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Sheriff Closes Kendrick Johnson’s Case; Says Teen’s Death Was ‘Weird Accident’

Valdosta, Ga. — Ten months ago the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office reopened the Kendrick Johnson case following rumors that there may have been foul play involved with the teens death. Now, 9 years after the Georgia teen’s body was found in a rolled-up gym mat, authorities have once again ruled it an accidental death. 

Johnson was found in a rolled-up wrestling mat Jan. 11, 2013, in the Lowndes High School gym in Valdosta, Georgia. State and local officials ruled his death an accident, concluding that he climbed into the gym mat trying to retrieve a pair of sneakers he had thrown inside earlier, became trapped, and died of asphyxiation.

A federal investigation was also conducted in 2013. Federal prosecutors reviewed the case after Johnson’s family requested a separate investigation. In 2016 the Justice Department closed their case, saying there was “insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone or some group of people willfully violated Kendrick Johnson’s civil rights or committed any other prosecutable federal crime.”

In March 2021, investigators with the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office reopened the case in light of theories that someone killed the teen and officials were covering up the truth.

On Wednesday Sheriff Lowndes County Ashley Paulk released a 16-page report that detailed the findings of the 10 month investigation. The report echoed the ruling made in 2013, concluding that the teens death was a “weird accident.”

In the report, Sheriff Paulk directly addresses the theories of a possible cover up saying:

“Any person who looks at this case objectively would know that it would be impossible to conceal any evidence due to the involvement of so many agencies and investigators. The FBI states unequivocally in its investigation that there was no cover-up of conspiracy.”

Paulk said after examining 17 boxes of evidence provided by prosecutors, he concluded that the evidence “does not produce anything to prove any criminal act by anyone that would have resulted in the death of Kendrick Johnson.”

Kendrick’s family and many in the community still believe the teen was murdered. 

“The truth is the truth,” Kendrick’s father, Kenneth Johnson said. “You can’t make an accident out of a murder.”

Five months after Kendrick’s death, the teen’s family hired forensic pathologist William R. Anderson to conduct a second autopsy. The findings of the autopsy concluded that Kendrick’s death was caused by blunt-force trauma to the right side of the boy’s neck, near the jaw. Contradicting the conclusions of the medical examiner at the Georgia Bureau of Investigations that he died due to “positional asphyxia.”

A third autopsy conducted by the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner in 2014 complicated things further. The autopsy initially concluded that the teen’s death was caused by asphyxiation but was later amended to say the cause of death was “undetermined.”

Johnson’s family said Anderson’s autopsy also revealed that most of his internal organs were missing and the body cavity was filled with newspaper.

Sheriff Paulk’s report addressed the teen’s missing organs saying:

“…the only plausible explanation would be that the viscera were disposed of by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) because of their advanced decomposition.”

However in 2013, GBI spokeswoman Sherry Lang said that the agency’s policy is to return all organs to bodies after autopsies. That’s what happened in Johnson’s case, she said.

“Those organs were in the body when we sent it back to the funeral home,” said Lang, who added that the GBI stands by the conclusions of its autopsy that found no foul play involved.

Following the sheriff’s announcement and report Thursday, Johnson’s family said they will continue to fight for justice for the teen.

“I will fight as long as I have to to uncover what exactly happened to Kendrick Johnson,” said the teen’s father.

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