THIS IS AN UPDATED VERSION
OMINOUS SIMILARITIES AND FLASHBACKS TO CHILDHOOD
Renee McGhee’s name appeared in my inbox back in early 2013 after I had begun looking into the Kendrick Johnson case. I sat here staring at her name before opening it. We did not know one another. I had not found her contact information yet. She had no way of knowing that my thoughts had continually returned to her son, Steven Johnson, who died in 2000.
McGhee had been on my “to-do” list since shortly after Johnson’s body was found in his high school gym on January 11, 2013. Like many, when I had first heard about Kendrick Johnson’s case, hearing a local news story in passing, I chalked it up to what the report said – a “freak accident.” I remember thinking it was odd but I was busy writing on deadline and didn’t hear anything more about it. But then I passed by the Valdosta courthouse one afternoon and saw a couple hundred people shoulder-to-shoulder protesting and found out it was about Kendrick Johnson. That was enough to compel me to find out more about the “accident” at Lowndes High School.
What stood out right away was that it made no sense, on a gut level. High school students don’t die at school. Columbine and other school shootings, yes – but when I reflected I couldn’t recall a single other incident when a student died on campus during a busy school day – and if one had, it would have been a huge deal, make headlines.
I thought back to being in high school. Twenty years is a long time and generations definitely change, but I couldn’t imagine students not being shocked and scarred by a fellow classmate dying in the gym during lunch while everyone milled around where he was lodged inside a mat in the corner while boys shot hoops, color guard practiced, a big basketball game was held that night, and then found by students in a gym class the next morning in a pool of blood and vomit.
That would have been serious – for a long time. And not a single student or teacher or anyone else in town (or earshot) would have been able to stop talking about it (accident or murder). People in small towns don’t have a lot to do or see and that is big, big news for a long, long time.
The funeral would have been only the beginning. The grave would be littered with the youthful trinkets and parental tokens of a child lost tragically – and would still be there 20 years later. When someone dies young, they remain frozen in time forever. It would have been one of those lifelong gnawing moments arguably greater than a first love.
I recalled a fellow classmate getting killed when he was driving home after dropping off his girlfriend when I was a sophomore. He had his headphones on and didn’t stop at a railroad crossing on a familiar dirt road leading to his house. That memory is still as sharp and vivid as it was then. We all wondered what song he was listening to. Ned will live forever for dying so soon.
The silence of the Lowndes High School student body was deafening. Something didn’t add up, and as it turned out, it was more than one thing, it was many. When I found out that the GBI had been called in by Captain Wanda Edwards the morning Johnson was found, I had to take pause. Why if it was an accident did the GBI have to be summoned – and not even by the D.A. or sheriff, as is standard operating procedures in the pecking order of law enforcement? If it was an accident, why were 20 officers of 3 different departments/agencies running around the campus all day?
So when researching the GBI about the Johnson case, I looked for patterns of fraud or corruption most recently, since the autopsy report released on Kendrick Johnson cited positional asphyxia as the cause of death from the GBI’s medical examiners and had taken a full four months to conclude.
Kendrick’s face – head – had been grossly disfigured by what appeared to be brutality; a beating produces results like that of the image in the photo circulated widely by the family. Jackie Johnson has said that dealing with that image had been the worst part throughout the year since losing Kendrick. Yet she was brutally criticized by so many in the public, mostly anonymous posters online who took offense to having to look at the gruesome image when they passed by them downtown.
GBI agents are not infallible or saintly, but the reaction of the general population to the family’s resistance to the agency’s explanation demonstrated the public’s obvious need to believe that the institutions in which they place their trust are in fact idealistic heroes. The obvious slant of local newspaper reports was discouraging enough to compel hours of reading and digging, posting my results – and hoping people would begin to ease up on their contention about the Johnsons who dared to stand up to authority.
Searching for corruption in the state of Georgia, with keywords such as GBI and sheriff and coroner, a sizable selection of cases are available and those living in Georgia shouldn’t underestimate the importance of this simple, powerful bit of due diligence. (See afterword for anecdotal info which will explain why I – personally – feel I have a right to draw this conclusion.)
Renee McGhee’s name had been in the first search result, along with the bureau medical examiner Melissa Sims who had conducted her son’s autopsy 13 years prior. Steven had been on intensive probation and was going to his final meeting with his probation officer, happy to finally be off a grueling ordeal which had involved the probation officer showing up at all hours of the night unannounced checking up on him and making sure he was in by the 7 pm curfew. That day, Steven didn’t return. The probation officer came by her house asking where Steven was, walking through the house with a flashlight, she said, but not looking in any of the rooms – behaving in a peculiar fashion. McGhee set out looking for him when he wasn’t home by his curfew. She knew something was wrong, just like Jackie Johnson did.
