The Georgia police officer who determined last week that there was no evidence of a coverup in Kendrick Johnson’s 2013 death announced on Monday that he is offering $500,000 of his own money for anyone who can prove otherwise.
In a statement issued to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk said he is offering the reward after Johnson’s parents called him a liar for finding no evidence of a conspiracy or coverup in the 17-year-old’s death. Paulk said the reward is for information that leads to an arrest or conviction of Johnson’s purported murderer.
Paulk’s announcement comes days after he released a 16-page synopsis report in which he refuted allegations that Johnson was murdered in 2013 at Lowndes High School. He also concluded that there was no conspiracy involved in the federal and local investigations that followed.
Paulk’s office officially reopened the investigation into Johnson’s death in March. In the latest report, which was released on Wednesday, Paulk wrote that he reviewed 17 boxes of files from the FBI, Department of Justice, and local authorities.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation previously determined Johnson’s death was accidental — despite two independent autopsies finding the teen died of non-accidental blunt force trauma. Lowndes County police said they believed Johnson crawled into the mat to retrieve his shoes, became stuck, and continued to burrow into the mat until he became completely trapped and died.
In the synopsis report, Paulk scrutinized an amended statement that was released two years after the Office of Armed Forces Medical Examiner found in August 2014 that Johnson died of positional asphyxia and listed his death as accidental. The amended report stated his cause and manner of death were undetermined.
However, Paulk claimed a woman with the Department of Justice and a man performing the autopsies had “developed a close relationship” — with at one point, the woman saying in an email, “I had to make him feel like a man so that he would be open to talking.”
Over the years, the Johnsons have publicly implicated brothers Brian and Branden Bell in Kendrick’s death. The three teens were classmates. The brothers’ father, Rick Bell, was an FBI special agent who ultimately resigned after his home was raided and searched for evidence, according to NBC.
When Johnson was exhumed for the first independent autopsy in June 2013, it was discovered that every organ from his pelvis to his skull, including his brain, heart, lungs, and liver, was gone and replaced with newspaper.
According to CNN, 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” for burial.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that in October 2013, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation told CBS that Johnson’s organs were returned to his body following the autopsy, as per protocol.
In the latest report, Paulk dispelled rumors that Johnson and the Bell brothers had any contact on the day Johnson died. He wrote that the FBI reviewed footage from 62 cameras on campus, and Johnson never crossed paths with the brothers.
Paulk noted that Branden Bell left campus an hour before Johnson vanished. Paulk also claimed a camera in the gymnasium — which apparently shows Johnson before his death — was realigned 13 months earlier. He said the camera needed to be adjusted after a basketball hit it.
On Monday, Paulk urged anyone with information regarding Johnson’s death to contact Lowndes County police.
He commented, “I urge anyone — including the family — to add to this reward if they so desire.”
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[Featured image: Kendrick Johnson/Contributed]