NOTE TO READERS: Following the case since almost the beginning, it becomes increasingly confusing instead of less, therefore it is necessary to put together a comprehensive “big picture” in order to fully grasp the totality. When there is so much information to wade through, including literally thousands of individuals who were impacted by this event from a large public high school, it becomes more than a shallow wade. It becomes a deepening bog from which pulling yourself is difficult if you are committed to understanding and providing yourself and others some level of explanation.
An entire year has passed since Kendrick Johnson’s body was discovered Friday January 11, 2013, in the Lowndes High School “Old Gym,” appearing badly beaten, head-first in a vertically-stacked gym mat. Johnson was allegedly found by two daughters of the school’s former principal-turned-superintendent, Wes Taylor, and another student, Bryant Thagard – who gave one of the first interviews about his account of “the tragedy,” as he put it. From the very beginning confusing elements suffused the case, with varying accounts about the first moments continuing to plague it.
1. Who actually found the body? Different accounts say that the students in Coach Pieplow’s Phys Ed class did; another account claims the school janitors did; another account states that the coach did. Bryant Thagard’s report was seemingly buried and replaced by Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine’s own account.
One student tweeted before 9 am that he and his friends who were in the old gym playing basketball found the body by the mats, saying it was good thing they found him. Later on his Facebook profile he commented that the way the reports/news claimed the body was found was wrong.
Recently a commenter claiming to be a doctor said he had been investigating the case since January 11, 2013, when he received a text from students at Valdosta High School at 9:15 am that a body had been found at Lowndes High School all the way across town. The doctor stated he had gotten to Lowndes High around 11 am and implied many serious issues were involved yet to be revealed.
2. In what condition and position was Johnson discovered? According to Johnson’s parents, Kenneth and Jackie, they were initially told that he wasn’t found in the mat but beside it.
One Lowndes High School student was interviewed by 11 Alive, the Atlanta-based NBC affiliate, giving her account of the morning she and other students in Coach Pieplow’s class held in that gym had seen his body protruding from the legs up, not head first as reports say. From various photographs and statements from reports in the LCSO investigative file and related media the body was described in a variety of positions – sometimes he was halfway in and halfway out, while photographs show his white-socked feet nearly halfway inside the 6′ mat (Johnson was 5’10”), with his white shoes he’d worn into the gym neatly placed – clearly by someone other than Johnson himself – next to his feet. Some accounts claim the students who were climbing on top of the mats saw his feet sticking out of the mats, which would actually make sense considering his height and the dimensions of the mat, including its center hole’s circumference.
(Why were students even allowed to climb on top of these 6-feet vertical mats – which would have required them to make a jump from the top of the 4-feet-high bleachers next to the mats. This seems to be something a school official would discourage, safety-wise.)
To squeeze himself down into the center of a 14″ wide entry with 19″ shoulders would’ve meant a fair amount of effort on his part to maneuver down to the bottom where the shoe allegedly was – in order for his feet not to protrude.
However, had his feet been visible then students who were coming and going in and out of the Old Gym (it was a kind of catch-all for school traffic, where kids would loaf, shoot hoops, practice color guard and cheerleading) all the remainder of that Thursday would no doubt have seen this immediately. Also, color guard had practice that day after school, during which time one of the girl’s supposedly injured herself and bled, which the investigators claim explains the bloodied paper towels in the girl’s restroom. After color guard practice there was also a big basketball game that night held in the newer gym facility (a multi-million dollar state-of-the-art pride of the Lowndes school system and the county), during which time it is easy to reckon that horny teens or mischievous others would’ve wandered into the Old Gym as they were inclined, to make out, smoke cigarettes or pot, or do what teenagers do. Then, following this game, as is shown in the footage released by the school of the surveillance cameras, someone walks into the gym during the night, in the mostly dark, and a light turns off. Janitors, took, would’ve seen protruding feet or any blood on the wall – not to mention the crime scene particulars such as the scattered Physical Science textbook belonging to Johnson, and the folder – both in scattered disarray. The shoes, too, wouldn’t have escaped the janitor’s scrutiny, since the Lowndes High School standards are high.
In other words, had Johnson actually tried to shimmy down into the too-small hole for a shoe, instead of tipping it over and grabbing it as his friends blustered about as being the only logical thing to do, then his feet would have definitely been sticking out, as well as part of his legs – assuming he would have had his arms extended instead of pinned to his side (he was diving into a mat, not water, after all), adding many inches to his 5’10″frame – thus protruding at least a good foot out of the 6′ mat. Instead, it is easy enough to deduce that someone intentionally made sure he was down deep enough in the mat to not be discovered.
