Special to the NNPA from The Michigan Citizen
By Zenobia Jeffries
The Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — Justice for Kendrick “K.J.” Johnson is what his parents want, now.
In a visit to Detroit, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson told an overflowing room at the Historic King Solomon Baptist Church they would not give up on looking for their son’s killer.
“We are not going to stop no matter what it takes,” Mr. Johnson told those gathered Jan. 25, for a weekly Michigan National Action Network meeting. Detroit was the Johnson’s first stop in a national trek, sponsored by NAN, calling for the truth in their son’s death.
“We’re continuing to heighten the call from Detroit to Atlanta, from Charlotte to California,” Michigan NAN President Rev. Charles Williams told the Michigan Citizen, “to engage people in helping shed light on what we believe is one of the most horrific crimes in the 21st century.”
It’s been a year since Kendrick’s death. The student athlete was found dead Jan. 11, 2013 rolled up in a gym mat inside the gymnasium at Lowndes High School, where he was in the 10th grade. His death was ruled an accident.
The local sheriff said the 17-year-old fell into the vertically positioned mat to retrieve a gym shoe, and became stuck. Four months later an autopsy report ruled Kendrick’s official cause of death as “positional asphyxia,” meaning he suffocated by his own body weight in the mat. “No foul play,” the sheriff said.
The Johnsons don’t buy it. There’s no way their son could fit into the rolled-up mat, they say. And the sheriff’s explanation of how their son died only proves to them someone killed their son, and the authorities are trying to cover it up.
“They said my son was reaching for a shoe. They wanted to make the public believe at first it was a wrestling mat and as we all know it probably takes probably takes 10 people to pick up one. They probably stand 12 feet tall; they stand so tall you probably can’t stand them straight up. But it wasn’t a wrestling mat it was a cheerleading tumbling mat,” said Mr. Johnson, standing between his wife and family attorney Chevene King. “It stands about six feet tall. I knocked it over, and Mr. King and I picked it up with one hand with no problem. So why is my son going to get over into a tumbling mat to try and retrieve his shoe, when he could have simply pushed it over?
“It’s not possible,” he said. “The coroner came back and told us the hole was 14 inches at its widest point. He measured Kendrick’s shoulders, Kendrick’s shoulders were 19 inches across. So it’s impossible.”
Another flag for the Johnsons was the shoe which Kindred was supposedly reaching for. If Kendrick bled out as he hung upside down in the mat, “why wasn’t there blood on top of the shoe beneath him?” he asked.
“Blood (was) up under the shoe,” Johnson said. “(They’re) just so many things.”
Inconsistencies and questions keep the Johnsons on their quest for the truth. Why didn’t someone hear their son’s cries for help if he was stuck in a mat when students and staff were in and out of the gym until 8 p.m. that evening? Why weren’t they called to identify their son’s body until two days after it was found in the school — when Mrs. Johnson was in the school building when Kendrick’s body was found?
Why were there bruises on Kendrick’s neck and face — bruises that were not reported by the medical examiner? Why was Kendrick’s body in a warm room in the city morgue and the drawer heated where his body was kept? Atty. King came to the conclusion Kendrick’s body was being “cooked” to disguise the bruising. Why were his clothes not returned to the family — only a pair of ear buds? Traditionally, bodies are returned with all of the articles of clothing that covered it at the time of death. Why did the county pathologist state Kendrick’s lungs measured at the normal size, if he died of suffocation? According to a private pathologist in Orlando, Fla., hired by Atty. King, if suffocation was the cause of death, Kendrick’s lungs would have been filled with fluid, and therefore not of normal size.
These questions led the Johnsons to get a court order to have their son’s body exhumed and sent to the pathologist in Orlando to perform a second autopsy. Things became even more bizarre. When the pathologist went to perform the autopsy, Kendrick’s body was stuffed with newspaper. “His organs were gone,” said King, “His esophagus, and when they went to look into his head, “Nothing.”
According to livescience.com, following examination, the organs are either returned to the body (minus the pieces preserved for future work or evidence) or cremated, in accordance with the law and the family’s wishes. The Johnsons contracted to have Kendrick’s body embalmed. No one from the pathologist’s office or funeral home made other arrangements with the family.
