Kendrick Johnson was a 17-year-old student at Lowndes County High School in Valdosta, Georgia, where he was last seen in his fourth-period class on the afternoon of Thursday, January 10, 2013. After that, he never showed up to any of his other classes.
And he wasn't on the school bus home, as he always was at the end of the day.
Worried like any parents would be, Kenneth and Jackie Johnson reported him missing to the Lowndes County Sheriff's Department. Both in their mid-forties, Kenneth is a truck driver and Jackie, a school bus driver. They spent a long night wondering if their child would come home safely.
Lowndes County High School is a complex of low lying buildings, built in a horseshoe shape around a large parking lot. The old school gym is a small building, sandwiched between two larger ones. There are surveillance cameras outside and inside the gym, where a student visited early the next morning following Kendrick's disappearance.
Wrestling mats were rolled up and standing vertically, as they usually were, in the back of the gym. Horsing around, the student noticed that one mat was different from the others. Someone's bare feet were sticking out of the top of one of the mats. Was this some sort of practical joke? But it wasn't Halloween, so what was going on?
The student quickly left and called a teacher. When adults came to the gym and unrolled the mat, inside was the body of a male African American. It was impossible to identify him by sight; his face had been beaten beyond recognition. Paramedics were summoned.
The Lowndes County Sheriff's Department arrived after, though the exact time which they showed up is unclear. Searching the body, police found a wallet in the pocket of his gym shorts. Opening it, the identification said, "Kendrick Johnson." Inexplicably, County Coroner Bill Watson was not summoned until 3:45 PM, approximately five hours and forty five minutes later.
When Watson got there, it was chaos. The entire scene around the body was trampled by everyone from curious coaches and teachers, to the cops themselves. To say the crime scene was contaminated is putting it mildly. Little evidence was gathered; no one was questioned; and no crime scene photos were taken. The body was eventually carted off to the Harrington Funeral Home, where an interested worker did snap the only photo extant of Kendrick's face in death.
Sheriff Chris Prine soon announced that Kendrick's death was an accident. He claimed that he had cut his fourth period class, opting instead to go into the old gym, which was only used for practices, the newer one for classes. Prine never explained why the teen would have done this.
According to Prine, Kendrick got on top of the rolled up wrestling mats. His shoes accidentally dropped inside one and he dove in to get them. He got trapped, couldn't get out and smothered to death while struggling to escape.
When Kenneth and Jackie Johnson were informed that their son was dead, they were devastated. But their grief was tinged with outrage. They didn't buy Prine's explanation. In fact, Kenneth tried himself to get into one of the mats the way Prine said Kendrick did; it was impossible.
Demanding answers, the Johnson family filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request with the county. The county refused to release any information on the case. Making matters worse, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) came in to do the autopsy and dragged their feet.
As months passed and authorities refused to release any information about their son's death, the Johnsons decided to take action,
In Valdosta, the courthouse is at the far end of the city parking lot. Weather-beaten brick buildings, none taller than three stories, that looked like they had been there for a century, ringed the block around it. The town has a hard-bitten look to it; few people walk under the blistering noon day sun, making the presence of protestors even more startling.
On opposite street corners were two groups of the Johnsons' relatives and friends. They had set-up shop with camping chairs and packages of bottled water. Stationed in front of Valdosta's downtown courthouse, holding signs with Kendrick's battered face and the questions, "What happened to Kendrick Johnson?" and "Sheriff Prine, you said no foul play? I don't think so!!!"
Will they ever get answers from a police department that didn't even follow proper procedure for family notification, let alone show any interest in investigating their son's death?
This past May— five months after Kendrick's body was discovered—the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department issued a press release, in which they claimed that the GBI autopsy showed that Kendrick died from “positional asphyxia,” AKA suffocation due to his being trapped in the mat. It didn't make sense,