3. What time was Johnson actually discovered? This continues to be a highly questionable point, and an important one. In some early reports the body was found much earlier than the crime report seems to suggest. Crime Scene Investigator James Thornton wrote that paramedics arrived around 10:30 a.m. and he arrived roughly 15 minutes later. But there have been conflicting statements that the students were Tweeting and texting about the body being found before the teachers even knew about it, before 10 a.m. and possibly before 9 a.m.
And one student Tweeted his emphatic recollection that the body had been moved out of the gym on a stretcher with paramedics before he and his classmates in Coach Pieplow’s class were herded out to be relocated. This bears thorough review by federal investigators since CNN reports airing footage from video surveillance tapes – though blurry – from that gym area show a nurse running through, followed by a gurney.
Other Tweets from students, including one who was attempting to cover it for his Journalism class (and made a call to 911, Tweeting later that he regretted having done so) – broke each moment down, blow-by-blow, creating a compelling scene, capturing the chaos and oddities of what he reported was a homicide. He had walked into the gym trying to get more information and was told to leave the area.
The same student who saw the body being rolled out before 10:30 a.m. also stated his concerns that the gym had looked nothing like it did in the investigation footage released and shown via CNN. He confabbed back-and-forth with his close friends that he swore the mats weren’t in the same place they had been when he had been in there for class that morning, pointing out that the cheer mats weren’t on that side of the gym, or stacked, and clearly was perplexed enough to continue dwelling on these issues well into the latter part of 2013. He and his friends didn’t buy the story about Johnson’s nosedive into the mat for a shoe, their banter dismissing incredulously anyone would do something so ridiculous.
They also mused over the “jacket,” presumably the one which is seen around Johnson’s waist, and whether it would be taken into evidence – expressing with baffled disdain why certain things weren’t taken in as evidence, such as the shoe found supposedly beneath Johnson – which, they pointed out, had no blood on it, just under it. Additionally, the blood dripping down the wall seemed to be the most extraordinary element and hardest of all to believe – since, they said, even a single drop would’ve been immediately removed. (Keep in mind, this high school is a sports-based institution, with several NFL players having matriculated from it through years past; sports is what keeps this campus going, and it is safe to say it is “everything” to many of the students and staff.) That the blood hadn’t been tested confounded them as well.
(NOTE: Since reviewing more photos there is some question now as to whether that was a jacket or a belt around his waist, but due to some discrepancies/curiosities I will for now let this stand with explanation to follow.)
4. Why was the family not allowed to see and identify Johnson’s body? Since Sheriff Chris Prine continued to tell the press and anyone who was listening it was just an accident, even before any investigation had been performed, or cause of death had been determined, Georgia law has certain protocol to be followed as far as how the body is handled, where and by whom it is dispatched. Accidental death of a victim would ordinarily mean the body would be at the hospital or morgue, not transported by a high-level security Valdosta Police Department officer, Steve Owens, who dubiously owns Owens Transport (though at time of writing this business has yet to be found in any formal business registries). Owens took the body to Valdosta Lowndes Regional Crime Lab on Ashley Street, where it remained over the weekend until he then transported it to Macon for autopsy by GBI medical examiners.
(Note: Shortly after the original posting of this Steve Owens suddenly appeared online, advertising Owens Transport, referring to it as a company in the business of transporting remains – and organs. It was not the responsibility of Lowndes County to transport the body, but that of the GBI’s medical examiners which provide vehicles for the majority of Georgia counties in order to lessen the burden of cost to the counties.)
The fact that the coroner was not called for at least six hours and the accounts that the body had been moved out of the gym on a gurney by paramedics raises serious, if not sinister, concerns – and explains why Coroner Bill Watson was vituperative in his April interview when he stated that the scene upon his arrival had been compromised severely and there was little or no cooperation from members of law enforcement on the scene – and most strikingly, his emphatic declaration that the body had been moved.
That Johnson’s body was not identified by a family member is inexplicable, and again, raises serious skepticism. His parents had already been distraught even before his body was found, and knowing that their son was in a facility only a few blocks from where they lived must have been devastating. It wouldn’t be until the 14th that Kenneth Johnson was allowed to see the body and when he did he stated later that he was glad his wife hadn’t been there.
This clearly demonstrates negligence on the part of the sheriff’s office in Georgia Statute:\
§ 45-16-25.1. Release of dead bodies
A dead body, other than skeletal remains, taken into custody under this article shall be released to the next of kin of the deceased, or to the agent of the next of kin, no later than 24 hours after the demand for release by that next of kin, or agent thereof, unless by that time the peace officer, medical examiner, or coroner has made a written finding that foul play may have been involved in the death of the deceased.
