The mysterious 2013 death of a Black teen found dead in a rolled-up gym mat at a south Georgia High School will be reinvestigated eight years later, the Lowndes County Sheriff announced Friday.
The decision to reopen the case into the death of 17-year-old Lowndes High School student Kendrick Johnson came after federal investigators provided Sheriff Ashley Paulk with documents related to the case that had been requested two years prior.
“They are grateful, but cautiously optimistic,” Marcus Coleman, a family spokesperson, told Atlanta news station 11Alive. “They’ve been through eight years of hell.”
Johnson’s body was discovered in a rolled-up gym mat inside the high school’s gymnasium in January 2013.
His death was ruled accidental in May, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation closed the case in June 2020.
Paulk began requesting the documents in April 2019 and he and Johnson’s father have sent handwritten notes asking that the documents be released.
According to Paulk, the sheriff’s officer received a phone call prior to Christmas 2020 advising them that the documents would be released, per a federal judge’s decision.
From February to March 7, boxes containing hard drives, paperwork, and other materials were delivered to the sheriff’s office.
Paulk informed Johnson’s family on Friday that the case will be reopened. The investigation will consist partially of interviews and meetings with other law enforcement agencies to see if anything was missed during the earlier investigation. Paulk said the investigation would likely last at least six months.
“We’ll go through every bit of it,” Paulk vowed. “If we found a contradiction, we’re going resolve any contradiction.”
Investigators say Johnson was trying to retrieve a shoe when he died of asphyxiation after getting stuck in a head-down position in the rolled-up mat that was standing on one end, but his family says he was murdered by schoolmates.
The two autopsies the family had performed indicated Johnson died of blunt force trauma, which conflicts with an initial autopsy showing the cause of death was asphyxiation.
In addition to identifying “apparent non-accidental, blunt force trauma” as a cause of death, the third autopsy also found that some of Johnson’s organs were missing from previous postmortems.
“Who killed Kendrick?” Coleman, the family spokesperson asked. “Where’s his clothes? Where’s his organs? There’s so many flags here.”
In a 2019 lawsuit, the family claimed Johnson’s organs were removed in an effort to interfere with the investigation into his death.
Paulk expressed confidence in the reinvestigation of the case, saying, “We are confident in what [we] will come up with will be the truth.
“I want to start fresh with it and look at all the way through. I think the community deserves it.”