“Dead Black men and dead Black women tell no tales in Dixie” – Theodore W.
It’s not often in the interchangeable and coinciding world of 21st century police investigation and forensic science that the cause of death of a perfectly healthy and athletic 17 year-old high school student becomes the literary fodder that creates a classic Agatha Christie “who-done-it” murder mystery.
But who killed 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson and what was the murderer’s Modus operandi / motive is exactly the murder mystery that has unfolded in this mid-sized South Georgia town of nearly 60,000 residents.
A brief history of race relations in Valdosta, Georgia
Haunted by the ghosts of previously lynched / murdered African-Americans, Valdosta, Georgia like many towns of old and not-so-old Dixie, has deep and dark secrets that reek of hatred, racial intolerance and murder.
Case-in-point, in May of 1918 Sidney Johnson a Black sharecropper is accused of fatally shooting Hampton Smith, his White boss who according to Johnson, habitually victimized him and his family.
According to police records Smith’s wife was also wounded in the gun attack. Consequently, Whites in Valdosta retaliate by forming a lynch mob that seeks out and hangs not only Sidney Johnson but ten other Blacks who have angered Valdosta’s White community. The murders begin on May 17th and they end on May 24th.
Infamously labeled by some as “The Spring Lynchings of 1918”, more than five hundred Black families hastily leave Valdosta vowing never to return.
From post antebellum lynchings to relocating Blacks back to Africa in 1871 and 1872, Lowndes County, Georgia has an ugly and horrid history of dealing with its “uppity Blacks”.
Let the record reflect that from the very first day of the discovery of the body, the death of Kendrick Johnson a high school student and athlete at Lowndes High has been ruled an unfortunate accident by the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department.
Let the record further reflect that a private pathologist who conducted an autopsy on behalf of Kendrick’s family, Kendrick’s parents, and an assortment of police and medical officials earnestly believe that the 17 year-old was murdered and the cause of his untimely demise is indeed an elaborate and deliberate cover-up that isn’t supposed to be questioned nor solved.
In the interest of allowing the reader to come to their own intelligent conclusion , an improvised timeline and summation of facts / events are presented as a tool in order to give the reader an accurate depiction of how our mystery began and how it still remains a mystery to the parents, family and friends of Kendrick Johnson.
It’s because some of the “old-timers” in Lowndes County are whispering that the ghosts of murdered Blacks have returned to wander aimlessly on darkened red clay roads late at night that decent folk who know the history of “bloody Valdosta”, are now wondering if murderous foul play is once again afoot in Valdosta, Georgia.
Was it murder or was Kendrick Johnson indeed a very, very unfortunate victim of a freaky one-in-a-million accident that claimed his young life? You decide.
On January 10, 2013, Kendrick Johnson's parents report their son missing to local law officials. The next day [January 11th] at Kendrick's school, Lowndes High School, students inform school faculty that a pair of socks sticking out of a vertically rolled-up wrestling mat is spotted in the school’s gymnasium.
The local sheriff’s department is notified of the discovery and dispatched deputies soon realize the rolled up wrestling mat contains the dead body of Kendrick Johnson.
The sheriff’s investigation / inquiry theorizes that Kendrick died from Positional asphyxia after falling head first into the center of the rolled-up wrestling mat while reaching for a tennis shoe that was located at the bottom of the vertically resting mat.
Crime scene photos clearly indicate that the tennis shoe that by the way did not belong to Kendrick, had no blood on it, although the floor around the tennis shoe did have traces of dried blood on it.
Curiously, Kendrick’s body was found with his own tennis shoes although they were not on his feet.
The investigation’s report also states that Kendrick had been bleeding from his eyes, nose and mouth and that there was dried blood on his arms, chest and face.
The sheriff’s report further reads, "There appeared to be no signs of blunt force trauma on Johnson's face or body"; an evaluation that would later be supported by the initial autopsy performed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, however that finding would be later be vehemently disputed by a second autopsy that was conducted by a private pathologist on August 15, 2013.
The pathologist who performed the second autopsy is certain that the condition of Kendrick’s head indicates physical trauma occurred prior to death.
Now this is when the plot thickens...the second autopsy revealed that none of Kendrick’s vital organs were inside his body including his brain. Incredulously, stuffed inside Kendrick’s body in the place of his organs are old newspapers. Where were Kendrick Johnson’s vital organs? Could the missing organs have accurately given a pathologist an exact cause of death?
On December 10, 2013, lawyers on behalf of Kendrick’s parents file a complaint with the Georgia Board of Funeral Service, a division of the secretary of state's office, alleging specifically that Harrington Funeral Home grossly mishandled Kendrick’s body.
Included in the complaint is the allegation that the funeral home’s director Antonio Harrington is involved in an elaborate scheme to conceal the true cause of Kendrick Johnson’s death.
According to the funeral home's attorney Roy Copeland, as mandated by Georgia funeral home laws, when Kendrick’s organs were removed during the initial autopsy, the person who was delegated to handle the body would have thoroughly dried the body’s cavity, "dusting it with hardening compound or embalming powder and then filling it with dry, clean sawdust or cotton mixed with a small quantity of hardening compound or embalming powder."
Copeland admitted during a November interview with reporters that the use of newspaper is not an orthodox cavity filler, however he also noted, "nor is it precluded as a type of foreign substance that may be introduced into a body for purposes of building it up for public display."
On January 16, 2014 a Georgia state board of funeral home investigators determined that although the general public may view the use of newspapers as a cavity filler to be a deplorable practice for displaying the deceased, it is neither an illegal or immoral act.
Interestingly, neither could the board determine if "Kendrick’s organs were transferred to the funeral home with the body after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation concluded its initial autopsy."
Because it can’t be proven that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation did not deliberately transfer the organs with the body to Harrington Funeral Home and because the Georgia state board could not find any illegal acts committed by the servicing funeral home, the board recommended closing the case.
So inevitably the questions that still haunt Kendrick’s family and friends are, “How did Kendrick really die, what happened to Kendrick ’s organs and who would want his organs to disappear?”
Although the Valdosta Sheriff’s Department doggedly declares that Kendrick Johnson ‘s death is attributed to an unfortunate one-in-a-million freak accident, Kendrick’s parents and a growing legion of doubters believe differently.
In closing, as legal options for Kendrick’s parents begin to dissipate, people outside of Valdosta are asking , “did the sheriff department’s investigation include a thorough background check on all of Kendrick’s friends, teammates and associates? Exactly who were Kendrick’s love interests? And did any of his love interests cross forbidden interracial lines?
In a town whose past secrets are as ominous and mysterious as a neglected “coloreds-only-cemetery”, it’s not unbelievable that Kendrick Johnson was murdered by someone who hated him for deeply rooted reasons. Neither is unbelievable that covering-up hate crimes is unusual in a mid-sized town in Dixie. If you don’t believe me you only have to point to the murders of Emmett Till, Chaney, Goodman & Schwerner.
Dead men and women with missing internal organs who may have crossed old southern taboos tell no tales. At least this is what a murderer and Sheriff ‘s Department appears to be counting on. What say you?
As always the New Orleans Examiner is interested in what you think. Was Kendrick Johnson murdered or did he die from a one-in-a-million freak accident? Inquiring minds want to know.
Until next time, Good day, God Bless and Good fishing.