Kendrick Johnson attended Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Georgia. The thin, muscular 17-year-old played on the football and basketball teams. After attending his fourth period class on Thursday, January 10, 2013, Kendrick went missing. The next morning someone discovered the student's body stuffed upside-down inside a rolled-up wrestling mat that stood on its end in the school gymnasium. He was dead.
Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine, in charge of the death scene investigation, quickly concluded that the high school student's death had been accidental. According to Sheriff Prine, Kendrick must have gone into the mat head-first to retrieve a shoe or some other item. The sheriff theorized that Kendrick got stuck inside the mat and suffocated.
On January 25, 2013, the director of the Valdosta-Lowndes Regional Crime Laboratory where a forensic pathologist had performed the autopsy ten days earlier, informed members of the media that Johnson's body had "showed no signs of blunt force trauma." Sheriff Prine assured reporters there were no other signs of a struggle on Johnson's body.
Kendrick's parents, Kenneth and Jackie Johnson, took issue with the manner of death determination and complained that officials with the sheriff's office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation were not talking to them about their son's death.
In mid-April 2013, Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson told a reporter with the Valdosta Daily Times that Kendrick Johnson's body had been moved before the coroner arrived at the gym. According to Mr. Watson, the sheriff had waited six hours before informing him of the gruesome discovery. (Under Georgia law, the local coroner's office must be notified immediately in cases of sudden, violent or unexplained death.) Regarding the delay in notification and the moving of the body, Coroner Watson said, "Well it compromises my investigation one-hundred percent. I don't know what the county [sheriff's office personnel] did when they got on the scene. The [death] scene, in my opinion, had been compromised."
On May 4, 2013, the authorities finally provided the media with a copy of the autopsy report. According to the forensic pathologist who performed Kendrick's autopsy, the young man had died from "positional asphyxia." He had suffocated as a result of being trapped upside-down in the rolled-up mat. Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson, based upon this cause of death determination, had no choice but to rule that Kendrick Johnson had died as a result of a freak accident.
Kenneth and Jackie Johnson, convinced that their son had been murdered, and the authorities were involved in a cover-up, asked a judge to authorize an exhumation. In May 2013 the judge granted the request which led to a second autopsy. That postmortem examination was performed by Dr. William R. Anderson, a forensic pathologist with the private firm Forensic Dimensions, a company located in Heathrow, Florida. The Johnsons paid for Dr. Anderson's postmortem review.
The dead boy's parents were also pressing for a federal investigation into the closed case. In support of this request, the Johnson couple alleged that crime scene evidence had either been destroyed or tampered with. The sheriff's office had also denied the parents the opportunity to view high school surveillance camera footage of their son during the hours before he went missing. The parents also claimed that postmortem photographs of Kendrick revealed lacerations on his face and body.
On May 23, 2013, Kenneth and Jackie Johnson released copies of two reports that had been written by a pair of paramedics with the South Georgia Medical Center Mobile Healthcare Service. According to the paramedics, Kendrick's body showed obvious signs of a struggle. Moreover, they found the student's body in a pool of blood and vomit. One of the paramedics wrote that he considered the high school gym the scene of a criminal homicide. The sheriff, however, insisted that morning that Kendrick Johnson's death had been a tragic accident.
The results of the second autopsy performed by Dr. William R. Anderson were released in early September 2013. In his report, Dr. Anderson concluded that Kendrick Johnson had died from "unexplained, apparent non-accidental blunt force trauma to his right neck and soft tissues."
The attorney representing the Johnson family told reporters that she was sending a copy of Dr. Anderson's autopsy report to the civil rights division of the U. S. Department of Justice. The cause and manner of Kendrick Johnson's death had not been changed. Officially, he died of a freak accident.
On October 10, 2013, Kendrick Johnson's parents revealed that when Kendrick's body was exhumed for the second autopsy, Dr. Anderson discovered that the boy's internal organs were missing. "I feel outraged about them stuffing my son's body with newspaper," Jacquelin Johnson said. The parents told reporters they believe the missing organs was further evidence of foul play and a cover-up in their son's death.
Michael Moore, the United States Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia announced on October 31, 2013 that the FBI would investigate the circumstances surrounding Kendrick Johnson's death. "We're happy," Jacquelyn Johnson said. "The only thing we ever wanted was the truth."
In December 2013, FBI agents questioned several of Johnson's Lowndes High School classmates as well as Lowndes County coroner Bill Watson. Agents also spent time with the deceased boy's parents. The parents, in February 2014, filed a lawsuit against the funeral home that handled their son's remains. According to the plaintiffs, funeral home personnel intentionally destroyed his internal organs in an attempt to interfere with the investigation into their son's murder.
On March 13, 2014, in Macon, Georgia, four of Johnson's classmates as well as students from nearby Valdosta High School appeared before the federal grand jury looking into the death.
CNN reporters, on March 17, 2014, announced that they had acquired, through the Georgia Open Records Act, an anonymous email dated January 27, 2014. According to the police tipster, one of Johnson's classmates confessed to killing the young man. This person had not, however, confessed directly to the email sender. In an effort to identify the tipster, a Lowndes County assistant district attorney ordered a communications company to hand over its internet records pertaining to this email.
In June 2016, an official with the United States Attorney's Office announced there was insufficient evidence of foul play in Kendrick Johnson's death to merit the filing of criminal charges.
In July 2017, a federal district judge dismissed the Johnson family $100 million civil lawsuit filed six months earlier against dozens of state and local officials.
In April 2019, the new Loundes County Sheriff, Ashley Paulik, asked the federal government to release its file on the investigation into Kendrick Johnson's death. The request was denied, but after federal officials met with Kendrick's parents, the government, in November 2020, sent the Loundes County Sheriff 17 boxes of material pertaining to its investigation.
Sheriff Paulik, in March 2021, reopened the Kendrick Johnson case.
In January 2022, after finding no evidence of foul play in Johnson's death, the Loundes County Sheriff's Office officially closed the case.