Also, King says the pathologist’s assistant noticed bruising on the (right) side of Kendrick’s face and neck. The same bruises noted by paramedics — who transported Kendrick’s body from the school to the county morgue. The bruises were omitted from the medical examiner’s report. However, according to the Lowndes County medical examiner’s report the only wounds on Kendrick’s body were a scrape on the back of his right wrist and three small injuries on his right pinky.
The Johnsons’ pathologist concluded Kendrick died from blunt force trauma, said King. Lowndes County authorities “know something, but they don’t want us to know they know something,” he said. “This is not just a simple mistake, but a deliberate misrepresentation as to what happened to their child.”
In an interview with the Michigan Citizen, King said, “You’d have to understand the climate of a small town like Valdosta” to understand why the Johnsons continue to press for justice despite their son’s case being closed and local clergy and authorities saying they should give up.
It’s a story of the haves and have-nots, in King’s words. A story of a town that eschews attention and wants to keep their image of a nice wholesome town clean. He describes Valdosta — a town of approximately 57,000 — as a “relatively small community.”
“People will tell you, I have to live here,” King said “So that if they shared any information with you, many times it’s cryptic and it’s not the kind of situation where someone volunteers to go down to the police station, look at a photo line up and say that’s the person who I saw do XY and Z.”
King says therefore what they perceive has happened based on investigators’ (former FBI agents) they’ve hired to help solve the Johnson death is Kendrick was possibly killed by schoolmates. “He had this one incident with this student we found out was ongoing,” Mr. Johnson added.
Kendrick had been in a fight a year ago with one of his schoolmates on the school bus on the way to an out-of-town football game. The fight was referred to, according to the Johnsons and Atty King, by several students in the sheriff’s report, but never considered in the investigation of events leading to Kendrick’s death.
According to King, their private investigators have concluded the schoolmate and his brother, who are sons of a local FBI agent, are suspects. Though King did not provide their names to this reporter, an Ebony report published the students’ names as Chris — with whom Kendrick had the fight — and Clark Martin, his older brother. The report also states Kendrick and Chris had an ongoing antagonistic relationship and had been in two fights. Their father Sam Martin initially refused to allow his sons to be interviewed by the sheriff’s department in the investigation of Kendrick’s death, and referred all queries to his attorney.
Later the brothers would offer information the detectives found questionable. Chris told them he was not in a class with Kendrick, yet according to an Ebony article, he tweeted only three days after Kendrick’s death, “Sitting in my first block (class) looking at the chair KJ used to sit in.”
“We’ve had a number of students tell us what they would characterize as ‘this is what I heard’ but they are many times saying that deliberately so they can distance themselves from being someone who pushed the button,” said King.
According to the Ebony article, the Martin brothers posted what could be incriminating tweets about the Kendrick case. One appears to be a threat. Clark Martin, Chris’ older brother tweeted just days after Kendrick’s death: “Who ever (sic) is talking all that shit about my little brother, they better watch where they step!”
In July, prior to the release of the second autopsy report, Chris tweeted:
“Black kills black, it’s gang, black kills white, it’s rarely seen in the news, white kills black, it’s a hate crime and the whole world hears.”
Also in question is the timeline of Kendrick’s disappearance and death. Surveillance cameras show Kendrick entering the gym at 1:09 p.m. on the day he went missing, however, he was in his third period class during that time, which ends at 1:23 p.m.
Detectives have determined the time on the surveillance system is not accurate. They also suspect the videos — some of which appear blurred — have been tampered with. Kendrick did not attend his fourth period class and, according to detectives, there is no accounting for the whereabouts of Chris and Clark Martin at that time.
The Johnsons plan to continue their travels to garner support in obtaining justice for their son. They’ve quit their jobs — Mr. Johnson is a truck driver and Mrs. Johnson a school bus driver of 13 years for Lowndes County, the district her son once attended — and spend their days on the corner in front of the county courthouse with signs demanding “Justice for K.J.”
“Justice is another way of saying, ‘Do what’s right,’” King told the Michigan Citizen. “What’s the right thing to do? … (A) crime has been committed and under our justice system persons who have been responsible must answer in court for those violations.”
In October of last year, U.S. Attorney Michael Moore in Macon announced his office would perform a formal review of the case. King says Moore chose his words carefully. “Notice he said a ‘formal review’ not investigation.” Moore’s office has indicated he will not be making comments until the review is complete.
Over 200 people at the NAN meeting raised $4,500 for the Johnson’s campaign for justice.