At least 20 law officers, agents – from the sheriff’s department, local crime lab, and state officials from the nearest Georgia Bureau of Investigation office in Thomasville, 45 miles away, the coroner’s office (eventually) – first responders (fire department and EMTs), school staff, and students had seen the 17-year-old’s disfigured body lying prone on the gym floor – but not his mother, who had arrived at the school early to question staff and look for her missing son. She noticed the turmoil and immediately her instincts told her they had found her son. When they told her that yes, it was Kendrick, she collapsed.
His family had filed a missing person’s report the night before, having been distraught almost immediately when he didn’t come home from school on January 10, Thursday. His mother, Jackie, had been a school bus driver for Lowndes County School System for ten years and it was common for Kendrick to catch a ride with her. She knew her son and it wasn’t adding up – and whatever else she and her family knew was fueling their heightened state of distress. It had been a sleepless night and around 11:30 pm they had called local historian/videographer George Boston Rhynes. Kenneth had told him about Kendrick’s absence, clearly aware that something was amiss. Many parents might’ve been worried, but many would have assumed perhaps he had been out with friends, or a girl; but it was obvious that the Johnsons were privy to some information that was outstanding enough to warrant their urgent attempts to find him as soon as he hadn’t returned from school on Thursday. Rhynes stayed well into the early morning hours talking with the unnerved family.
A friend of the family said that when Kendrick had not returned Thursday, phones were lighting up. “I got the call from my friend at 4:30 pm on Thursday and she said, ‘They got Kj.'” What did the family and the family’s closest friends know? And why aren’t they speaking out more?
Yet another question.
Students who already knew that Kendrick Johnson was their fallen classmate in the gym saw Jackie crumple to her knees at the moment she heard the news, many of them Tweeting about it and expressing great sorrow for her loss.
5. Why were Johnson’s clothes and personal effects with his body when the GBI released it to the family? This was a major source of contention and suspicion and as with all others have remained unanswered by law enforcement and brushed aside dismissively as if any amount of accountability is too much to ask for. This has been obvious from the very beginning and throughout the year the public has become, if not conditioned, somewhat used to this behavior from officials related to the Johnson case.
Surveillance video released after a tug-of-war between the sheriff’s office and the Johnson family’s attorney, Chevene King, showed Kendrick Johnson walking down a hallway and then into the Old Gym of Lowndes High School, wearing a white T-shirt with another orange T-shirt beneath it, what appear to be jeans, and carrying a folder and a text book.
However, in the crime scene footage showing Kendrick Johnson’s body lying prone there is what looks like an Adidas jacket tied around his waist – the distinctive 3 white stripes visible. His shirts are pulled up, exposing his torso, his jeans are either pulled up around his knees, or are shorts rather than long jeans as he is seen wearing in the video walking into the gym. In some photos his pants are unbuttoned and pulled down slightly, with the pockets turned inside-out. And then there is the most peculiar item, around his waist – the mysterious jacket. There is simply no way that Johnson had that jacket when he walked into the gym.
Listed in the criminal investigator James Thornton’s report were the jeans, boxer shorts, tank top, 1 orange T-shirt, and 1 white T-shirt, and a gray Abercrombie hoodie. When his parents finally got his personal effects back much later they didn’t recognize the hoodie as being Kendrick’s but took it – and I wondered then why they didn’t recognize it, since I did. I’d seen it in a video posted on Kendrick’s Facebook page in the latter part of 2012. The video was of two students fighting in the Old Gym and Kendrick was mugging for the camera a couple of times – wearing the gray hoodie. These two videos stood out to me therefore I remembered them in detail. I had heard about an underground fight club – but which no one was owning up to; these two videos posted on Johnson’s page in late 2012 showed two fights between four different students, and they weren’t fighting because they’d had an argument, but fighting like they were in a competitive situation. In other words, they were opponents and it was a game. It was like the film, “Fight Club.” One of the comments beside the video inferred that “this could get some teachers fired,” which suggests teachers were aware, perhaps.
Since these videos were of great import to me at the time – although to no one else – I remembered the hoodie, since I’d watched Johnson’s body language and was eager to capture his essence in these briefest of seconds. At the time, all I had was the after-death photo of his completely disfigured face, and the still shots from his Facebook page and his family’s. The hoodie he was wearing stood out because he had it zipped up and his hands down deep in the tight pockets. For some reason this stood out to me.
Was it a girl’s?
It appears to look more like a female article, with thinner fabric and different design features from a typically male item. This was pointed out by a friend of mine whose daughter attends LHS and who says she’s bought many hoodies for her daughter so she knows what they look like.
