym to retrieve his sneakers, saw his sneakers at the bottom of one of the newly-positioned mats, dove in to retrieve it, and got stuck and asphyxiated.

If that were where the story ended, I honestly might be able to buy that theory. A lot of sources, including the Morbid podcast, argue that this theory is automatically implausible because there is no way anyone would ever dive headfirst into a wrestling mat to get something. I don’t agree with that. I work with college students, many of whom are very close in age to Kendrick, and I can see a teenager or young adult doing this. Is it kind of silly and reckless? Absolutely. But teenagers are often silly and reckless, and don’t totally think out the consequences of or logic behind their actions before doing something that doesn’t make a lot of sense. So I don’t dismiss the theory at face value. However, there are a lot of other factors and pieces of evidence that point to something more sinister going on: at best, a botched investigation and, at worst, the cover-up of a murder.

A Mishandled Crime Scene

According to multiple sources, including the extensive coverage of the case on the podcast True Crime Garage, investigators on scene were photographed without shoe covers on, contaminating the scene with their shoe prints. Additionally, the county coroner was not notified about Kendrick’s death until 6 hours after emergency responders arrived on scene. This is in direct violation of Georgia state law, which says that the coroner must be notified as soon as investigators arrive on scene and are aware of a death. According to True Crime Garage, Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine claimed that it was “custom” to not call the coroner until the scene had been totally processed. However, the coroner at the time, Bill Watson, said the scene was totally compromised. A CNN article published the following quote from Bill Watson, taken from a report filed shortly after Kendrick’s death:

“I was not notified in this death until 15:45 hours. The investigative climate was very poor to worse when I arrived on the scene. The body had been noticeably moved. The scene had been compromised and there was no cooperation from law enforcement at the scene. Furthermore the integrity of the evidence bag was compromised on January 13, 2013 by opening the sealed bag and exhibiting the dead body to his father…I do not approve of the manner this case was handled. Not only was the scene compromised, the body was moved. The integrity was breached by opening a sealed body bag, information necessary for my lawful investigation was withheld.”

So it seems at the least the crime scene was compromised and badly mishandled. Even if it is “custom” to not notify the coroner for hours after a death (and there’s no evidence that this is even the case, as the coroner himself disputed this claim), it’s a terrible custom that needs to stop. The law about calling the coroner immediately is there for a reason, which is that the coroner needs to see the body in as close to the position of death as possible in order to figure out what happened to the person. In most crime scenes, there are elements of compromise that are understandable. In this case, for example, the faculty member moved the mat, and the body in it, in an effort to try to help Kendrick. Things like that happen in any death investigation. However, the investigators themselves should not be contributing to the confusion by moving the body, by failing to call the coroner in a timely manner, and by trampling over a crime scene without shoe covers. Moreover, if there was some sort of element of cover-up involved, there was a lot of time to do so before the coroner was notified and arrived on scene.

The Shoes

As I said earlier, at face value, I could get behind the theory that Kendrick went into the mat looking for his shoes. However, there were a lot of unexplained elements with various pairs of shoes at the scene. There was a pair of shoes found inside the mat with Kendrick and also a shoe found nearby on top of a puddle of blood. It seems to be commonly believed that the black and white Adidas shoe on top of the blood was Kendrick’s, as they match a pair of shoes Kendrick was known to have owned, and that he was diving in to retrieve that shoe before his fitness class. However, this shoe was found on top of a blood puddle and had no blood on it. It’s agreed upon that even if Kendrick died accidentally, the blood can be explained by his positional asphyxia and decomposition. (I’m about to get a bit graphic here.) The blood would have rushed to his head as he hung upside down, and after he began to decompose, blood would have begun to leak from his eyes, nose, and mouth. So the fact that there is blood is not strange. The fact that there is no blood on the sneaker, however, is strange. Let’s say this black and white shoe was the sneaker he was trying to retrieve. He dove into the mat to get it, got stuck in the mat, died, and then began to decompose and bleed. Wouldn’t there be blood on the sneaker? How would Kendrick’s blood not drip onto the sneaker, yet get on the floor below it? Many feel this sneaker was placed on top of the blood after Kendrick’s death as part of a staging of the crime scene.

