Valdosta Daily Times

February 9, 2014

Mom says sons harassed, threatened in KJ case

Adam Floyd
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Karen Bell has had it with the rumor-mongering about her family’s connection to the death of Kendrick Johnson on social networking sites like YouTube,  Twitter and Facebook.

“If you dare to stand up for what is truthful, you become a target for bullying and harassment,” said the mother of two teenage sons who have been the subject of the rumors. “I should not have to be quiet.”

Since Johnson’s lifeless body was found in a rolled-up gym mat at Lowndes High School more than a year ago, the Bells’ lives have changed. Karen Bell has decided to speak out against the not-so-quiet whisper campaign accusing her sons of murder.

Her husband, an FBI agent, cannot talk publicly about the hearsay and other loose talk blurring the line between fact and fiction on the Internet.

For more than a year, anonymous rumors have forced Bell’s children to live different lives even though an investigation by the sheriff’s office and an autopsy by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation determined Johnson died from a freak accident when he

became trapped upside down in a gym mat while trying to retrieve an athletic shoe.

The GBI autopsy said Johnson died of “positional asphyxia” that prevented him from breathing. Johnson’s parents believe he was the victim of foul play, possibly murder, pointing to a second autopsy they commissioned by a private pathologist that said their son appeared to die from a fatal blow to a carotid artery in his neck. U.S. Attorney Michael Moore is currently reviewing evidence in the case.

In the meantime, Karen Bell said, her sons are being falsely accused and bullied on social network sites, causing them anguish and concern for their safety.

She said her oldest son, 18, was forced to quit his job at a local grocery store in November after Twitter users posted online that they knew where he worked.

She said her youngest son, 16, the target of most of the online threats, was harassed at school by students who identified themselves as gang members, saying they were “going to kick his ass.” Bell said this son used to be a social butterfly but now stays home most nights to avoid the risk of being attacked.

Bell traces the harassment of her sons to a YouTube video posted Jan. 14, 2013 — three days after Johnson’s body was found. The video quoted a man as saying Johnson had gotten into “a confrontation with one of the GBI’s sons that goes to that school years ago, and that wasn’t settled yet. And I was told, I don’t know for sure, but I was told that that boy had something to do with it, too.”

The reference was to Bell’s husband, the FBI agent. Bell said the confrontation likely referred to a scuffle between Johnson and Bell’s youngest son, both freshmen at the time, that occurred on a school bus during a varsity football team trip to an away game in 2011.

For people seeking alternate theories to how Johnson died, the dots were easy to connect, and suspicion fell on the Bell brothers, their mother concluded.

Bell said her youngest son and Johnson were sitting together near the back of the bus. They got into a shoving match, stopped quickly by a coach. Both Johnson and the Bell teen had to sit in the stands during the game as punishment. They were not allowed to ride home on the bus. Karen Bell said Johnson and her son stood in the stands during the game and later laughed about the situation.

“We drove our son back home after the game, but Kendrick rode in the front seat of a resource officer’s car because he didn’t have family at the game,” said Bell. “If I had known that was going to happen before we left, I would have seen if he could ride home with us. Kendrick had been over to our house several times and a few times after that. They were friends.”

Bell also claims that, contrary to Internet rumors, there was never a second altercation between Johnson and her son.

Both Bell brothers were devastated by Johnson’s death, especially the youngest, said Karen Bell. But  devastation became fear and confusion after the rumors, fueled by the YouTube video, began making the rounds on other social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

The rumors permeated the entire community, especially Lowndes High School, and eventually led to sheriff’s investigators wanting to question the brothers.

Following the advice of the family lawyer, Bell declined to have her sons interviewed by the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office because she felt that evidence showed they were not involved.

The sheriff’s office never considered the Bell brothers as suspects, but authorities wanted to interview them because of the rumors, said Lt. Stryde Jones.

“We spent a lot of time chasing rumors and conducting interviews based on what we had heard,” said Jones. “But class records show that the oldest brother was out of town, and the younger brother was at another part of the school when Kendrick entered the gym.”