Why were the clothes not returned with the body? This by itself is a crime according to Georgia code:
Georgia Code – Crimes and Offenses – Title 16, Section 16-10-94
A person commits the offense of tampering with evidence when, with the intent to prevent the apprehension or cause the wrongful apprehension of any person or to obstruct the prosecution or defense of any person, he knowingly destroys, alters, conceals, or disguises physical evidence or makes, devises, prepares, or plants false evidence.
The fact that the jacket shown in the death photo – the Adidas jacket tied around his waist – is not returned with his clothing, nor mentioned in James Thornton’s crime report, raises serious questions.
There are two jackets now which are clearly not related to KJ – and definitely not on his person in the video footage showing him walking into the gym.
How does the sheriff’s office and Valdosta Lowndes Regional Crime Lab explain this?
6. Why are there two differing coroner’s reports? The Johnson family had to struggle to get any of the records they got, using repeated filings of Open Records Act requests. The coroner’s report they received from the Open Records Act requests stated how dismayed Coroner Bill Watson was by the crime scene’s compromised condition and the moved body in the January 22 report:
“I was not notified of (sic) this death until 15:45 hours. The investigative climate was very poor to worse when I arrived on the scene. The body had been noticably (sic) moved. The scene had been compromised and there was no cooperation from law enforcement at the scene. Furthermore the integrity of the evidence bag was compromised on January 13, 2013 by opening the sealed bag and exhibiting the dead body to his father…I do not approve of the manner this case was handled. Not only was the scene compromised, the body was moved.”
Watson further wrote:
“The integrrety (sic) was breached by opening a sealed body bag, information necessary for my lawful investigation was withheld.”
Differing wildly from that coroner’s report was the one obtained directly from the Sheriff’s office. In much milder language it didn’t address any of his previous concerns and furthermore was unsigned and undated.
7. Why such extraordinary differences in causes of death in the GBI’s first autopsy and the second autopsy’s explanation as blunt force trauma? While the GBI is supposedly a professional agency, a cursory search online will reveal this is not necessarily the truth, and that many incidents in the GBI’s past suggest quite the opposite.
Medical Examiner Melissa Sims, for example, has questionable history with the GBI, since her involvement in an autopsy of Macon resident Renee McGhee’s son, Stephen Johnson, resulted in similar results as Kendrick Johnson’s – asphyxia from drowning (though no water was found in his lungs, meaning he was dead before he went into the river where he was found six days later).
This victim had reported for a probationary meeting – handcuffed and obviously beaten beyond any recognition. Ms. McGhee has had his body exhumed twice in the last 13 years and it revealed her son had not merely been beaten, but basically hacked and bludgeoned to the point that most of his bones were pulverized and his face had actually been beaten off of his skull. This is not the only case of Sims’ which screams corruption, but the most salient thus far. That Sims would claim this victim had somehow handcuffed himself and flung himself in the river to commit suicide, while at least a dozen people had witnessed him running through town with law officers in pursuit, and eyewitnesses to his beating saying he had screamed horribly as his probation officer had beat him unmercifully reported to Ms. McGhee what had happened – though adding that they simply couldn’t be seen talking to her because they were in danger. The coroner had been open at first, as well, but later intimidated into silence. McGhee’s attempts to obtain an audience with US Attorney Michael Moore, too, were dismissed by him and she has yet to find any remedy or justice.
The corruption in the state of Georgia is well-known, and even the first-place winner for it from a 5-year study by the Center for Public Integrity. There have been multiple cases of Georgia sheriffs being culpable of any number of offenses in recent years, and historically, the number of cases of errant lawmen would fill a large volume.
8. Where are the interviews with students shown in the video of his last moments, and those in the gym? Why is it that the students who saw Kendrick Johnson as he walked through the hallway and into the busy gym were not questioned – and according to Valdosta Daily Times writer Adam Floyd, they hadn’t been interviewed because they had not come forward? With the majority of television shows, both scripted and documentary-based, hammer home the importance of interviewing those present at the scene of a suspicious death, not to mention basic investigatory practices as stated in any law enforcement policy/manuals regarding procedure.
