New federal KJ suit filed

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VALDOSTA — The parents of a Lowndes High School student who died in 2013 have filed another lawsuit in federal court alleging their son's death was due to foul play.

Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, parents of the late Kendrick "KJ" Johnson, filed the suit Jan. 9, naming an FBI agent and his sons, Lowndes School Superintendent Wes Taylor, former Lowndes County sheriff Chris Prine, Lowndes County sheriff's officer Stryde Jones, Stephen Owens, the owner of a transport service, Lowndes County as a whole, medical examiner Mary Anne Gaffney-Kraft and Rodney Brian, a death investigator for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, as defendants.

The family is seeking $75,000 plus unspecified punitive damages and attorney's fees.

The body of Kendrick Johnson was found upside down in a vertically stored gym mat at Lowndes High School in January 2013. A state autopsy ruled the 17-year-old’s death accidental, and a federal review of the case ended in 2016 when the Department of Justice announced it had not found “sufficient evidence to support federal criminal charges.”

The Johnson family insists their son died of foul play and there was a conspiracy to cover up the details of his death. They have filed multiple lawsuits against dozens of defendants through the years, winning none of them.

In the new lawsuit, as in previous ones, the Johnsons claim their son was killed by two brothers, who were also Lowndes High students.

In 2017, video analysis from the FBI cleared one brother of involvement in Johnson’s death. Analysis of school surveillance footage concluded he was “not in the general vicinity of the old gym where Johnson was last seen.”

The other brother was off campus traveling to a wrestling match when Johnson was last seen, according to investigations conducted by the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office and confirmed by documents and phone records obtained by The Valdosta Daily Times.

During courtroom proceedings for an earlier state Superior Court lawsuit, Kenneth Johnson admitted he did not have evidence to support his claim the brothers killed his son.

All of the defendants stand accused in the new filing of "a conspiracy to hide or cover up vital information and evidence of a crime or crimes."

Through the years, lawsuits were filed in state and federal courts. In 2014, the Johnsons sued a funeral home, claiming it negligently handled their son’s remains and deliberately withheld information about the condition of his body. In 2019, the family withdrew the lawsuit, only to refile it the next day.

In January 2015, a federal lawsuit was filed seeking $100 million from more than 40 defendants, but the Johnsons later withdrew the case. In 2017, the family was ordered by the court to pay the defendants almost $300,000 in legal fees. 

Three autopsies have been carried out on KJ's remains; the first, a state autopsy, showed the death was from accidental asphyxia. Two private autopsies commissioned by the Johnson family claim blunt force trauma was involved.

"This matter has been litigated and adjudicated against the Johnsons several times," said Jim Elliot, county attorney. "We still haven't even seen the $300,000 (in legal fees) they were ordered to pay."

Chevene B. King Jr., the Johnsons' attorney, did not return phone inquiries.

Terry Richards is senior reporter at The Valdosta Daily Times.

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