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Investigation Reopened In Georgia Teen Kendrick Johnson’s Mysterious Death

“There’s still a lot of questions people want answered," Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk said.

Kendrick Johnson Ap

Nearly a decade after Kendrick Johnson’s body was found in a high school gymnasium, investigators have announced a new probe into the Black teenager’s mysterious death.

In 2013, the 17-year-old’s body was found upside down inside a rolled-up gym mat at a Georgia high school; he'd suffocated to death. Investigators, who suspected he’d become trapped after attempting to grab a “pair of sneakers,” ruled his death a freak accident. The case was closed almost half a decade ago due to “insufficient evidence” of foul play, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

However, Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk announced the re-opening of the case on Tuesday.

"I’m treating it like it’s a brand new case," Paulk said, according to the newspaper.  "There’s still a lot of questions people want answered."

Investigators will now comb through 17 boxes of evidence, which were previously sealed. Paulk estimated it might take six months to process everything. 

News of the re-opened investigation was welcomed by Johnson’s family.

“We ain’t cheering, but we know this is the only path that we can get for justice for Kendrick Johnson,” Marcus Coleman said this week.

For years, however, the teenager’s family has insisted the 17-year-old was murdered — and that investigators actively worked to stifle the family’s pleas for justice. 

"Nobody really cares,” Jackie Johnson, the teenager’s mother, told WAGA-TV. “Nobody wants Kendrick to get justice. It's just like, 'shut this family up,' sending them on their way, but what they didn't realize is the Johnson family is not going anywhere." 

Kendrick Johnson’s body has been exhumed twice in recent years. In 2018, an independent autopsy indicated signs of foul play in the teen's death, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

"Eight long years — the crying, the tears, the backlash, being talked about, ridiculed — it has not been easy," Johnson added.

A number of community activists have also spoken out in favor of the forthcoming probe into the Georgia teen’s death.

"It has been our position that Kendrick was struck with an object that caused severe hemorrhaging,” Coleman also told WAGA-TV. “From there until now, we feel like this has been a cover-up at a very high level. We are cautiously optimistic now.”

In 2015, the Johnson family filed a wrongful death suit against brothers Brian and Branden Bell, and another peer, Ryan Hall, who they allege are responsible for Kendrick Johnson’s death.

The suit alleges the boys’ family conspired with former Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine and county school officials to cover up the death. The Bell’s father, a former FBI agent, is accused of directing officials to obscure the investigation, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 

The Bell family has previously deflected blame in the incident; now, Karen Bell says she's upset by the renewed investigative efforts. 

“I just keep waiting for someone to be honest with [the Johnsons],” Karen Bell, the mother of Brian and Branden Bell, said. “But it doesn’t look like that’s ever going to happen.”

The FBI had previously said the siblings were in separate parts of the Valdosta-area high school at the time of Johnson’s death.

“You want to go on the top of a mountain and scream, ‘Look, people, the evidence is there,’” Karen Bell added. “But it is what it is.”

Authorities were tight-lipped about whether the Bell brothers were suspects in Kendrick Johnson’s death.

“There are no suspects because we haven’t made a determination as to whether or not this was murder,” Paulk added.

The sheriff described the re-examination into Kendrick Johnson’s death as a final effort to bring some closure to the teen’s family.

“This will be the final [investigation], as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

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