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Family Of Ga. Teen Found Dead In A Gym Mat Pushes For Answers

Demonstrators attend a rally on Wednesday in Atlanta for Kendrick Johnson, the Georgia teenager found dead inside a rolled-up wrestling mat in his school.
David Goldman

Activists from across the country are asking Georgia's governor to support an investigation into the death of Kendrick Johnson, a 17-year-old discovered dead in a high school gymnasium almost a year ago. His body was found in a rolled-up gym mat.

State investigators ruled out foul play, but Johnson's parents don't believe it.

For 11 months, his family has gathered on the street outside the county judicial complex in Valdosta, Ga. His family sits in folding chairs bundled with scarves and gloves against the brisk wind and chilly rain. Kendrick's mother, grandmother and his father, Kenneth Johnson, are here.

"A lot of people said, 'Keep pushing.' We know justice is coming. Sooner or later, it's coming," Johnson says.

They display poster-sized photos of the teen. Before he died, Kendrick poses in his basketball uniform. An after picture shows a swollen mass of facial tissue that's barely recognizable.

"We just want the truth. We're gonna stay here until we get the truth of what happened to our son," Johnson says.

There are many questions about how the teen ended up inside a rolled-up mat in the gym at Lowndes High School in Valdosta. Kendrick was found with his head facing down inside the mat, his feet sticking out of the top. He disappeared one afternoon and students discovered his body the next morning.

"It's mind-boggling that a child could go to a school and he should disappear during school hours while over 3,000 students were present, and nobody has come forward to say, 'This is what happened,' " says Chevene King, one of the family's attorneys.

Kenneth Johnson wears a shirt with an image of his son Kendrick, 17, in November. Johnson and other family members have maintained a presence near the Lowndes County judicial complex in Valdosta, Ga., since last January after Kendrick's body was discovered in a gym mat at his high school.
Kathy Lohr / NPR
Kenneth Johnson wears a shirt with an image of his son Kendrick, 17, in November. Johnson and other family members have maintained a presence near the Lowndes County judicial complex in Valdosta, Ga., since last January after Kendrick's body was discovered in a gym mat at his high school.

At a rally at the Georgia Capitol this week, dozens of civil rights activists called for the governor to order a new investigation. For months, the family has demanded a coroner's inquest.

County officials told the parents their son had gone into the mat looking for shoes that he stored there during gym class.

Kendrick Johnson was an athlete. He played football, basketball and ran track. His parents say he would have moved the mat to retrieve his shoes rather than dive into it.

And there are other questions.

The original autopsy said Johnson's death was accidental and the cause was "positional asphyxia." That means he suffocated because of how he was wedged inside the mat.

But the coroner said the crime scene was contaminated, and the Johnson family said the investigation was botched. His parents paid for the body to be exhumed for another autopsy. A private pathologist determined the cause of death was blunt-force trauma to the neck and that it was not accidental.

Kenneth Johnson also told the crowd in Atlanta that the private pathologist conducting the second autopsy found his son's internal organs and clothing were missing. "So I want the justice system to tell me: How is it that all of that going on with his body, someone is not charged with something?" Johnson said.

Video from dozens of cameras inside the school was released, but it didn't show much. Some of the images were blurry, especially from the camera that would have captured the area around the gym mats. Lawyers question whether the video was altered.

Attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents the Johnsons, was also involved in the Trayvon Martin case in Florida. Crump calls the death "a murder mystery" and says further investigation is vital.

"I think it will publicly show that this was not an accident, that this was homicide. This was foul play," Crump says.

But the Georgia Bureau of Investigation says it stands behind the first autopsy. And the local sheriff says the original investigation was conducted properly. Even so, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia has decided to conduct a formal review, which the family welcomes.

Back in downtown Valdosta, lampposts are spun with garland, and holiday snowflakes and palm trees dot North Ashley Street. The playhouse is running a production of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The Rev. Floyd Rose, pastor of Serenity Christian Church, is a longtime civil rights activist. His church has offered a $10,000 reward for information about Johnson's death. Rose says the family should stop protesting and wait for the U.S. attorney's report.

"Because we are all hurting and want to see some closure come to this," Rose says.

Others say they understand why the family keeps pushing.

Jeannie Gilson has three children. "They need to be given the answers. I mean, any mother would want to know what would happen to their child," Gilson says.

Johnson's parents say they won't quit seeking answers. Another rally is planned in Valdosta next month, exactly one year after their son's body was discovered.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kathy Lohr
Whether covering the manhunt and eventual capture of Eric Robert Rudolph in the mountains of North Carolina, the remnants of the Oklahoma City federal building with its twisted metal frame and shattered glass, flood-ravaged Midwestern communities, or the terrorist bombings across the country, including the blast that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, correspondent Kathy Lohr has been at the heart of stories all across the nation.