Georgia police revealed on Wednesday that a purported confession tape connected to the 2013 death of a high-schooler found in a rolled-up gym mat is fake.
Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office said an unidentified man admitted to producing the fraudulent audiotape which he initially claimed contained Brian Bell confessing to Kendrick Johnson’s murder. Johnson, 17, was found dead in Lowndes High School’s gymnasium in January 2013.
Johnson’s family has rejected officials’ determination that Johnson’s death was accidental and has accused brothers Brian and Branden Bell of murdering Johnson. The three teens were classmates.
The man who furnished the alleged confession tape reportedly claimed he was the Bells’ second cousin. However, Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk said their investigation revealed that the Bells do not have a second cousin.
“This person, in my opinion, is a pathological liar. He has been convicted of giving false statements before, so we’re not going to go on his statements completely or trust him completely,” said Paulk, who called the ordeal a ” cruel and terrible hoax.”
“We identified him within 15 minutes because we’ve dealt with him before.”
The man allegedly contacted Johnson’s mother, who gave police the apparent confession tape in March, in addition to a picture of the person who she said sold it to them for $1,000.
According to WTXL, the man told Johnson’s family that Brian Bell revealed his role in the teen’s death during a birthday party. Johnson’s family was told the audiotape contains Brian Bell’s voice, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
“They are going to catch me anyway. I should’ve never done this. I was young and stupid. Kendrick didn’t deserve this, man…They’re going to catch me anyways,” the person is reportedly heard saying in the tape.
Police said they tracked the alleged fraudster to a motel in Hahira, where he admitted to fabricating the tape. According to WTXL, the man said he did not act alone.
Paulk said Johnson’s family will not talk to them about their encounter with the suspect, who they are interested in criminally charging. Paulk said the fraudulent recording may fall under federal cyberstalking laws as a person using a cellular device caused emotional distress, in this case, to Johnson’s family.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Johnson’s family said that they want to conduct their own tests to determine the tape’s authenticity. The spokesperson said Johnson’s mother is not convinced the tape is fake, the Journal-Constitution reported.
Johnson’s parents have repeatedly claimed their son was the victim of foul play, and have accused officials of partaking in a mass coverup that involves the FBI, local police, and the school district.
In March, the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office announced they were reopening the case to ensure the initial investigation was conducted properly. Police said the latest probe would involve reinterviews and consulting with other law enforcement agencies to ensure nothing was missed or incorrectly reported during the initial probe.
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 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,” as Crime Online previously reported.
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.
Police said they are in the process of examining evidence in Johnson’s case, which includes 17 boxes of documents, computer towers, and computer drives. They have not provided a timeline regarding their ongoing investigation.
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[Featured image: Kendrick Johnson/Facebook, contributed]