The body of the high-schooler Kendrick Johnson was found upside-down on a mat in his high school gym in 2013. The county sheriff decided to open an investigation in this case again.
When Kendrick Johnson, 17, didn't come home on January 10, 2013, his family rushed to call police.
The next morning, his body was found by students at Lowndes High School. It was head down inside a large gym mat at the school gymnasium.
Within a couple of months, the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office said the death was just an accident and that he had suffocated after he got stuck in the mat as he tried to retrieve a shoe from it.
This wasn't convincing for his family. Instead, they were sure that their son, who's a popular athlete at his school, had been murdered.
In fact, they have been trying for years to plead with local and federal authorities to open the case again.
Some days ago, the Lowndes County sheriff, Ashley Paulk, who took the sheriff's place that deemed the death accidental, said that his office would open the case again, eight years after the incident.
"I've never told anybody what I believe about this case, whether it was accidental or murder," Sheriff Paulk said. "I would never say that until I could see all the evidence."
He continued: "If it was an accident, it's a very, very unusual way for something to happen."
Kendrick's dad, Kenneth Johnson, said he won't feel any relief until there has been an arrest in his boy's case.
"I'm hoping the truth comes out — the truth that we already know," Mr. Johnson said. "My son was murdered."
This decision of reopening the case came after multiple county and federal investigations and federal lawsuits filed by Kendrick Johnson's parents, who accused the Sheriff's Office, the Lowndes County school board, and an FBI agent and his two sons of conspiring to hide the circumstances around his son's death.
The lawsuits, which were all unsuccessful, claimed that Kendrick was involved in a fight with two boys, Brian and Branden Bell, right before his death.
Kendrick was threatened by one of the boys, and according to the complaints, he told him, "It ain't over." But the boys were never charged.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation's medical examiner issued an autopsy report in May 2013, which explained the cause of the 17-year-old's death was "positional asphyxia," saying that he'd become trapped upside-down in the rolled-up gym mat and eventually suffocated.
After the report, the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office closed its investigation.
However, in June 2013, they exhumed his body at his parents' request after they hired forensic pathologist William Anderson, who was supposed to perform another autopsy.
Dr. Anderson suggested that the cause of the boy's death was blunt-force trauma to the right side of his neck, near the jaw.
In October of the same year, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia started investigating the case.
They interviewed about 100 people, looked at surveillance videos from the school, and reviewed thousands of text messages and emails.
And to examine the autopsy reports, they cooperated with a medical examiner from the Defense Department.
Another autopsy, completed in November 2018, concluded that Johnson died from a "non-accidental blunt force trauma."
According to reports, every organ from Johnson's pelvis to his skull—including his heart, brain, liver, and lungs—was replaced with newspaper.
Funeral director Antonio Harrington said that the boy's organs "were destroyed through [the] natural process" due to his body's position when he died.
He also said that the funeral home never had his organs, stating that they were "discarded by the prosecutor before the body was sent back to Valdosta."
The allegations of Johnson's body's condition seem to be consistent with a witness's accusations included in an affidavit filed in August 2017. After the Johnsons presented it, they were asked to pay $300k in lawyer's fees to government officials who were apparently wrongly accused.