Then there’s the question of the second pair of sneakers, a pair of white and orange Nikes, that were found in the mat with Kendrick, kind of lying near his legs. Were these the sneakers he was wearing when he entered the mat, since he was found wearing only socks? If so, why did he need to get different sneakers for his fitness class? A pair of Nikes seems just as good for a weight training class does a pair of Adidas, but I’m someone who only wears sneakers to work out, so maybe he did have specific “everyday” sneakers and gym sneakers. If they were his sneakers, how did they get off his feet? Did he kick them off in his struggle to get unstuck from the mat? If that happened, it seems like they would be found in a bit of a more haphazard position, rather than neatly placed behind his knees as the picture shows. All the elements surrounding the sneakers are strange and contribute to a lot of people being suspicious about the case.

The Security Footage

To me, the security footage (or lack thereof) is the most suspicious part of this case. There were four security cameras positioned in various areas of the old gym. There were no cameras that were positioned over the mats, so there was no chance that Kendrick actually going into the mat would’ve been caught on camera, but they should have shown Kendrick entering and if he were alone or if anyone else came in behind him or was there just before him. The first problem is that investigators didn’t ask the school for the CCTV footage for months after Kendrick’s death. In many cases, security footage is taped over after 30 days, so this is already a bad idea and could have resulted in the footage being totally lost, but luckily the school still had footage from the day Kendrick died. That leads to the next problem: the police allegedly allowed the school to go through the footage ahead of time and told the school just to send anything they thought was significant from that day. This makes no sense to me. Why would you wait to collect this footage, and why wouldn’t you just ask the school to provide all footage from that day for you, as the investigator, to go though and determine what is or is not “significant”? Leaving the school in charge of doing this leaves a lot of room for error, or even possibly intentional omission of important footage.

Speaking of which, when the police did finally receive footage months later, it wasn’t of much use. There are a lot of parts of the footage where students seem to appear, then there’s a cut and they disappear. This could be a result of the fact that the cameras are motion-activated, or if could point to editing. Most importantly, none of the four cameras had any video footage during the time just before Kendrick entered the old gym and there remains no footage for about 45 minutes to 1 hour (depending on the camera) after Kendrick is shown entering the old gym on the camera outside of the gym. Put simpler, none of the four cameras had any footage recorded (that we know of) during the time Kendrick would have entered the old gym.

This to me is incredibly suspicious. I know from owning cameras that they can tend to have technical issues, but what are the chances that all four camera would have technical issues at the same time, and that time just so happened to be the exact time someone died in the area recorded by those same cameras? That’s a pretty major coincidence. So was the footage deleted? If so, by who? Someone at the school? Investigators? Did someone at the school edit the video before giving it to investigators? These cameras could hold the answers to what happened in the gym that day, but we have no idea if that footage still exists or where it might be.

The Condition of the Body and Multiple Conflicting Autopsies

As stated earlier, the original ruling of Kendrick’s death by the Lowndes County Medical Examiner was that his death was accidental due to positional asphyxia. This was determined by the autopsy two days after his death. When Kendrick’s parents viewed Kendrick’s body at the funeral home after his death, they were horrified by his appearance. His face looked swollen, disfigured, and as if he had been beaten, and they were convicted he would not have appeared this way if he had died accidentally. (Again, you can find these postmortem photos easily online if you wish, but be warned that they are graphic). Because of his appearance, the Johnsons released the photos they took of him in the funeral home to the public as proof that there was foul play involved in Kendrick’s death. There is no doubt that his appearance is horrifying, and I can’t even imagine how awful it would be as a parent to see your child’s body in that condition. So I don’t blame them a bit for being deeply disturbed. I don’t, however, think Kendrick’s appearance really provides any clues as to whether his death was accidental or foul play. The appearance of his face, in my opinion, is probably due to the combination of him being upside down in a gym mat for almost a full day, and also a result of the autopsy, in which (warning: I’m about to be graphic) the skull is cut open and the skin on the deceased person’s face is peeled back to check for injury. That causes an unfortunate but expected changed in the appearance of the deceased. So that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t beaten; just that his face would have appeared pretty disfigured in either the case of an accident or of foul play.

