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Family of Georgia teen found dead in gym mat reacts to case being reopened

A family spokesperson says it’s a step in the right direction, and hope results show what they've long suspected: something insidious happened to Kendrick Johnson.

VALDOSTA, Ga. — The Lowndes County Sheriff's Office announced Friday that it has reopened the investigation into the death of Kendrick Johnson, whose body was found inside a rolled-up gym mat at a Georgia high school in 2013.

“They are grateful, but cautiously optimistic,” said Marcus Coleman, a family spokesperson. “They’ve been through eight years of hell.”

Johnson’s death was ruled accidental, with the GBI officially closing the investigation in June of 2020.

Coleman, activist and founder of Save Ourselves ATL, has worked with the family to keep the investigation going.

Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk and Kendrick Johnson’s father handwrote letters asking for federal documents to be released. Paulk said his agency started trying to acquire the documents in April of 2020.

Coleman added he and the family reached out to the Northern District of Ohio in late 2020. The case was transferred to the Northern District of Ohio, after the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia resigned in 2015.

“The (Northern District of Ohio) reviewed the files and then they communicated with me that they were filing documents in federal court in Valdosta. Those documents, according to them, were so they could legally share information with Lowndes Sheriff,” Coleman said.

Paulk said the sheriff’s office received a call before Christmas saying the documents would be released. In February and March of 2021, 17 boxes of hard drives, paperwork, and other materials were delivered to the sheriff’s office.

“We’ll go through every bit of it," Paulk vowed. "If we found a contradiction, we're going resolve any contradiction."

Coleman called the boxes symbolic, as Johnson was found dead at 17 years old.

“I don't believe that things are happenstance,” Coleman said. “We feel like each one of those boxes not only represents the short life of Kendrick Johnson’s each year, but we think ultimately this is what will find justice.”

Investigators said the initial autopsy found Johnson's cause of death was accidental asphyxiation when he got stuck in the mat while trying to retrieve a shoe. Family believes he was murdered by schoolmates, and have had two subsequent autopsies conducted, both of which showed blunt force trauma as the cause of death.

Johnson's body was exhumed in 2018 for the third autopsy. The findings showed the cause of death was "apparent non-accidental, blunt force trauma." It also showed some of Johnson's organs were missing.

“Who killed Kendrick?” Coleman asked. “Where’s his clothes? Where’s his organs? There’s so many flags here.”

Johnson's family refiled a lawsuit over his death in May 2019, contending that their son's clothes and organs, including his brain, were disposed of to interfere with the investigation into the teen's death.

While Paulk is not saying anyone did anything wrong, he said his office will re-interview people connected to the case and will follow the evidence and lead the investigation himself.

“I want to start fresh with it and look at all the way through. I think the community deserves it,” Paulk added.

He expects the investigation to take a minimum of six months.

Coleman said it’s a step in the right direction, and he hopes the results show what the family has long suspected: something insidious happened to Johnson.

“For it to be reopened is righteous and just," he said. "Kendrick Johnson will go down in history. It’s a shame that it took eight years and two months, but justice delayed is justice denied. Those 17 boxes in Lowndes County are there for a reason and again, each one of them represent a year of Kendrick’s young life.”