In January 2013, 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson arrived at Lowndes High School in southern Georgia. After morning classes, he went to the school gym at around 1pm and was not seen alive again. His mother worried when she had not heard from him at 10 pm that night and contacted the police. The next day, a student noticed two feet protruding from a cheerleading mat that was positioned vertically. The athletic trainer arrived to move the mats and discovered Kendrick’s body along with the presence of blood and vomit. Law enforcement responded and began their investigation. The local coroner was contacted and the initial sheriff’s department report called the incident an accident with no evidence of foul play.
Students in the school were known to hide their gym shoes in the mats to avoid paying locker rental fees. The investigators believe he had hidden the shoes in the mats, which had been moved (with shoes inside) for cleaning over the holiday vacation. They figured he had reached down into the mats to locate his shoes and fell into an opening. It was assumed that his body became trapped upside down causing asphyxiation. Kendrick’s parents were very skeptical of this version of events, figuring that someone would hear his verbal cries for assistance, as next class in the gym began within 15 minutes. One questionable aspect was that the shoes were stuck between him and the mats as if they fell into the opening after he did. Kendrick’s parents were alarmed that the coroner was not summoned for six hours after the discovery, despite Georgia law that he is notified as soon as possible.
Johnson’s body was transferred to Macon for an autopsy. The body exhibited scratches on his hands, swelling, and closely trimmed fingernails, which surprised his father since he generally kept them longer. The autopsy results concurred with the version of events that the sheriff’s department believed had occurred. Months later, the parents decided to have the body exhumed and sent for a second autopsy in search of evidence. This doctor detected a possible trauma from impact to his jaw and neck areas. Video surveillance footage from the gymnasium contained nearly 300 hours of recording, but two cameras had approximately two hours of missing footage.
One wrongful death suit named Johnson’s former classmates Branden and Brian Bell, along with their father FBI Agent Rick Bell as the defendants. Kendrick’s parents believe they were responsible for the death and framed it to appear as an accident. Also named in another wrongful death claim were dozens of school, local and state officials. US District Court Judge Sands ultimately dismissed the suits citing that the plaintiffs failed to properly serve those named as defendants. Attorneys for the defendants are pursuing more than $900,000 in legal fees incurred. The ruling on the exact amount of fees is expected soon.