There are other oddities with Kendrick’s body, however. Somewhere between the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) Medical Examiner’s Office and the funeral home that provided Kendrick’s arrangements, Kendrick’s clothes disappeared. According to True Crime Garage, the technician who transported the body signed an order that said that the clothes were transported with the body, but the funeral home claims to have never received them. So did the transport officer lose/dispose of the clothes? Did the funeral home lose them, and then lie to save face? Did someone at the medical examiner’s office lose/dispose of them, and the technician falsely signed the form? Like so much else in this case, the possibilities and unknowns are very frustrating.

In June of 2013, the Johnsons requested a second independent autopsy, which was done by medical examiner Dr. William Anderson. When the body was exhumed and examined, they found that Kendrick’s organs were missing and that his body was stuffed with newspaper. The newspaper is fairly easily explained. It’s an older, outdated method of making the body appear “full” when organs have been removed. Normally in our current times, the body would be stuffed with a cotton material. Many have speculated that, since the funeral home that serviced Kendrick’s family offered to do the funeral arrangements for free, they may have used newspaper to save money. The missing organs, however, are not so easily explained. In the Morbid podcast episode on this case, co-host Alaina Urquhart, an autopsy technician, discusses in detail what normally happens to organs during and after an autopsy. Organs are normally removed from the body during an autopsy, weighed, examined, and tested. Once the autopsy is complete, a number of things can happen to the organs, depending on the type of death that occurred and on the family’s wishes: sometimes organs can be donated for transplant or medical research; sometimes (especially in cases when foul play is expected) the organs are set aside and stored at the medical examiner’s lab for future testing; sometimes they are placed back in the body, and sometimes they are buried with the body in a separate container. In this case, however, the funeral home again says they never received the organs. After the discovery of the missing organs at the second autopsy, the GBI claimed that because they were so corrupted from “natural processes” that they were destroyed. This again seems very suspicious. Why wasn’t the family told this originally, instead only finding out because they chose to have the body exhumed? Why wouldn’t they ask the family if they wanted the organs buried with Kendrick? Was there some kind of evidence in both the clothes and the organs that someone wanted to hide? Or was it that the officials in the medical examiners office had such disregard for Kendrick that they tossed his clothes and body parts like they were trash? Either way, it’s inexcusable.

After Kendrick’s body was exhumed, the second autopsy was performed and the results were released in August of 2013. Dr. Anderson’s results directly contradicted those of the first autopsy. He ruled that there was foul play involved and that Kendrick’s death was the result of “unexplained, apparent non-accidental blunt force trauma” to Kendrick’s neck. These findings validated what the Johnsons had believed all along. However, because this was an independent autopsy, the official ruling of the GBI’s medical examiner stands in the eyes of the law.

The Johnsons did not give up. In 2018, they had Kendrick’s body exhumed again for a third autopsy. This autopsy echoed the findings of the second. Added as an addendum to the second autopsy, the medical examiner of the third autopsy agree with the finding that the causes of death was some kind of blunt force trauma to the neck, which caused irreparable damage to Kendrick’s carotid artery. This also matches up with an alleged confession that a witness made to the Johnson family, which stated that someone had heard that Kendrick had been killed when someone hit him in the neck with a 45 pound weight. The Johnsons turned over the third autopsy results and the witness statement to the Lowndes County Sheriff office, but the case remains closed and the official ruling is still accidental.