The claim was that Steven had been been forced to take a urinalysis and it had come up positive for marijuana, was handcuffed, and took off running out of the office in downtown Macon towards a popular river park area nearby. And inexplicably he jumped in the running river and drowned himself.
GBI medical examiner Melissa Sims had just begun her career with the agency that year. Her implausible autopsy findings concluded McGhee’s 24-year-old son Steven died from asphyxia from drowning. The visibly mutilated body was handcuffed and bloody, mud all over his face. Asphyxia from drowning – but absent water in his lungs, indicating he was not alive when he went in the water. Added to this, in Johson’s favor, there was no sign of any drugs in his system.
According to McGhee, there were many people who saw what happened, heard it, or knew about it, and came to her later telling what they knew – but emphasized that they couldn’t do anything about it and had been threatened. Those not talking had been either paid off, threatened, or deviant enough to be part of it. Homeless people who frequented the popular river park area told her they had seen what happened – and according to McGhee, some of those homeless wound up dead or missing.
There are details to this case which astound – and have never before come out. In 13 years, even though this alleged murder took place in broad daylight and in a populated part of one of Georgia’s oldest and largest cities, Macon, not a single news article reported on it, other than one reporter from the Macon Telegraph, Robert Redding. He told McGhee he wrote what he saw, which was a man in handcuffs running towards the river with law enforcement in pursuit. According to McGhee, he left the state shortly after. There was not even a police report, which she suffered from when she took her cause to civil court years later.
The attached video from George Boston Rhynes’ collection is a prize-winner, some of Rhynes’ best work. McGhee has waited 13 years too long for this tiny glimmer of acknowledgment, although her attitude is surprisingly upbeat and her recall sharp.
But then how do you forget something as egregious as losing your son on the watch of public officials?
The Department of Justice, the Georgia Attorney General, Governor Barnes and the NAACP were all contacted by McGhee, and nothing happened.
Like McGhee, Kendrick Johnson’s family knew that something was wrong. As with the Johnson autopsy results (returned four months after his death), both autopsies were missing key elements, such as description of the injuries visible to the naked eye, and adequate supporting information such as photos.
Like McGhee, the Johnsons weren’t allowed to see her son’s body for days. When she did, she was horrified. McGhee described how shattered his face was, saying that the bones in his forehead were protruding. His legs and shoulders were out of joint. There were bullet holes in his head and body. His face had literally been beaten off his skull, and seemingly packed back on with mud.
The deputy coroner in McGhee’s case was called to the scene of her son’s death, even though he supposedly avoided apprehension and wound up in the water of the river instead of taken into custody. Why was the coroner there? Why was everyone acting as if a bloody and gruesome homicide had not occurred in front of a couple of dozen witnesses?
McGhee had her son’s body exhumed twice but the horrific circumstances scared off not only pathologists but attorneys.
One law enforcement officer had told her from the beginning he had seen what happened to her son. “Ms. McGhee,” he reportedly told her, “I am going to tell you exactly what happened to your son. Your son was set up. The officer with the ponytail you were told apprehended your son was….”
And McGhee tells me the names of all the officers which I will not write here. He went onto tell the man who was responsible for her son’s death “pistol-whipped you son so severely they knew they had a major lawsuit, so they said, what the fuck we do now?”
According to McGhee, he continued, “He started shooting so violently that some officers had to get out of the way. Your son was shot point blank in the head, the handcuffs put in the front, and then they threw your son in the river. ”
McGee allegedly was told that he knew homeless witnesses were being murdered and told not to let anyone know he knew.
Here’s the clincher. This man had told McGhee in 2006 that the death of her son had been weighing on him terribly and he wanted to give her a full statement. Her current investigator talked to him a month ago and he said to just call him when he got to Macon and he would give it.
On the night of January 10, 2015, Bibb County Sheriff’s Captain Terry Timley – long-time veteran of the sheriff’s office – died of an “apparent suicide.” He was head of internal affairs.
Is this a coincidence that he killed himself the night of the second year anniversary of Kendrick Johnson’s death?
These two cases will live on for as long as there is a world. The truth doesn’t die and cannot be stamped out.
October 10, 2000, six days after Stephen Johnson went missing, his body was was pulled from the river.
October 10 – by the way – was Kendrick Johnson’s birthday.
The similarities are the clues that humanity still has a chance.
Do something. Say something.
