The Valdosta Daily Times
The DNA testing of a speck of blood on the gymnasium wall, 50 feet from where a Lowndes High School student’s body was discovered, was one of many time-consuming steps authorities took to complete the four-month probe, all of which culminated Thursday into a completed autopsy and a timeline of the event surrounding the final hours of the life of Kendrick Johnson, 17.
DNA testing confirmed the blood did not belong to Johnson and the autopsy report was subsequently released this week by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
On Friday morning, The Times sat down to review the case with Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine, Capt. Wanda Edwards and Lt. Stryde Jones, who provided an overview of the investigation, beginning the day Johnson disappeared.
Thursday, Jan. 10
Following the Christmas break, school resumed on Jan. 9. On Jan. 10, Johnson disappeared from video surveillance at approximately 1:09 p.m. after he entered Lowndes High School’s old gymnasium, according to reports. Footage from the school’s motion-controlled camera depicted another student going into the gym ahead of Johnson, but he went in another direction in the gym and authorities confirmed that the student headed straight to the next class.
“He comes down the hallway, and essentially he enters the gym. He’s following another kid,” said Jones. “The first kid comes in and goes to the left. Kendrick goes in and off to the right towards the corner where the mats are. You don’t see anyone trailing him or someone he’s having a dispute with,” adding that allegations he had been in a confrontation that day or the day before were false.
Shortly after, other students could be observed entering the gym for class and you could see kids playing basketball later on another camera, according to Jones.
“We can only assume that he had gone down into the mat by that time,” said Prine.
Later, the color guard and basketball teams held evening and night practices that Thursday inside the gym, stated Prine. And that evening, Johnson’s family filed a missing person’s report.
“He was supposed to go to the field house for his next class,” said Edwards. “He had already finished first, second and third block. He stopped by the gym to change into tennis shoes. But he never made it to the field house.”
Friday, Jan. 11
Two students, who entered the building for gym class at around 10 a.m., noticed sock-covered feet just below the top of one of many gym mats that had been rolled and stacked against the wall behind the bleachers during the Christmas break, according to Prine. The students may have been walking on top of the roughly 700-pound, 7-feet-tall mats to retrieve school supplies and personal items, as interviews revealed that
students commonly used the rolled-up mats to avoid locker fees, stated Edwards.
“We found three other kids that knew K.J. and they kept their shoes under the mats because they didn’t have a locker,” said Edwards. “The mats are usually on their sides. They’d normally just lean in, pick the shoes out and change.”
But because school had just started back after Christmas break, all of the mats had been moved and stored vertically in that one area, according to Jones. So a mat that may have rested on top of a horizontal stack was now at the back of the bunch after they were turned vertically, stated Jones.
“There were bleachers right there beside the mats and they climb up on top of them,” said Edwards. “...there were Skittles, Twizzlers, Mountain Dews and Dr. Pepper. You can tell they’d sit up there.”
According to Prine, the gym class’ coach frantically began overturning the mats to reach Johnson’s body after being alerted by the two girls who had been walking on top of the stack. Law-enforcement and medical personnel were dispatched at about 10:30 a.m., and school was locked down at approximately 11 a.m. Shortly after, the LCSO requested backup and additional technicians from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
“Imagine the coach, these kids are saying there’s a kid in there,” said Edwards. “OK, so the coach goes over and starts pulling all of the mats out. He’s determined he’s going to get to the young’un. When he flipped the mats over, a shoe and some of Kendrick’s books slid off the top of the mat. We don’t know if he retrieved one shoe and went for the second, but the one shoe and his books all landed in the same area and we have the crime scene pictures. Nothing was touched.”
One of the first concerns of responding officers was that they had a deceased child on their hands and about 3,000 prospective witnesses, Jones stated. Investigators worked the scene from the outside of the gym to the interior lobbies and rest room area. That’s how they always process a crime scene, stated Edwards.
“A patrol officer knows the first thing he does is put up crime scene tape and keep everyone out until we get there,” said Edwards. “We make an initial examination, and then we back up because I have crime scene technicians that are trained to do it. So I let them do their job and process the scene.”
While his investigators were tagging every item of note on their thorough search of the parking lot to the stack of mats where the student’s body was discovered, Prine was returning to Valdosta. He and Chief Deputy Joe Crow were returning from out of town when they received the call about the incident.
By law, someone from the sheriff’s office should have contacted Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson when they learned of Johnson’s body so that a declaration of death could be made, and Prine acknowledged that they should have done so. However, fearing a leak to the media and understanding that there was little the coroner could do until investigators secured all of the evidence and reached Johnson’s body, Prine waited to call Watson.
“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.”
All of the students who were seen on camera in the gym Thursday and Friday were interviewed at the school that day, while hundreds of students were interviewed over the days that followed, according to Prine, who said interviews were conducted in homes with parents present. But after roughly four months investigating, with the autopsy in hand to show that the death was accidental, authorities could reach no other determination of death than a freak accident that was born from a “perfect storm.”
“It appears that he and a friend, who we interviewed and who confirmed this, would frequently trade shoes. They and other students kept their shoes under the mats in the gym and would change when they went to practice, so their nice shoes would stay nice for class. They couldn’t afford a locker,” said Prine. “It appears that since the mats were stacked up on end and had been moved and stored that way over the holiday break, his shoes weren’t where he left them, so he had to climb up on the mats. The one he fell into was in the middle of the stack, and he couldn’t get to it any other way than from the top ‘cause they’re so heavy he couldn’t move them.”
Jones said, “We found the shoes he was wearing in the mat with him, and the tennis shoes that he’s wearing in the basketball photo are the ones we found by the mat.”
Even after Johnson fell in, if he had tried to rock the mat over to get out, it was pinned in the stack, stated Prine. If it had been in the front of the stack, maybe he could have tilted it over, but it weighed too much.
Edwards said the investigation was extremely thorough as they knew there would be questions.
“We found bloody Kleenex in one of the bathrooms and traced them to one of the flag girls who got hurt during practice, but we have them tested to make sure and it was female DNA,” she said.
“Our investigators spent hours at the scene processing evidence.”
“Every fingernail in that gym was collected,” said Prine.
According to Edwards, the investigation at the scene took so long because they wanted to ensure that nothing was overlooked. She said the school allowed the mother and relatives to have a room in the board of education building while the scene was processed.
Jones said KJ’s father was working out of town and got back that Friday night. According to Prine, he talked to the family that day and told them that there was no evidence of foul play, but that he couldn’t say that for sure until the autopsy came back. He said the family was informed early in the week that the GBI was going to release it by Wednesday or Thursday.
“I have 100 percent confidence in our CID [Criminal Investigations Division] unit and their investigative abilities, as well the abilities of the GBI,” Prine said. “They all worked countless scenes. It’s a sad thing that the family is dissatisfied and it’s a sad thing their child had to go that way.”
Prine, Edwards and Jones said the number of man hours the department has devoted to this case are “too many to count” but they did everything they could to ensure that everything was processed correctly.
Edwards said, “We’re glad the case is closed now, because now we can talk and answer some of these wild rumors.”
The rumors have included allegations of involvement by Prine’s family members, but the sheriff has no sons or grandsons and he doesn’t have a nephew at the high school either.
“You wouldn’t believe the things that have been said about me and my family, and none of it is true,” Prine said. “We did everything we knew to do, and this is a tragic accident, but that’s all it was — an accident.”
Editor Kay Harris contributed to this story.