Racism in Lowndes County and a Possible Cover-Up?

Many supporters of the Johnson family feel that racism played a part in his death and/or the lack of investigation. Even if Kendrick’s death was an accident, the lack of care at the crime scene and the lack of respect shown to his body could have been due in part to him being a young black man. These accusations are due in part to the racially-charged history of Lowndes County, Georgia. A lot of people claim that racism is a major problem in Lowndes County. To see for myself, I decided to simply Google “Lowndes County, Georgia” and see what types of articles and information came up. (If you decide to do that as well, be sure to specify the state of Georgia in your search, as I came across a Lowndes County in Mississippi with an unapologetically racist district supervisor). Besides information about Kendrick Johnson, among the first news articles that came up in my search were an article about Barbie dolls being painted black and lynched and an article about black students being discriminated against when they tried out for the cheerleading squad. These incidents happened not only in Lowndes County, but both at the same high school that Kendrick attended. So if race were a factor, it unfortunately wouldn’t be the first time..

The Johnson family has two persons of interest in mind, brothers who attended school with and who allegedly bullied Kendrick. They also happen to have a father who is an FBI agent, so if they were involved, that might explain some of the reason and means behind a cover-up taking place. While this theory is interesting, there’s no real evidence behind it. The two brothers have fairly believable alibis for the time Kendrick entered the gym: one was at a wrestling meet out of town and the other was in class. I could not find any source that said that either of these were 100% verified, so they still could be questionable, but, like so much else in this case, we just don’t know anything beyond that.

So what do I think happened to Kendrick Johnson? I am not comfortable saying that it was 100% for sure not an accident, because it is possible. However, there are so many aspects to the case that range from weird to downright suspicious that it’s hard to believe there wasn’t some sort of foul play involved. The shoes, the missing footage, the contradictory autopsies, the contaminated crime scene…at the very least, investigators botched this investigation to a despicable extent. And I think there are valid reasons to believe that there was more than just incompetence, but that someone in a position of power is hiding something. Kendrick’s family deserves answers, and if he was the victim of foul play, he deserves justice. This case absolutely should get another look from an objective, outside agency. If you would like to add your signature to a petition to get Kendrick Johnson’s case reopened, you can find that petition here.

Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson stood next to a banner on their SUV showing their late son Kendrick Johnson. They have filed their second wrongful death lawsuit in his death.
Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, Kendrick’s parents. (photo from NY Daily News)

Sources:

Autopsy Examination. http://valdosta.sgaonline.com/2010vdt/pdfs/KJohnson_second_autopsy.pdf

“Coroner Slams Handling of Kendrick Johnson Case” https://www.cnn.com/2013/11/07/justice/georgia-gym-mat-death/index.html

“His Body Was Exhumed Twice for a Third Autopsy.” https://face2faceafrica.com/article/his-body-was-exhumed-twice-for-a-third-autopsy-kendrick-johnson-the-black-teen-who-was-found-dead-in-a-gym-still-cries-for-justice-from-his-grave

Morbid: A True Crime Podcast. https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/alaina-urquhart/morbid-a-true-crime-podcast/e/69714377

“Parents of Georgia Teen Found Dead in Gym Mat File New Wrongful Death Lawsuit” https://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/parents-georgia-teen-found-dead-gym-mat-file-new-lawsuit-article-1.2762731

“Remembering Kendrick: Family Still Seeking Justice for Kendrick Johnson 7 Years Later” https://www.wtxl.com/news/local-news/remembering-kendrick-family-still-seeking-justice-for-kendrick-johnson-7-years-later

True Crime Garage. https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/true-crime-garage/e/53871251

1 thought on “Accident or Homicide?: The Death of Kendrick Johnson

  1. Thank you for writing this ! He and his family deserve more of a investigation ! Just awful what happened to him!

    Liked by 1 person

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