SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) – A Georgia sheriff has reopened an investigation into the 2013 death of a teenager whose body was found in a rolled up exercise mat at his high school – his office was recently obtained from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Classmates found the body of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson on January 11, 2013 at Lowndes High School in Valdosta. Investigators for the Lowndes County Sheriff concluded that Johnson had died in an unusual accident, standing upside down and unable to breathe while you tried to find a shoe that fell on the upright mat.
Johnson’s parents insisted he was murdered from the start and long accused law enforcement and school officials of covering up the crime.
Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk, who was out of office during the original investigation into Johnson’s death, said in a telephone interview Wednesday that he agreed to open a new investigation after the Johnson family helped his office that Obtain Justice Department files / 2 year investigation into Johnson’s death.
“People ask me if it was an accident or a murder and I say I can’t give you an opinion until I see all the evidence we have,” Paulk said. He called the Justice Department files “a good piece of the missing puzzle”.
Federal agencies ultimately gave no responses in 2016 when they completed their investigation into whether Johnson’s civil rights were violated. The Justice Department issued a statement saying investigators “did not find enough evidence to support the federal criminal complaint.”
Marcus Coleman, an Atlanta-based civil rights activist, has worked with Johnson’s parents, Kenneth and Jaquelyn Johnson, for years to reopen the case. He said the family were “cautiously optimistic” that Paulk would look into the case fairly and thoroughly.
“You went through eight years of hell. You’ve had a lot of disappointments, ”said Coleman. “Now that it’s back in the hands of the sheriff’s department, we’re literally back in first place.”
Johnson’s parents have long accused two fellow students of attacking their son at school and throwing his body on the rolled up mat. They filed civil lawsuits alleging a conspiracy to cover up the crime by law enforcement officers, state coroners and school officials.
After the Johnson family dropped one of their 2017 lawsuits listing 39 defendants, Lowndes County’s Supreme Court Justice Richard Porter wrote that Johnson’s parents “had no evidence to support their bad game claims.”
One of the students accused by Johnson’s parents was out of school at the time of Johnson’s death and was traveling to a sports tournament. This emerges from the files of the sheriff’s first investigation. Authorities said that footage from the school’s surveillance cameras confirmed that the second accused student was in a different part of the building.
No one was ever charged with the crimes of Johnson’s death.
Paulk said he is personally leading the new investigation, which will compare federal agents’ findings with evidence gathered by the sheriff’s office in 2013. New interviews will be held with some witnesses, the sheriff said. He expects to spend at least six months on the case.
“There’s no need to be quick to judge,” said Paulk. “It’s been eight years.”