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Teen athlete found dead in gym mat

Kendrick Johnson, 17, was found dead, upside down in a gym mat in January (Photo: CNN)

Kendrick Johnson, 17, was found dead, upside down in a gym mat in January (Photo: CNN)

(CNN) — Bearing the loss of a child is unimaginable to most.

What’s even more unimaginable for the Johnsons of Valdosta, Georgia, is how their 17-year-old son died: by suffocating after falling headfirst into a rolled-up gym mat at his high school on January 11.

“It felt unreal. You know I sent my child to school for an education and he did go to school one way and came back dead,” his mother, Jacquelyn Johnson said.

How could Kendrick Johnson, a three-sport athlete, fall into an upright mat while reaching for his shoe and not get out, as investigators said? It was an accident, police said, as there were no bruises on the body and no signs of foul play.

But the bizarre circumstances didn’t sit right with the family, even though they’re not sure what happened to their son.

The teen’s parents, Kenneth and Jacquelyn, allege the local sheriff department did not follow protocol on the case, moving the body and mishandling evidence. They also believe the sheriff was too quick to make a judgment call on what happened.

Within 24 hours of finding the body, Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine announced that investigators had no reason to believe there was foul play.

Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson agrees with the family, saying that the body had been moved before he arrived. He also told CNN he was not contacted until six hours after the body was found, although Georgia law states the coroner should be notified immediately.

The final autopsy report, released just last week, stated that the teen died of accidental suffocation; it’s what the preliminary autopsy from January 14 said, too.

Taking to the streets

The Johnsons buried their boy in January, but they were still waiting for answers.

After months of waiting for the final autopsy report, the family started speaking up. They’ve taken to the streets, organizing rallies for justice.

Chants booming over a megaphone have become a daily scene since April in this south Georgia city of about 56,000. “No justice! No peace!” protesters shout.

“I don’t feel that there was any investigation until there was protesting and all this attention coming to them,” Kenneth Johnson said. “That’s when they started to act like they were doing an investigation.”

Despite the family’s persistent protests and claims that protocol was broken, Lt. Stryde Jones of the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office maintains investigators were “actively working” on the case from the time Kendrick’s body was found on January 11 until the final autopsy was released on May 2.

After taking testimony and looking at the physical and forensic evidence, Jones said an accident was the only scenario that fit. More than 100 people, including students, teachers and parents, were interviewed, he added.

Chevene King Jr., the attorney for the Johnsons, has alleged that if Kendrick had been white, the investigation would have gone differently.

But Jones said the case was handled as professionally as in any case.

“Race never played into it,” he said. “The victim played into it. That’s who we’re working for is the victim and the victim’s family.”

No matter who you are, how much money your parents have, the color of your skin, everyone deserves justice. Everyone.
Kenneth Johnson, Kendrick’s father

Kendrick’s aunt Keisha Moore has been alongside her family at many of the protests. Her son and her nephew were close and played basketball and football together at Lowndes High School.

“We are just hoping that the truth will come out. It’s hard not sleeping at night not knowing,” Moore said. Like Kendrick’s parents, she believes he was beaten to death, referring to a gruesome postmortem photo of Kendrick shown on protest posters. “The perp is still out there and we don’t know if it’s a person at the school.”

The family isn’t rallying alone — hundreds have joined the movement, from friends to Valdosta residents who barely knew or never met Kendrick.

Local businessman and iReporter Larry Johnson — no relation to the family — is a concerned community member who has been protesting. He has known Kendrick’s mother for several years and met the teen once or twice, he said.

“It’s emotional because it’s my community,” he said. “Even though a tragedy happened, to see that many people come out and support someone in the community, it made me proud to be from here.”

Complete strangers are rallying alongside the Johnsons, too.

Bonita Lacy first heard about Kendrick Johnson through her involvement with the Atlanta chapter of the National Action Network. The 53-year-old drove down to Valdosta from Decatur to rally alongside family and community members on April 18 and again on May 4.

Lacy did not know Johnson, but decided to join the rally because he reminded her of her own grandsons. “I am a grandmother of two boys whom I want to have the right and opportunity to live, grow up, travel and go to school anywhere they please without fear or intimidation, or death by cloudy statements,” she said.

Race never played into it. The victim played into it. That’s who we’re working for is the victim and the victim’s family.
Stryde Jones, Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department

While the rallies have been peaceful, seven people, including Kendrick’s parents, Moore and several other aunts, were arrested for obstruction at a rally on April 25, according to the Lowndes County sheriff’s office. The group was blocking people from entering or leaving the Lowndes County Judicial Complex.

The rally cries have spread far outside Valdosta. Thanks to a Facebook tribute page and stories sent to CNN iReport, the Kendrick Johnson story started to spread online. Moore, Johnson’s aunt, sent in an iReport that has been viewed more than 100,000 times and been shared 8,000 times on Facebook.

Moore described Kendrick as a sweet, quiet teen who had dreams of becoming a professional athlete. “He was determined to do his best and be his best,” she told CNN.

Waiting for resolution

Kendrick’s father has been the more vocal member of the family, at least publicly. His wife, Jacquelyn, speaks in quiet, short sentences. Her eyes still express shock.

Kenneth didn’t let his wife go into the morgue to identify their son. He went alone.

Authorities told the family that blood had rushed to Kendrick’s head and upper body, his father said. A photo of Kendrick’s bloated, postmortem face was almost unrecognizable.

“It’s indescribable. You don’t expect to see your child lying down like that,” said Kenneth, recalling seeing his son’s body. “As handsome as my son was, the day you see him like that is crazy.”

Even though the case is officially closed, the Johnsons told CNN they will keep protesting. They’re still looking for a resolution.

“No matter who you are, how much money your parents have, the color of your skin, everyone deserves justice. Everyone,” said Kenneth Johnson.

While he doesn’t believe the official reports of how his son died, Kenneth knows he’s not alone. He hopes the attention from outside Lowndes County, including the large online community invested in the story, will keep the issue alive.

“It means that people are not going to fall for anything. You know from the way they said the thing happened, people are not buying it.”

CNN’s Victor Blackwell contributed to this story.