The Valdosta Daily Times
About this series
This is the third of four stories by the Valdosta Daily Times reviewing the official police file on the investigation into the death of Kendrick Johnson, 17, the Lowndes High School student whose body was discovered Jan. 11 in a rolled-up wrestling mat in the school’s old gymnasium.
Today’s report is about the confusion surrounding Kendrick’s whereabouts the day before his body was found, explains police handling of a report that a person was attacked and falsely accused of killing Kendrick, and tells about the dissatisfaction of Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson with how authorities handled the immediate investigation.
Sunday’s final installment will provide details of the findings of the family’s pathologist, accusations that the children of an FBI agent killed Kendrick, and what is likely to happen next in the case.
Jacquelyn Johnson expected her son to arrive home Jan. 10 after watching a freshmen basketball game at Lowndes High School that evening.
But 17-year-old Kendrick didn’t show up at the expected time and shortly after midnight, his mother filed a missing person’s report with police. A few hours later she was at the high school when she got the tragic news her son had been found dead in a rolled-up wrestling mat in the old gymnasium.
A state autopsy determined the youth died accidentally of “positional asphyxia” from being trapped upside down in the mat for an extended period. Johnson’s family believes he was a victim of foul play. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Southern Georgia is currently investigating the case.
Confusion surrounding Kendrick’s death is linked to his body being found 21 hours – about 10:30 a.m. Jan. 11 – after he was last seen entering the old gym on Jan. 10 around 1:30 p.m., as recorded by the school’s surveillance cameras.
More than three months later, on April 25, investigators interviewed a member of the basketball team who practiced in the old gym on Jan. 10. He told them he did not see Johnson there and observed nothing out of the ordinary. The wrestling mats were lined up in an out-of-the-way corner of the gym.
The same student said he attended the freshmen basketball game but did not see Johnson at the game.
Investigators also looked into the Lowndes County Sheriff’s office conversation with a high school student who came forward on Jan. 11 to claim someone posted a statement on Facebook to the effect that, “When you start messing the goons bodies start showing up” after Johnson’s body was found.
Investigators could not confirm the statement because the Facebook account had been deactivated, but the student said it might have been tied to a feud between a member of a group called “CVC” – for Clyattville Click – that Johnson belonged to and the Facebook poster over a girlfriend.
That afternoon, at 1:25 p.m., the sheriff’s office received a call from the Valdosta Police Department that the Facebook poster had reported he had been “jumped” by a group of people. The sheriff’s office and Valdosta police interviewed him about the matter.
The poster stated he was standing on the west side of the road in the 1300 block of North Troup Street with a friend when Johnson’s sister “pulled up in a blue vehicle with several other subjects.” He said the sister looked at the friend and said, “what the f--- are you laughing about?”
The poster said he was soon surrounded by the group when he heard the sister say, “you killed my brother,” followed by a man, who was crying, striking him in the face. He told investigators “the next thing he knew he was on the ground being hit by several black males.”
He also said he was struck in the head with a silver pistol before escaping into a nearby apartment, but Valdosta Police Chief Brian Childress told The Times his injuries were not consistent with that account.
Investigators asked the victim why he did not call authorities, and he stated that “he thought (the police) would think it was him who had killed Kendrick.” Investigators asked why he thought anyone would think he would have something to do with Kendrick’s death, and he responded by saying, “Man, how do they know all this and y’all don’t, y’all are supposed to be on top of your game.”
He told investigators that he did not know why people thought he had something to do with Johnson’s death and that he had “no problems” with him. The victim initially said he did not have a Facebook page but later admitted he did have one.
Chief Childress said Valdosta police interviewed a member of Kendrick Johnson’s family in reference to the assault and ruled the victim out as a suspect. Charges were never filed in the assault incident.
Significantly, the police investigation file contained information on the EMS report by the South Georgia Medical Center’s Mobile Healthcare Service following the 911 report of a dead body found Jan. 11 at Lowndes High.
The report names Kendrick L. Johnson as the patient and does not make note of any visible injuries or hemorrhaging. As for the cause of death, it was the “crew’s impression” that it was “cardiac arrest.”
The report notes that “bruising” can be seen on the right jaw, but it also documents “lividity and mottling” to the face and arms. Lividity occurs when the heart stops pumping and blood pools within vessels. When the blood escapes the vessels, bruising often results, according to medical experts.
The case file also contained an unsigned and undated report from Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson that was faxed to the sheriff’s office Jan. 15. A second signed and dated report exists, but it was not in the case file.
The first report includes limited information, but Watson does make a note that he was not notified by investigators until 3:45 p.m. on Jan. 11, more than six hours after Johnson’s body was found.
Sheriff Chris Prine acknowledged Watson should have been notified earlier but that the delay was not unusual even though state law requires the coroner to declare the cause of death as soon as possible. Prine said there was little the coroner could do until investigators secured all of the evidence, including the body.
“It’s been kind of an understanding with all of the coroners from the surrounding counties,” said Prine. “Rather than sitting there in the parking lot waiting for us to finish, you just call them when you get to the body. And I swear to you no law-enforcement officer touched that body until the coroner got there and examined it.”
The coroner’s second report was made after the body was released to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for an official autopsy on Jan. 14. Watson signed and dated the report Jan. 22. He claimed the scene where Kendrick’s body was found “had been compromised and that there was no cooperation from law enforcement on the scene.”
He also stated the integrity of the investigation was compromised on Jan. 13 “by the opening of the sealed (body) bag and exhibiting the dead body to the father.”
Watson told The Times that while the scene where the body was found had been compromised, the conclusions of the investigators “didn’t leave anything out.”
Dr. Maryanne Gaffney-Kraft conducted an autopsy of Johnson’s body on Jan. 14 at the GBI State Crime Lab in Macon.
The autopsy found “congestive-decomposition changes of the head, neck, torso and upper extremities” and no injuries other than “superficial abrasions” on the right wrist and the “left distal fourth finger.” It noted that Johnson’s fingernails were “intact, trimmed and worn short” with “no obvious foreign body material present.” Social media has circulated rumors Kendrick’s fingernails had either been clipped or removed.
Dr. Gaffney-Kraft’s concluded that Kendrick died as the result of positional asphyxia “and that the manner of death was accidental.”