VALDOSTA – A private investigator hired by the family of Kendrick Johnson to determine the cause of his death in January of 2013 says the federal inquiry into the case was initiated on the strength of his investigative report.
But Beau Webster, president of Webster’s Investigative Services, LLC, in Tallahassee, Fla., said he was unable to confirm the validity of the statements he obtained during his inquiry which were turned over to U.S. Attorney Michael Moore.
Moore agreed to review the Johnson death last fall in the wake of accusations by the youth’s family that he was a victim of foul play and not a bizarre accident in a Lowndes High School gym as determined by local and state authorities.
Moore subsequently turned the case over to a federal grand jury for investigation. The grand jury has yet to issue a finding.
Webster made the statements during an interview with The Valdosta Daily Times four months ago and stood by them during a conversation last week about his relationship with Frederic Rosen, the true crime writer who authored several articles on Ebony.com that suggested the 17-year-old Johnson was murdered.
FBI agent Rick Bell and his wife, Karen, of Valdosta recently filed a $5 million defamation suit against the publisher of Ebony magazine and Rosen for the articles they said associated the Bells’ teenage sons with Johnson’s death.
Webster, who identified himself as a former Florida police officer, said he was retained by Johnson family lawyer Chevene King a month after Johnson’s body was found shoeless and upside down in a rolled-up, six-foot tall mat a day after he was observed on surveillance videos entering the high school gym. Webster said he interviewed several students, many more than once, and others.
Lowndes County Sheriff’s investigators and a Georgia Bureau of Investigation autopsy concluded that Johnson died of positional asphyxia when he became trapped upside down in the gym mat for several hours while trying to retrieve a pair of gym shoes.
Johnson’s parents insist their son was murdered, and that school officials and investigators covered up the crime. They commissioned a separate autopsy by a private pathologist, who concluded Johnson died of blunt force to the neck. They also filed suits against the funeral home that handled Johnson’s body for how he was prepared for burial and the Lowndes County Board of Education for wrongful death.
Webster said he and another private investigator, Harold Lee, were told by attorney King to “get to the bottom of the findings” surrounding Johnson’s death.
He said the pair worked without the cooperation of the sheriff’s office or its investigative findings, even though the case file was made public through open records requests, one of which Webster filed on July 17, 2013, and acknowledged receiving Aug. 6, 2013.
Speaking with The Times, Webster initially said he had never seen the case records. “I did not personally get it until a lot later date, and to this minute, I do not have any of that information on file,” said Webster.
Webster said he never looked at the photos of where Johnson’s body was found or the official autopsy photos. He could not explain exactly when he received the case file or where the copy sent to him by the sheriff's office now resides. He said it may have been given, along with his investigative report, to U.S. Attorney Moore.
The Times shared with Webster the death scene and autopsy photographs in the case file. Upon viewing them, he said they did not appear to show physical evidence of foul play. Yet, he said, he still believes Johnson was murdered.
“I gave (U.S. Attorney) Michael Moore all the information on this case,” said Webster. “Michael Moore and his assistant, Pete Peterman, sat there and analyzed it; looked at it and felt that it was a strong case. They accepted it and moved forward and did their investigation.”
Moore’s office declined to provide a comment for this story.
Webster said his final report consisted of statements from interviews conducted with students and individuals named by the Johnson family. He said persons interviewed “just couldn’t believe” that Johnson died of asphyxia trying to retrieve his gym shoes from the rolled-up mat.
The case file contained two written statements from students saying they, and Johnson, would often toss their gym shoes into the rolled-up mats to hide them. And Lt. Strdye Jones with the sheriff’s office said Webster never made “any inquiries of this office while the Kendrick Johnson case was being investigated.”
Webster said he spoke with several students who claimed Johnson was lured into the high school’s old gymnasium, beaten and rolled up in a mat. But Webster admitted none of the students claimed to have witnessed such an incident. Nor, Webster said, was he able to confirm any of their accusatory statements.
“Everywhere we would go, we were just getting no cooperation,” said Webster. “Naturally, the students, for the most part, were juveniles, so you have to have their parents with you to talk to them. In the interviews, they were scared. They were petrified.”
Webster said his biggest regret was introducing writer Rosen to the Johnson family. Rosen attributed several statements to Webster in his Ebony articles,. Webster said the articles soured his relationship with Johnson’s parents, Kenneth and Jackie Johnson.
He said he hasn’t spoken with the Johnsons since, and said he has not been paid for his services, aside from an initial stipend.
“I’m still investigating this case,” said Webster. “My heart and soul has been in the case since day one. It’s very frustrating, and it really hurts how this case has evolved.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the Johnsons had not paid Webster for his services. Webster has stated legal counsel is responsible for his fees.