Kendrick Johnson and I never met while he was living, but I’m getting to know his ghost well. A short bike ride from where I sit writing this is Sunset Hills Cemetery, surrounded by an enormous vine-covered brick wall.
When I first visited Kendrick Johnson’s grave I had to find him – which is no small endeavor in a cemetery of Sunset’s proportions. It comprises many blocks of the inner-city of Valdosta, flanking Valdosta State University’s growing campus and the tree-lined neighborhoods on its other sides. Sprawling acres of summer-lush grass and marble monuments laid out before me, ancient oak trees spread open wide their monstrous limbs, draped with thick moss which hung down several feet and skimmed the tops of headstones in some shady areas. He could be anywhere – so I just started walking.
Finding him was imperative, however; my instincts were compelling me to seek out where he had been buried. I wandered, ten minutes, then half an hour, talking to the wind, to Kendrick, urging whoever was listening to tell me, lead me to him. About to give up, discouraged and solemn, I looked down on my way towards the gates, the sun lazily surrendering its blue skies to twilight’s purple hues as the shade of nighttime began to be drawn down – and there he was.
My breathing stopped and I felt an indescribable desire to sit down. I talked to him, though he did not reply – no ghost stories to report. at least not the typical sort. Yet, there was something, a grander kind of sense that I was in the midst of something…
Something….important. And I wasn’t there by accident. Human beings all too frequently undermine their own basic instincts, and ignore the visceral responses to their surroundings; I do not.
So I sat there and listened, stared at the silver metal plate stabbed into the clay-colored raked-over earth that covered his otherwise unmarked grave, and I wondered.
It was June 13, a Thursday, almost exactly six months since the day he vanished in the Old Gym on the Lowndes High Campus around 1:30 p.m. The Old Gym, as it seemed to be fondly referred to as, had been replaced in 2007 by a new, nearly 50,000 square-foot, $8 million gymnasium that had a seating capacity roughly double of the old gym – which had become a kind of spill-over facility where a physical training class was held, color guard practiced, students played basketball, and generally congregated on the sly – climbing up on the bleachers and discarding their candy wrappers and soda cans, stealing hot kisses probably on the sly between block. It was, it is, after all, a teeming, thriving, proud community-beloved high school.
One of roughly 3,000 students at the 6a Region 1 high school, Johnson had been a three-sport athlete – track, basketball, and football (his jersey number, 21). The photos I’ve seen of him wearing his basketball uniform and black Adidas shoes, of him horsing around with his father, Kenneth, the family portrait of him with his sisters and parents all wearing white shirts, and one in particular of him as maybe 8, 9, wearing a green football little league uniform with several of his buddies, reflected a guy I probably would’ve instantly liked. His ready smile, head full of long, cultivated dreads, and a beaming proud happy grin fit the descriptions given by his friends online on the support KJ Facebook pages, his own still-active Facebook profile, and personal pages of others who knew him. A generally easy-going, quiet guy who didn’t court conflict and preferred to hang back for the most part, one photo more than any of the others stand out. It is of him sitting with his cousin Solomon on the bleachers outside and his elbow rests on one knee, his chin in his palm, an expression of which its origin I will probably always ponder; a wistful, reflective countenance which suggested he was not an introvert – but not a class clown or bully, not a banger, not anything which would indicate he was a easy mark for the kind of endgame he ultimately met Thursday, January 10, 2013.
How this apparently laid-back, well-liked student had wound up head-first in a vertically-positioned wrestling mat, his clothing saturated in blood, his face distorted beyond recognition was a baffling quandary I faced as I dug deeper into the details of Johnson’s death – and life. Local law enforcement had been inconsistent initially, and the way the scene was handled – and the fact that the county coroner wasn’t called for nearly 7 hours, possibly more – raises serious questions as to the reasoning behind their lack of transparency.
His father Kenneth, and mother, Jackie, had given televised interviews which clearly stated their belief their son had not died in a freak accident, as the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office, Valdosta-Lowndes Regional Crime Lab, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had concluded. Their explanation of his badly disfigured face, which the family had been making public (and from a source no one is openly naming) from the start, as being from pooling of blood resulting from “positional asphyxia” did not satisfy them or any of those who knew him.
The supposition that he had crawled atop mats to retrieve a secreted extra pair of shoes he used for basketball practice by diving head-first into the 14” wide center hole of the 7’-high mats, arms extended, and was smothered to death, didn’t seem remotely logical to anyone who knew Kendrick, or to many who didn’t. The practical, quickest way to retrieve anything within the mat would’ve been to tilt it over, most who scrutinized the scenario, concluded – and Kendrick’s friends attested was what they knew their friend to have done in other instances.
And, if one is to believe the investigator’s report released in May and dated January 25, 2013 by James D. Thornton, and the paramedics report recently made available, the fact that his clothing was “saturated” with blood raises serious questions about the danger of school-accepted wrestling mats which apparently have the ability to transmogrify into boa constrictors and squeeze blood, vomit, and teeth out of unsuspecting students.
If the public is to accept the theory of accidental death caused by positional asphyxia and his resulting injuries, which included, according to paramedics, bruising on the jaw, and his head in a pool of blood and vomit, along with blood coming from his ears, eyes, nose and mouth, then indeed we as a community must see to it that justice is rendered against the manufacturers of these rogue cushioned wrestling mats – and certainly not allow them to remain on school property.
The “facts,” and conclusions drawn by high-ranking authorities in local and regional/state offices and agencies, require that the public accept what I’ve written – even though of course it is a rather dank stab at satire in an otherwise unfunny climate.
Since early April I had been affixed to his story, and that of his parents and supporters who daily demonstrate downtown at the courthouse and judicial complex demanding answers to what they adamantly declared were unaddressed, ignored, and swept-under-the-rug of questions and simple expectations of justice.
The most recent news was that the family and their Albany, Georgia-based attorney C.B. King, had granted the motion by Superior Court Judge Richard Cowart, to have the body exhumed for a second, independent autopsy hired by the family. This proved promising, heightened the sense of hope in the deeply frustrated network of supporters beseeching others, locally, and globally, to please pay attention to what they are saying and to help them, “please.” The motions filed to obtain reports, and evidence – such as the surveillance tapes from the high school – using the Open Records Act – had proved fruitless despite relentless efforts to bypass an obscure FERPA law protecting minors (from what, if the death was accidental?). Having something finally work out, grim as an exhuming was and traumatic as it had to be for his devastated mother, was at least….something.
I wanted to get to his grave before he was taken, for some reason, and by fate or by chance I found his plot in the nick of time. The next day he would be exhumed, a fact I learned from his aunt after returning from the cemetery – carrying a tiny white stone from his plot. Keisha Moore, who had indulged my incessant appeals to gain the confidence of the family in hopes of beginning my own investigation as an independent freelance journalist, told me I could be present at the cemetery for the exhuming – 6 a.m. sharp, she said. “That’s when they’re opening the gates to let the family in,” she told me, adding, “And we want as many KJ supporters there who want to come.”
The photos above are from my first and second visits to the cemetery, and will serve as a grim illustration to this introduction to a chronicle and aggregate of information related to this affair – and how my involvement continues to unfold.
The dead often have more to say than the living. One just has to hush, be still.