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Case of Georgia teen found dead in rolled-up gym mat reopened

JACKSONVILLE, Fla — 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.

His death has been ruled accidental and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation officially closed its investigation in June of 2020.

However, Sheriff Ashley Paulk with the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office isn’t leaving any stone unturned in this case that has garnered national attention.

“We finally received the documents from the federal government … as far as the investigation, that was the only known documents we were not privy to,” Paulk told First Coast News Tuesday.

Paulk said his agency started trying to acquire those documents on April 2, 2020. All the letters written to get these documents were handwritten by Paulk and Kendrick Johnson’s father.

“I felt it was a pretty good Christmas, got a call right before Christmas that they were going to release them to the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office,” said Paulk to First Coast News..

Paulk says the Sheriff’s Office has started to receive the documents in boxes and boxes full of paperwork within the past 30 days. The agency has received 17 boxes so far that contain hard drives, paperwork, and other materials.

He says he cannot discuss the specific details of the documents because they remain sealed. However, the received of these documents helped the agency to make the decision to re-open the case.

Johnson’s body was found in a rolled-up gym mat at Lowndes County High School in Valdosta, about 120 miles northwest of Jacksonville.

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. Johnson’s 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.

Johnson family representatives said when the case was closed in 2016, the family met with federal investigators to present the findings of the case. That meeting was carried out without legal representation from the family, representatives said.

An attorney for the family said they believe the investigation was closed under suspicious circumstances fueled by the pressure of retired FBI agents. Johnson’s parents were persuaded to meet with two U.S. Attorney offices and the Department of Justice without legal representation, the attorney said.

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.

The family’s attorney said after the first autopsy that took place in the GBI lab, the organs were placed in a bag and placed back into Johnson’s body when it left the lab. He said more people finding their loved ones dead with their organs missing is a human rights issue.

First Coast News contacted the family’s attorney and he did not wish to make a statement at this time on the reopening of the case.