Now is the time.
If you’re interested in the back story, this is what I cut:
The GBI was being lauded by locals as gleaming superheroes of justice who were handling the Johnson case and justice would undoubtedly be served. Trouble was, I knew different. My entire childhood had been shadowed by GBI agents and local law enforcement who had taken issue with my father’s career as state editor of The Albany Herald. I knew many good agents and sheriffs and policemen, too, just to be clear; some of them were my father’s biggest supporters.
The Thomasville, Georgia District 9 headquarters of the GBI sent six agents to Lowndes High – the same office where many years before Thomas “Buck” Bentley had once reigned as Special Agent in Charge. My father had written a series of articles about agent Bentley that hadn’t made them friends, and had in fact made him many bitter enemies all over the state of Georgia. Bentley was allegedly doing all sorts of crimes and deeds not befitting a man of the law and he hadn’t appreciated the articles written about him – which back then was called “investigative journalism,” and considered the way to hold people in places of authority accountable for their actions.
Bentley was friends with a Mitchell County sheriff who had a thing about killing black suspects in custody, which gave my father another series of articles, winning him many AP/UPI awards and making his publishers richer and happier. (That was before newspapers were owned by corporations.) That sheriff called our house on numerous occasions threatening our lives. Once a truckload of GBI agents in plain clothes drove at high speed next to my father aiming shotguns at him. He made it across a friendly county line where a sheriff he knew provided sanctuary. The toll was serious, the threats were real, and retribution was promised.
And it came.
Why the anecdotal childhood memories? Because the GBI is part of these two stories about Renee McGhee’s son Steven Johnson and Jackie and Kenneth Johnson’s son Kendrick. It matters. These might not be the same GBI agents who harassed my youth and family, but how different is it?
I know about how law enforcement will not only lie, cheat, steal and harm, but also frame a person to obtain a desired outcome.
The summer before my freshman year of high school n death row inmate masterminded an escape which successfully freed four killers. They called our house. My father called the prison to tell the warden over a dozen times only to be repeatedly dismissed and assured that no such escape had occurred. My father had been interviewing death row inmates for a decade and heard them talk about escapes constantly – that’s what death row inmates do. My father foiled one escape previously by calling a sheriff where the inmates were to be transferring.
Nonetheless, GBI agents came to our home armed to the teeth and insisted on staying overnight to “protect us,” even though even I knew at 14 those four murderers weren’t dumb enough to come by for a visit. I remembered they hung out with their guns and one went into town and brought back some cookies. I think they were Christmas cookies, too, even though it was July. My father grilled hamburgers out by our pool and we all ate together.
But around 3 a.m. when my father was prone to get up and start hammering away on his typewriter down in his home office, he caught one of the agents rifling thought his files. My father asked what the hell he was doing and he claimed he had heard something but it was “just the cat.” Shortly afterwards, my father left for his office an hour away in Albany, leaving me with my mother and the agents.
Oddly, though there to protect us, the agents left as soon as my father did leaving my mother and I alone. They returned a day later with a search warrant, heading straight to the files where my father had seen the agent plundering. They took letters from the mastermind of the escape, claiming they contained information that pointed to my parents as accomplices in the death row escape.
My parents were arrested, taken to separate locations, not allowed to see their attorney – which The Albany Herald had sent immediately to intervene. The attorney arrived at the remote GBI outpost where my parents were, but was told they were not there. I remember my mother talking about being in a holding cell with a woman who had shot and killed her husband after years of abuse. I remember being angry that they weren’t going to be out of jail in time to take me to the orthodontist to get braces the next day.
My father suddenly became the story. Countless articles were written about him from The New York Times to The Adel News. He appeared on TV shows like “Tomorrow,” and was constantly being written about regarding his 4th amendment rights due to the illegal search and seizure. As a result, a $5 million lawsuit against the GBI was filed – which would have been a landmark case.
This took a terrific toll on our family’s life, with my parents divorcing and my father gaining a dubious reputation. They had managed to destroy his reputation, even though all charges were dismissed following an extortion attempt by the mastermind inmate in exchange for favorable testimony – which discredited him as a witness.
This brought in the FBI, since it involved depositing a large sum of cash in the trash bin of a rest area on Interstate 75. I have nothing but the best things to say about those FBI agents, as did my father. They really were consummate professionals, taking down the extortionist and exonerating my father.
I have nothing against law enforcement. I do, however, take issue with people in positions of authority believing they are above their own laws and tormenting the public they are elected and paid to protect and assist.
And that, as Paul Harvey might say right now, is the rest of the story.