VALDOSTA — FBI agent Rick Bell and his two sons have countersued the parents of Kendrick Johnson for defamation, claiming they disparaged the Bells in statements about how Johnson died two years ago.
The litigation is in response to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, contending the Bell sons were involved in KJ’s death at Lowndes High School and that local law officers and school officials covered it up as an accident.
The Johnsons’ suit, filed in DeKalb County, asks for $100 million in damages from 38 defendants. The Bells seek $1 million for comments about them in media statements, news stories and social media posts. They asked that both legal actions be tried in Lowndes County, where all the defendants live and the death occurred.
Kendrick Johnson’s body was found upside down in a vertically stored gym mat at Lowndes High School in January of 2013. A state autopsy ruled the 17-year-old’s death a freak accident. The Johnsons insists their son died of foul play.
The countersuit denies allegations the Bells were involved in the death in any way. It also states the accusations in the Johnsons’ wrongful death suit lack “substantial justification” and contain “a complete absence of any justiciable issue in law or fact.”
Two points of contention are a November 2014 video released by the Johnson family’s lawyer and a Facebook post on a KJ memorial site asking Florida State University to rescind a football scholarship offer to Bell’s youngest son.
The video claimed the older Bell brother, Branden, had reason to harm Johnson and was still on campus when Johnson was last seen on a school surveillance video. Sheriffs’ office investigators have said Branden was hours away at the time, traveling to a wrestling tournament in Macon.
A Facebook post, aimed at FSU officials, stated that Brian, the younger Bell brother, “exhibited violent tendencies and a highly unusual appetite for fighting” and that “his social media activities expose the likelihood of him being a psychopath.”
The Bells said the Johnsons and their authorized agents made similar claims to officials at other universities.
The countersuit follows other recent filings in the case, including a response from the sheriff’s office, which disputed the accusations that it covered up the Johnson death. With Valdosta city officials named in the Johnson’s suit as well, Valdosta City Attorney Timothy Tanner said, “The City of Valdosta does not typically comment on pending litigation. However, based upon the sensational nature of the allegations being made, the city, and the employees named, categorically deny all allegations of wrongdoing and consider the claims to be meritless. The city looks forward to defending itself in a court of law.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Macon submitted the Johnson case to a federal grand jury several months ago, but so far no indictments or statements about the death have been issued.