January 10, 2013, began like any other day for Valdosta teenager Kendrick Johnson. It was the second day back at Lowndes High School after Christmas break, and 17-year-old Kendrick had a full day of classes scheduled with plans to go to a freshman basketball game that evening.
But Kendrick never turned up for a weightlifting class that afternoon, nor did he return home in the evening as expected. It was 9:30 pm before his mother, Jackie, really began to worry. Kendrick always called when he was going to be home late. After driving back and forth between home and school with still no sign of her son, Jackie called the police at around 12:30 am to report him missing.
On Friday, January 11, at about 10 am, a group of students arrived at the Lowndes highschool gym for a class. They began to fill in a survey given to them by their coach when someone noticed a pair of white socks sticking out of one of several upright, rolled up wrestling mats that stored in the corner. Curious as to how they had ended up there, one of the students stood up on the bleachers for a better view. With horror, they realized that it wasn’t just a pair of socks – it was a person.
Their coach, Philip Pieplow, frantically began to overturn the mats so he could get to the student, who was in one of the mats that were up against the wall, knocking a shoe and some books to the floor in the process. While a student called 911, Pieplow attempted to pull the person out of the mat but quickly realized that they were too late. Police and medical personnel dispatched, and the school was locked down at around 11 that morning. Twenty-one hours have relinquished since studends discovered Kendrick Johnson inside the mats.
Police quickly set to work to try and find out how this could have happened. There were several security cameras dotted around the school, and police tracked down and interviewed every student who visited the gym that Thursday and Friday. From statements and security footage, police were able to confirm that Kendrick had been to classes that morning and had walked into the gym at 1:09 pm. Though there were several cameras in the gym, none were in a position to capture Kendrick’s final moments. Instead, they show him walking off to the right-hand corner of the gym, the place where the mats were stored. Other students appear on CCTV entering the gym just minutes later. But sadly, by then, it was already too late.
After they spoke to the other students, the police discovered that some of them used the mats to store their belongings as a way to avoid paying a charge for a locker. Kendrick and another student shared a pair of shoes that they would keep in the mat so they could each take turns wearing them. The wrestling mats were usually stored on their side, allowing Kendrick and his friend to reach in and grab the shoes easily. But over the Christmas break, they had been turned vertically and placed in a group next to the wall.
Police concluded that in his haste, Kendrick climbed over several vertical mats to reach the one with his shoes instead of moving them out of the way. Unable to tilt the mat, he instead reached down inside and accidentally got stuck. Stuck in the tight space with no way to get out, he suffocated, with the official cause of death declaring positional asphyxia.
But Kendrick’s parents refused to accept this version of events. They didn’t believe that their young, athletic son could have met his end trapped inside a rolled-up wrestling mat. But if Kendrick’s death wasn’t accidental, then what had happened? The Johnsons suspected that their son had been killed by fellow students Brian and Branden Bell. Brian and Kendrick had been friends for many years, though they had once had a very public falling out that ended with a scuffle on the school bus about a year before Kendrick’s death. But according to friends and classmates, they had since made up, though had drifted apart a little since Kendrick quit the football team.
However, at the time of Kendrick’s death, Branden was on a school bus to a wrestling tournament, along with dozens of other witnesses who were able to verify his whereabouts. Brian, on the other hand, was captured on CCTV in class on the other side of campus. Despite the evidence to the contrary, the Johnson’s have continued to assert that the Bell brothers had something to do with Kendrick’s death. The sons of an FBI agent, they theorized that the boys had help in covering up the murder.
The Bell household was subject to an early morning raid where the brother’s phones, laptops, and cameras seized. Police could find no evidence that they had anything to do with Kendrick’s death, but the damage to their reputation was severe. After a supporter of the Johnson’s got in touch with Florida State University, they withdrew their offer of a football scholarship to Brian Bell. A judge later ordered the Johnson’s to pay the Bells legal costs, totaling nearly $300,000.
With the help of the Valdosta Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Johnson’s arranged for a second autopsy performed on their son. The autopsy was carried out by private pathologist Dr. William Anderson. Shockingly, Anderson concluded that Kendrick’s death was no accident, but had been caused by a karate-like chop to the neck. The discovery also raised suspicions that Kendrick’s organs had been removed and replaced by newspaper by the funeral home, prompting outlandish rumors of some kind of organ harvesting ring. However, according to the Georgia Board of Funeral Service, to do so was not ‘best practice,’ but didn’t violate any kind of law. When confronted with the new findings, federal investigators commissioned a review of the autopsies and determined that the first, carried out by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, was more credible. The Johnson’s requested a coroner’s inquest in the hopes of reopening the investigation and reclassifying Kendrick’s death. Their request, however, was denied.
Meanwhile, the SCLC and NAACP had been conducting their investigation. While both organizations had originally supported the Johnson’s theory that Kendrick’s death was suspicious, the more they investigated, the more they realized there was no evidence to the contrary. Speaking in 2015, Reverend Floyd Rose, president of the SCLC, said:
“I do not believe he was murdered. Based on the preponderance of the evidence and the fact that over 100 people would have to be lying and telling the same story for two years, risking the loss of their jobs, their retirement, jail time; I think the murder theory is not only false but also ridiculous and based only on wild speculation and outright fabrications.”
Nevertheless, the Johnsons requested for Kendrick’s body to exhumed once more. They still felt certain that Kendrick was murdered, and they were determined to find the evidence to prove it. Not only did his body show signs of a beating, they said, but the security footage from the school’s cameras had been doctored.
Dr. William Anderson again completed the third autopsy. In 2018, he concluded that Kendrick had died from non-accidental blunt force trauma between his neck and abdomen. But by then, a lengthy federal investigation had ruled that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ to show that anyone else had been involved in Kendrick’s death.
Seven years, numerous investigations, and three autopsies later, the Johnsons are still convinced that there is more to their son’s death than meets the eye. They were so convinced of a cover-up that in 2015 they launched a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit against 38 defendants, including the owner of the funeral home, multiple law enforcement, city, and school officials.
Though they dropped that particular suit a couple of years later, they filed it again in May of 2019. Posting the update to the Justice for Kendrick Johnson Facebook page, Jackie added the following caption:
“Just when they thought it was over. It ain’t over! Justice for Kendrick Johnson”