The oldest brother was on a bus to a wrestling match near the Atlanta area when Johnson was last seen on surveillance video entering the old gym and never leaving, according to the investigative case file. The younger brother was in his J-wing class on the other side of the school. Jones also said there were no signs of a struggle or blood on top of the mats that would indicate foul play.

Bell also declined to allow her sons to be questioned after FBI investigators sought to speak to the brothers in regard to U.S. Attorney Moore’s review of the Johnson investigation. Bell and her husband spoke to the FBI on their children’s behalf.

“We were very willing to work with (the FBI), but they did not like the fact that we had attorneys, and they asked rumor questions instead of fact questions,” said Bell.

Bell said the FBI did not ask where her sons were on Jan. 10, 2013, at 1:28 p.m., the time Johnson was last seen on surveillance video. Instead, said Bell, she was asked if her youngest son had dated the girl who found Johnson’s body, a question stemming from an online rumor that Johnson was lured into the gym by a “white girl” and then killed.

“Social media was rampant the day Kendrick was found,” said Jones. “Some posts said a student had been shot or that a student had been stabbed, and none of it was true. Ninety-nine percent of the social media accounts were baseless.”

One of the more pervasive rumors was that Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine’s son killed Kendrick and that each law-enforcement agency involved in the investigation was covering it up to protect him. Prine has told The Times on several occasions he does not have a son and he did not have any immediate family members who attended the high school in January of 2013.

Prine has received numerous death threats because of the Johnson case, including a Facebook post that resulted in the arrest of Lamar Reddick. The Thomasville man was taken into custody after posts threatened the use of an AR-15 and a large cache of bullets to attack Prine. Reddick’s case is pending.

Violence and threats of retribution have been a part of the case from the beginning. About five hours after the body was found, a former student who allegedly posted an online message about Johnson’s death was assaulted by a group of men who may have had ties to a local gang, according to the investigative file. The victim’s statements proved to be too unreliable for investigators to press charges, said Valdosta Police Chief Brian Childress.

But that has not dismissed Karen Bell’s fear that her sons could be the targets of violence at some point.

She said threats against the Bell brothers escalated after a Nov. 19, 2013, article used the psuedonyms “Chris and Clark Martin” to refer to the Bell teens and named them as possible suspects. The article quoted posts from the brothers’ Twitter accounts which made them easy to identify through online searches. The article also claimed to quote interviews conducted with the brothers, but the quotes were taken from interviews with other students included in the case file, not the Bells. The brothers were never interviewed by investigators, according to Bell and the sheriff’s office.

Bell believes the article provided cover for “cyberbullies” to come after her sons. She said online threats have come from as far away as Pennsylvania and Ottawa, Canada.

“These people throw out these allegations to see what it sticks to, but it’s our right not to be accused of murder,” said Bell. “These bullies are naming names and pointing fingers at people who had nothing to do with anything.”

Bell said she does not understand how individuals can bully, harass and accuse her children of murder on social networks without being held responsible for their actions.

Bell has reported the harassment to the sheriff’s office, and Jason Ferguson, the attorney representing Bell’s youngest son, formally requested that U.S. Attorney Moore investigate the threats since federal law prohibits transmitting threats via the Internet.

“We were advised that the United States Attorney’s Office does not have an investigative arm and would simply forward our request to the FBI. So far, I am not aware of any law-enforcement agency taking any steps to look into this,” said Ferguson.

It is unknown what steps the FBI has taken to look into the matter, but Lt. Jones said the sheriff’s office is actively investigating the reports of harassment and has not ruled out contacting Canadian and other authorities.

“These bullies get a pass because everyone they have accused has cowered,” said Bell. “They say everyone is involved in a coverup. Teachers cannot speak up about how they’ve been harassed, my husband can’t speak up and be a dad because of his job and parents are afraid to speak out about the intimidation because of the Johnson family and their supporters.”

As she waits for the U.S. Attorney’s findings on the circumstances surrounding Kendrick Johnson’s death, Karen Bell continues searching the Internet to document threats and accusations against her sons.

 She said it is a nightly routine now, and she waits to see how far any investigation will go into identifying and punishing those who have threatened and intimidated her children.