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Kendrick Johnson death: Parents sue for $1B alleging police 'cover up in 2013 gym mat death

kendrick johnson parents
Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson stand next to a banner on their SUV showing their late son, Kendrick Johnson, in Valdosta, Ga.Associated Press/Russ Bynum
  • The parents of Kendrick Johnson are suing Georgia authorities for $1 billion.

  • They allege in the lawsuit their son's death was not a freak accident, and was instead covered up.

  • The teen's body was found inside a rolled-up gym mat in 2013.

The parents of a teenager who died a decade ago under mysterious circumstances have filed a federal lawsuit against multiple Georgia law enforcement agencies, accusing authorities of covering up a crime and spinning a "false narrative" about an accidental death.

Kenneth and Jackie Johnson filed the lawsuit this week in the Northern District of Georgia federal court, seeking a jury trial and $1 billion in damages from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office.


The body of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson, known as KJ, was discovered on January 11, 2013, inside a rolled-up wrestling mat that was perched against the back wall of his high school's gymnasium. The lawsuit says Johnson's body was found in a pool of blood on the floor, and his body had a number of visible injuries, such as facial bruises; lacerations to his ear, lip, and knuckles; and even two circular markings near his waist that were consistent with the prongs of a stun gun.

The prevailing theory among Georgia law-enforcement officials has been that KJ had been trying to reach for his shoes, which were stuck near the top of the rolled-up gym mat, but as the shoes dropped further into the mat, KJ accidentally fell into the opening and became stuck.

The story of Johnson's death garnered national media attention at the time.

kendrick johnson georgia diagram
Georgia authorities drew an illustration of their theory on Kendrick Johnson's cause of death.Lowndes County Sheriff's Office

KJ's parents noted in their lawsuit that the theory had a number of problems. For one thing, only one shoe was found next to KJ's body, and neither the shoe nor the inside of the gym mat had any blood on them, which KJ's parents said was inconsistent with the "pool of blood" found near their son's body. Secondly, the opening of the gym mat was 14 inches wide, whereas KJ's shoulder width was 19 inches — a distance too wide to have allowed KJ to accidentally fall into the mat, the lawsuit said.

Authorities should have known that KJ's shoulders were "too wide and not heavy enough," and "could not possibly generate enough force to fall inside a gym mat opening 14 inches wide," the lawsuit said, noting that he would have had to been in a "crawling belly position while allegedly reaching for a pair of shoes six feet down."

Kendrick Johnson's true cause of death was blunt-force trauma, his parents say

The Lowndes County Sheriff's Office did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment on the Johnsons' lawsuit. The GBI told Insider in a statement the autopsy on KJ was conducted appropriately.

"The GBI Medical Examiner's Office conducted a thorough autopsy on this case. The case is closed, and we stand behind our original findings," the statement said.

The Johnsons' lawsuit accused both law enforcement agencies of mishandling the investigation into their son's death. Court documents cited a coroner's report, which called the investigative climate "very poor," and noted that the body had been moved, the scene had been "compromised," a sealed body bag had been opened, and law enforcement had refused to cooperate.

"I do not approve of the manner this case was handled," the coroner's report said, according to the lawsuit.

Yet a separate report from a regional crime lab later documented "no signs of blunt force trauma on Johnson's face or body," and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's autopsy report noted "no significant injuries," and listed the cause of death as positional asphyxiation.

The lawsuit said the Johnsons later spent thousands of dollars to exhume KJ's body for an independent autopsy, which determined that the cause of death was blunt-force trauma.

The sheriff's office and the GBI "clearly agreed to make false writing sin each of its official documents that misrepresent material facts and present an invented narrative and erroneous cause of death for Kendrick Johnson," the lawsuit said.

Read the original article on Insider