Alone on stretch of highway, just 30 miles from the Pennsylvania state line, long-haul trucker Kenneth Johnson will never forget that night in January when his wife Jackie gave him the news.
According to the Lowndes County sheriff’s department, 17-year-old stand out athlete Kendrick Johnson died in a tragic accident. Days later, the Georgia state coroner would confirm that finding. Kendrick, reaching for a shoe deep inside of a standing rolled-up gymnasium mat, had become stuck. He died, decided the medical examiner, from positional asphyxiation.
Kenneth never believed them.
Over the next 12 hours, he talked to his wife. They had been in constant contact since 9:30 that evening, when she first called to ask if her husband had heard from their baby son. He had not come home from school that day. He had not even called his parents or sisters and brothers.
Jackie worried. It was not like him.
It has been ten months since Kendrick was found, ten months since his parents waged a fight for answers.
Valdosta, a South Georgia town just a few miles from the Florida border, has been home to the Johnson family for generations. “We’re from here,” Mr. Johnson told me in an on-camera interview last week. “Our whole family is from here.”
I spoke first to family attorneys Benjamin Crump and C.B. King. Though both expressed concerns about their ability to get to the truth, neither man is willing to give up. King, an Albany attorney who has practice law in Georgia for decades, understands well the political, cultural and social barriers they continue to confront. Still, he remains undaunted.
Ironically, before Kendrick’s death, the Johnsons were planning to leave. “We were moving to Brunswick in two weeks,” Kenneth told me with his wife at his side. He lowered his head. There were issues in his hometown, he explained quietly, and he wanted something better for his family.
With a quality of life and local economy bolstered by Valdosta State University, it should be said that the town has its own unfortunate history with unsolved murders. Many believe some of them were racially motivated and never investigated fully.
A few townsfolk can tell you about Mary Turner, a black woman who was lynched in 1918 after she protested the death of her husband. Haynes Turner was accused of killing a white plantation owner. An angry mob murdered him during a well-timed jail transfer. There is a historic marker near the Folsom Bridge out on Highway 122 where Mary Turner was hanged upside down, her unborn child cut from her wound, her body riddled with bullets and burned.
In 1998, Willie James Williams, Sr. was found unconscious in his cell after being pulled over in a traffic stop. “Nobody beat him. He fell,” the then-sheriff explained. The mug shot told a different story. Williams appeared with his eyes swollen shut. His arm was in a sling. Two thousand people protested about the suspicious nature of that death, but after a while everybody moved on. Almost everybody. His son, Willie Williams, Jr. still lives in Valdosta at an extended stay hotel near the edge of town.
The Johnsons cannot move on.
They met in high school. Kenneth was 17. Jackie, a year younger, was introduced to him by a mutual friend. Like his son, Kenneth went to Valdosta High School. Jackie went to the other school in the area, Lowndes County. That was 27 years ago.
He’ll tell you that it was love at first sight.
Raising four children, two girls and two boys, both took to the road to earn a living– Kenneth as a trucker and Jackie drove a school bus. Neither has returned to work since January. Instead, they have devoted themselves to the case. Donning t-shirts and makeshift signs, they took to the corner of Ashley and Valley Streets to demand justice. Familiar faces offered words of encouragement and some joined them with fold out chairs and signs of their own. Still others just wanted it all to go away. “Let your son rest!” one white man demanded of them.
Despite the racial tensions associated with the death of their son and the town’s history, the Johnsons will tell you that this is not about black and white. It is about human rights.
No matter what current Sheriff Chris Prine has concluded, for the Johnsons, the case was never closed. They want, need to know what happened to their son and why. For his part, Sheriff Prine has not spoken publicly about the case nor to Kendrick’s parents in months. The Johnsons believe that someone killed Kendrick, a good-looking, three-sport athlete with NFL dreams– and stuffed him, head first, into that mat.
“I didn’t play football like my son,” Kenneth told me. “He was the athlete in the family.”
Kendrick was a “great student,” his father told me and “very, very popular.” He was looking forward to graduation and going to college.
After months of unanswered requests, attorney Benjamin Crump told me that he is pleased that a local judge ordered the immediate release of the full evidence file after a hearing Wednesday. The file includes 192 hours of surveillance footage taken from four cameras in the gym. One of those cameras was pointed toward the corner of the facilities were the mats stood.
Following the news, U.S. District Attorney Michael J. Moore, whose office has been monitoring the case, has scheduled a press conference in Macon, GA.
“We cannot put of our hopes up too high,” Kenneth told me in a phone interview this evening. “We’re just going to wait to hear what he says.”
The Johnsons say they only want justice. They want to know the truth about what happened to their son. If foul play is involved, Jackie believes those behind her son’s death, as well as those who may have acted to cover up the truth, should go to prison. If, indeed, it was a horrible accident, they want to know for sure. But even that will not bring them peace, Kenneth said tonight.
“Only peace I have is that when I get to heaven I be with Kendrick again.”
UPDATE: Federal prosecutor Michael Moore announced that his office has open an investigation into the death of Kendrick Johnson. “We will follow the facts wherever they lead,” said Moore in an afternoon press conference.
In a statement released to WXIA 11Alive News Atlanta, Lowndes County sheriff Chris Prine’s office responded, saying “We welcome the State Attorney’s investigation, are willing to listen to what they find, but we stand behind our initial investigation.”