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‘No foul play’: Lowndes County Sheriff releases synopsis of Kendrick Johnson investigation; Family responds

Kendrick’s mother took to Facebook live on a public account mere hours after the synopsis was released.
About 10 months after the Kendrick Johnson case was reopened, and more than nine years after his death, Sheriff Ashley Paulk released an investigation synopsis.
Published: Jan. 26, 2022 at 12:00 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 26, 2022 at 12:04 PM EST
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VALDOSTA, Ga. (WCTV) - Nearly 10 months after the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office reopened the Kendrick Johnson case, and more than nine years after the 17-year-old’s death, Sheriff Ashley Paulk is releasing a synopsis of the investigation.

Johnson’s body was found on Jan. 11, 2013, in a vertical rolled-up mat in the old Lowndes High School gymnasium, and the story has since garnered national and international attention.

“We finally obtained them. I tried for five years to obtain the files,” said Paulk, referring to federal case documents he says he spent more than a year poring over. “We’ve been verifying data and talking to people that were involved in the investigation.”

In a 16-page document provided to WCTV, Paulk attempts to “address all the rumors” that have swirled since the case first came to light. The synopsis comes from approximately 17 boxes of files related to the case from various agencies, including the FBI, Department of Justice and local law enforcement. It’s broken down into several sections based on specific topics that have come up during the course of the investigation, such as where Johnson’s body was found, autopsy findings, and camera placement at the school.

Perhaps the biggest question at the center of the case has been the circumstances of Johnson’s death. Paulk notes that Johnson was last seen alive at 1:27 p.m. on Jan. 10, 2013, near the area of the gym mats. His body was discovered “head down” inside a mat the next morning, according to Paulk.

“From the documents I’ve read and the investigation I’ve seen, I feel 100% sure there was no foul play,” Paulk told WCTV’s Katie Kaplan. “It’s a terrible accident, in my opinion.”

In page three of the document, Paulk wrote that seven different people testified that students stored shoes and other items in the gym mats. One person also testified students would often crawl down into the mats to retrieve their items, according to the synopsis. Paulk says one person stated that he and Johnson stored items in mats together in the past. He also says a document indicates “there appeared to be no signs of blunt force trauma on Johnson’s face or body.”

Johnson’s death was ruled an accident in May 2013, but his body has been exhumed multiple times as his family questioned the investigation.

Kendrick’s mother Jackie Johnson took to Facebook live on a public account she uses to advocate for getting justice for Kendrick’s death mere hours after the synopsis was released. During the nearly 20-minute stream, she insinuated there were “lies” in the report.

“They can’t stop us with them,” she said. ”We are not dismayed by nothing that man said. We already expected... knew and expected him to say just what he said.”

In his synopsis, Paulk wrote three autopsies were performed on Johnson’s body several years apart. The first was conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation two days after Johnson died. Paulk writes the cause of death was listed as positional asphyxia, and the manner was accidental.

A second autopsy was performed by Dr. William Anderson, according to Paulk, as requested by Johnson’s family. It listed the cause of death as “blunt force trauma to the right neck involving the right mandible,” according to the synopsis. Five years later, an addendum was made to the report, adding “blunt force trauma, right thorax,” which Paulk notes required Johnson’s body to be exhumed again.

The third autopsy, performed by the Office of Armed Forces Medical Examiner in August 2014, listed the cause of death as positional asphyxia and the manner as accidental, according to Paulk. An amended report issued nearly two years later stated the cause of death and manner of death were undetermined.

Paulk calls into question the timing of the amended report, and says a woman working with the Department of Justice and the man performing the autopsies “apparently developed a close relationship in which they address their correspondence to each other by their first names.”

Paulk says there’s an email from the female DOJ employee in which she states, “I had to make him feel like a man so that he would be open to talking.” Paulk says the context was in regard “to the person amending the first Office of Armed Forces medical examiner autopsy.”

The synopsis also highlights allegations that then-classmates Brian and Brandon Bell had something to do with Johnson’s death. Johnson’s parents filed a $100 million wrongful death suit against the brothers on Jan. 15, 2015, but dropped it on March 2, 2016. Another suit was filed in August 2016 and named 42 defendants, including classmates and school board members.

A judge dismissed it and Johnson’s parents were ordered to pay attorneys’ fees associated with the lawsuits.

Rumors that the brothers had a reason to target Johnson were dispelled by the investigation, according to Paulk. In his synopsis, he wrote approximately 62 school cameras were viewed by the FBI, and that Johnson never crossed paths with the Bells the day he died.

Paulk also says several pieces of evidence show Brandon Bell had left campus an hour before Johnson was last seen alive. Paulk also addressed questions about a camera that should have been facing the corner of the gym where Johnson was found dead. He says video evidence proves the camera was realigned after a “basketball” hit it roughly a year before Johnson’s death, on Feb. 13, 2012.

“We can tell you the day, the hour, the minute and the second that camera was moved 13 months before Johnson died,” Paulk told WCTV.

The Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office received possible evidence in the case on March 17, 2021, but it proved to be short-lived. An audio recording of a possible confession was reviewed and later determined to be a hoax according to Paulk. Since then, he’s continued to pore over the documents, computer towers and hard drives that were turned over at the reopening of the case.

“All of the evidence, testimony, interviews, grand jury testimony, and even the blatant coercion and intimidation of some persons being questioned does not produce anything to prove any criminal act by anyone that would have resulted in the death of Kendrick Johnson,” Paulk writes near the end of the synopsis.

Paulk tells WCTV he had initially applied to the DOJ for the case files alongside Johnson’s father, but the relationship between the sheriff’s office and Johnson’s family has since deteriorated. Paulk says the Johnsons have not responded to “correspondence” from LCSO and were not notified ahead of the synopsis’ release. The Bell family was notified as the sheriff says “they reached out.”

In the report, Paulk acknowledges that “there will still be a contingent that will believe there was foul play.” He asks that if anyone has any other “tangible evidence” related to the case, it be turned over with a source in writing for review.

The Johnson family did not respond to WCTV’s request for comment. In a text message, their attorney Clint Rucker said they were taking time to process the Sheriff’s comments and respond appropriately. The family will make a public statement Thursday morning at 11 a.m. outside the Sheriff’s office on public property, he said.

You can read the sheriff’s synopsis of the investigation at this link or below. A timeline of the case can be viewed here.

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