Parents want feds to probe Georgia teen's death in freak gym mat accident

(Family Photo)
(Family Photo)

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) - The parents of a south Georgia teen found dead inside a rolled-up wrestling mat in a high school gym want federal authorities to reopen a case that had been declared an accident, the family's attorney said Wednesday.

Sheriff's investigators had decided after months of investigation that 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson died in a freak accident after he was found stuck upside down Jan. 11 in the rolled-up mat, which was propped upright behind bleachers at his Valdosta high school.

Family attorney Chevene King said Wednesday that a new autopsy by a private pathologist has concluded the boy died from an apparently non-accidental blow to the neck. Johnson's parents had reported the teen missing when he didn't return from school Jan. 10.

Sheriff Chris Pine in Lowndes County has previously said he suspected Johnson became trapped while trying to retrieve a shoe that fell into the center of the large rolled mat. A Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner concluded the youth died from positional asphyxia, his body stuck in a position in which he couldn't breathe.

But the teen's parents, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, hired Dr. William R. Anderson to provide a second opinion after a judge agreed in May to exhume the body. The pathologist performed his own autopsy in June and presented a four-page report of his findings Aug. 15.

Anderson's report said he detected hemorrhaging on the right side of Johnson's neck. The pathologist concluded the teenager had died from blunt force trauma near his carotid artery and that the fatal blow appeared to be "non-accidental."

King said the findings appear consistent with a possible assault.

The parents' attorney also said copies of the autopsy's findings had been sent to local authorities and to the U.S. attorney for Georgia's middle district and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.

GBI spokeswoman Sherry Lang said the agency stands by the findings of its initial autopsy but declined comment on specifics. The sheriff's office did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

King said Johnson's family doesn't expect either one to take an objective second look at the case.

"We have really no recourse but to see whether or not the Justice Department or U.S. attorney's office would come in and reopen the investigation," King said.

The sheriff and his detectives spent nearly four months investigating Johnson's death before closing the case in early May. They said school security camera footage showed Johnson walk into the gym by himself at 1:09 p.m. on Jan. 10, the day before his body was found. There was a gym class afterward and basketball practice in the gym that evening. Nobody found Johnson's body until the next morning.

The sheriff told The Valdosta Daily Times on May 3 that students who didn't have lockers kept personal belongings such as gym shoes on top of rolled-up wrestling mats left propped up behind the gym bleachers. Investigators found some of Johnson's books and one tennis shoe near the body and believe they tumbled from atop the mat when a gym coach frantically pulled it over trying to free Johnson after students spotted his feet.

"We did everything we knew to do, and this is a tragic accident," Prine told the newspaper in May. "But that's all it was - an accident."

However, Prine also acknowledged in the same interview he waited to call the county coroner immediately, as required by Georgia law, because he feared the death would be leaked to the news media. And King said paramedics who saw body noted in a report that they spotted bruising along the right side of his neck, a detail he says authorities never explained.

Calls to the Justice Department in Washington and the office of U.S. Attorney Michael Moore in Macon were not immediately returned Wednesday.

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