Georgia police announced on Tuesday that they are reopening the investigation into the 2013 death of a teen boy whose body was found in his high school gymnasium.
Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk said that this week, a federal judge approved his request to obtain evidence in Kendrick Johnson’s case. Paulk claimed he originally made the request in April but was denied, according to WSB-TV.
The news outlet reported that evidence released in Johnson’s case includes 17 boxes of documents, computer towers, and computer drives. Paulk said the reopened investigation will involve reinterviews in addition to consulting with other law enforcement agencies to ensure nothing was missed or incorrectly reported during the initial probe.
Johnson, 17, was found dead in a gym mat at Lowndes High School in January 2013. His parents have repeatedly claimed their son was the victim of foul play, and accused officials of partaking in a mass coverup that involves the FBI, local police, and the school district.
Johnson’s family believes he was murdered by Brian and Branden Bell, the sons of an FBI agent, and the brothers’ friend Ryan Hall. However, video footage shows Brian Bell and Hall elsewhere in the school when Johnson is believed to have died; Branden Bell was at a wrestling tournament in Macon at the time, according to the Atlanta Journal-Consitution.
In May 2013, the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office deemed Johnson’s death an accident, after an initial autopsy report suggested he died of “positional asphyxia” when he tried to retrieve his sneakers from a rolled-up mat and became stuck.
However, a third autopsy completed in November 2018 disputed officials’ findings — concluding Johnson died from “non-accidental blunt force trauma.”
The 2018 autopsy was the second independent autopsy in Johnson’s case. In June 2013, Johnson’s parents won a bid to have their son exhumed for a second autopsy — and reportedly discovered that every organ from his pelvis to skull, including his brain, heart, lungs, and liver, was gone and replaced with newspaper.
Funeral director Antonio Harrington claimed the 17-year-old’s organs “were destroyed through [the] natural process” due to the position of his body when he died. He also stated the funeral home never had Johnson’s organs, saying they were “discarded by the prosecutor before the body was sent back to Valdosta,” according to CNN.
The allegations regarding the state of Johnson’s body are consistent with accusations a witness made in an affidavit filed in August 2017. Johnson’s parents presented the document days before they were ordered to pay $300,000 in lawyer’s fees to state and local officials named in a wrongful death lawsuit.
In the document, the interviewee alleged he was told that Johnson’s organs were removed and replaced with newspaper to conceal his actual cause of death. He also said Brian Bell had struck Johnson in the neck with a 45-pound dumbbell during a “roid rage” episode — and that someone who witnessed the murder was threatened with violence if they told.
According to the witness, multiple people also conspired to have an hour-and-a-half of the high school surveillance video deleted or corrupted, presumably to make it look like Johnson’s killer or killers were not in the gymnasium when he died.
Bell’s family has repeatedly denied the brothers’ involvement in Johnson’s death.
Paulk did not provide a timeline regarding the latest probe.
He told WCTV, “We’re starting fresh, so it’s like a brand new investigation, no predisposed opinions, can’t have that.”
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[Featured image: Kendrick Johnson/Facebook, Family photo]