9. Why is the Valdosta Daily Times, the single newspaper in Lowndes County which has an responsibility to its community to report objectively the events impacting its citizens, determined to take the side of the sheriff’s office – which might have something to do with the fact that both Sheriff Prine and D.A. J. David Miller are listed as contributors to the newspaper in employment records. Also outstanding is the fact that Adam Floyd, the reporter covering most of the Johnson-related material, was an English teacher at Lowndes High School in January when Kendrick Johnson vanished and reappeared? He oddly enough switched occupations – from English teacher to newspaper reporter – after Johnson’s death – according to Floyd in a LinkedIn message to me, establishing that he left his position at LHS as Journalism/Lit teacher at the end of his contract with the school, although his LinkedIn profile had not at that time reflected that.) Of dubious merit would his accounts of the case be since all his articles/posts seem to never challenge the sheriff’s office in any way from a purely journalistic standpoint. Is this a conflict of interests? Or an ethical issue? Had I been tasked with writing about the case, knowing I had been present as a staff member at the same school where the case I was writing about had occurred I think I would have mentioned it so readers would understand my unique perspective and potential insights.
10. Why was Jack Winningham, who is an agent on the South Georgia Gang Task Force (formerly the South Georgia Drug Task Force until it lost its state funding in 2012 and was shut down) allowed to interview his own superior, Rick Bell, the FBI Special Agent of the Gang Task Force. In the redacted sheriff’s investigation reports released to the public the interviews with students made two errors. The name “Bell” was accidentally unredacted, as was “Dick,” the familiar name used in relation to Richard, or Rick. Since it is known that the only two students who “lawyered up” following Johnson’s death were Brian and Brandon Bell, and Rick Bell is their father, it is easily determined that Jack Winningham was interviewing his boss and arguably close associate/friend Rick Bell in these documents. This most definitely should be considered a conflict of interest. “Dick” told Winningham his sons were not home and didn’t know Johnson, even though it was commonly known that Kendrick Johnson and his sons did in fact know each other well. He was in the same class as his youngest son, who Tweeted the day Johnson was found that he was looking at the empty desk where Johnson would’ve been. This son, too, Tweeted among the same time period of Johnson’s body being found that he had been called out of class to meet Jimbo Fisher, head coach at FSU. Kendrick and Bell had played on the football team together and there were many statements from family and friends that they had fought; either Johnson had gotten the better of Brandon – who graduated in 2013 – or Brian. Or both?
(Note: I have not spoken with Winningham personally and do not offer this an an indictment of his actions, merely an observation.)
11. Why were no members of Lowndes High School staff present at Johnson’s funeral? Though Johnson’s funeral was enormous and attended by hundreds, noticeably missing were other students and most ominously any teachers, coaches or school board personnel, such as Superintendent Wes Taylor or Principal Floyd. A 3-sport athlete would no doubt have many coaches who he had grown up with and been influenced by. And reports about Kendrick’s character unanimously acknowledge his soft-spoken demeanor and good grades, with no incidents with teachers. He was not, nor had he ever been, a “problem child,” and was a kid with a dream. One of his Tweets said, “Ima be one of the greatest,” and another, “I’m tryna beat the odds.”
12. Why was his sister Kenyetta not allowed to walk for her 2013 graduation ceremony? The school counselor had called her to ask whether she wanted to walk, according to her father Kenneth, and while they tried to make a decision, the counselor decided that she would not be allowed to walk, without explanation.
(NOTE: Also curious that both Kendrick Johnson’s sister and best friend/cousin, Solomon Arrington (“Solo”) were absent from school the day he disappeared.)
13. Why was videographer/historian George Boston Rhynes issued a bogus (no proof exists) of a criminal trespass warrant which prohibits him from being on public property, including LHS and city meetings? His coverage of suppressed news – usually racially-based events stifled by local media outlets – including the Johnson case must have posed a threat. Rhynes has been under this phantom-like warrant for over 200 days now.
14. Where is the mat in which his body was found? Where is the jacket wrapped around his waist? Where are the shoes, not only his, but the shoes shown in the crime scene which did not belong to Johnson?
15. Where are the photographs from the autopsy the GBI performed? And why were the organs missing? If the GBI says they bagged them and returned them to the body before releasing it to Harrington Funeral Home, then why does Harrington insist that it arrived without them?
16. Who do the uncovered feet belong to in the crime scene photo? Contamination of the crime scene is obvious, and seeing the round-toed boots in the photograph of Johnson’s body lying on the gym floor, not in the mat, prove that.
17. Why was paramedic Nick Tomlinson fired from SGMC after speaking out about the condition of Kendrick Johnson’s body and crime scene in an April interview?
The paramedic or Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) on the scene had written in the report that the Old Gymnasium at Lowndes County High School should be considered a crime scene. The paramedic had refused to move the body, which was in a pool of blood along with vomit, after inspecting the injuries of an already deceased Johnson.
And why is Tomlinson now afraid to talk?
Where is the rest of the story?
Is there not enough proof in the story revealed thus far to warrant obstruction of justice charges against the sheriff and his personnel?
What will it take?