The Mysterious Death of Kendrick Johnson

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 worried. 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 filled 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 how they had ended up there, one student 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 overturned the mats so he could get to the student who was on one mat that was up against the wall, knocking a shoe and some books to the floor. 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 they locked the school down at around 11 that morning. Twenty-one hours have relinquished since students discovered Kendrick Johnson inside the mats.

Police quickly set to work to 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 could confirm that Kendrick had been two classes that morning and had walked into the gym at 1:09 pm. Though there were several cameras in the gym, none could capture Kendrick’s last 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 to avoid paying a charge for a locker. Kendrick and another student shared a pair of shoes that they would keep on 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 could verify his whereabouts. Brian 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 helped 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 paying 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. They carried the autopsy 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 newspaper had removed and replaced that Kendrick’s organs by the funeral home, prompting outlandish rumors 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 hoping to reopen 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.”

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, many 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 suit a couple of years later, they filed it again in May 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”


Sources:

A Death in Valdosta


https://eu.usatoday.com/story/sports/highschool/2015/03/05/brian-bell-florida-state-kendrick-johnson-valdosta-lowndes-high-grand-jury/24432415/

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  • It is unfortunate their son died, but the continued allegations. And conspiracy theories are ridiculous and have to stop. His death was clearly accidental.

  • Civil rights activist john Lewis died in 2020. You might want to edit out that Al Sharpton shit so y’all don’t sound obliviously racist.
    Also, rebel taqueria is fire.

    Great episode. Happy new year!

  • So the big reason why most people think the Kendrick case is murder. There was no blood on the top of the shoes. If he bled in that position, why wouldn’t it be on them? Just to rock John’s mind. My wife’s sister and her husband are on opposite ends. He thinks it’s an accident, she thinks possibly foul play.

    But the shoes John. Wouldn’t they be coated on top too?
    I’m in the middle. I see both, but this one tore Valdosta in half from what they told me.

    • Well only one of the shoes was in the mat (excluding the ones he was using). That one actually does have a little blood on it, maybe gotten on it as the mat was tipped over when the body was discovered. As for why there isn’t more, it’s likely because the blood wasn’t being flung about, it was dripping due to decomposition upside down from his nose and mouth. It just missed the shoe. The blood drips would have landed around the same spot every time and spreading from there because his body wouldn’t have been moving at that point.

  • Hey guys! I posted a comment over on YT, but figured I’d leave it here too.

    I always felt that both theories on Kendrick’s death were correct at the same time.
    I think he got into a physical altercation with someone, probably over the girl/jealousy stuff, and during the altercation, slipped and hit his head or something like this. I think he was knocked out, accidentally or on purpose, and that the other student panicked thinking he was already dead, so they hid his body. There are evidence chains that have been broken that never should be, so I also think there was outside interference within the investigation itself, whether the officials actually know or not. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was 1 person “on the inside” that was able to skew things enough. I don’t think there needed to be more than 2 people maximum needed to make the step by step mechanics of what happened make sense.
    Every time I see Kendricks’ face, he always strikes me as such a kind an gentle young man. He had such a precious baby face. It all makes me so sad.

    I think in this sort of situation, best case scenario in my opinion would be something like Criminally Negligent Manslaughter. I don’t think murder would stick, and frankly I think whomever was involved would plea to a lesser offense and it would be even lesser of a charge. There may have been no formal time served or anything.
    I think, though the journey could have been different, at the end of the day the chips still fell where they were going to land regardless (we won’t go into my perspective on String Theory lol). Either way, God, The Maker, Spirit, Gaia, The Universe, or whatever you want to call it, has a wonderful way to keep tabs on one’s Karma, though.

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