Police received a possible confession tape in the 2013 death of a Georgia teen whose body was found in a rolled-up mat at his high school gymnasium.
According to WAGA, Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paul said Kendrick Johnson’s mother acquired the audio containing the apparent confession and gave it to investigators. Paul said the family purchased the recording from someone who claimed it was “valuable as far as saying who possibly had committed the crime and change their situation.”
Authorities are reportedly in the process of confirming the audio’s validity. Police said they would not be releasing the audio to the public at this time, WAGA reported.
“If it’s a hoax, it’s a very, very cruel hoax to do to Mrs. Johnson,” Paul said.
Johnson, 17, was found dead in a gym mat at Lowndes High School in January 2013. His parents have repeatedly claimed their son was the victim of foul play, and accused officials of partaking in a mass coverup that involves the FBI, local police, and the school district.
Last week, the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office announced they were reopening the case to ensure the initial investigation was conducted properly. Police said the latest probe would involve reinterviews and consulting with other law enforcement agencies to ensure nothing was missed or incorrectly reported during the initial probe.
Johnson’s family believes he was murdered by Brian and Branden Bell, the sons of an FBI agent, and the brothers’ friend Ryan Hall. However, video footage shows Brian Bell and Hall elsewhere in the school when Johnson is believed to have died; Branden Bell was at a wrestling tournament in Macon at the time, according to the Atlanta Journal-Consitution.
In May 2013, the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office deemed Johnson’s death an accident, after an initial autopsy report suggested he died of “positional asphyxia” when he tried to retrieve his sneakers from a rolled-up mat and became stuck.
However, a third autopsy completed in November 2018 disputed officials’ findings — concluding Johnson died from “non-accidental blunt force trauma.”
The 2018 autopsy was the second independent autopsy in Johnson’s case. In June 2013, Johnson’s parents won a bid to have their son exhumed for a second autopsy — and reportedly discovered that every organ from his pelvis to skull, including his brain, heart, lungs, and liver, was gone and replaced with newspaper.
Funeral director Antonio Harrington claimed the 17-year-old’s organs “were destroyed through [the] natural process” due to the position of his body when he died. He also stated the funeral home never had Johnson’s organs, saying they were “discarded by the prosecutor before the body was sent back to Valdosta,” according to CNN.
The allegations regarding the state of Johnson’s body are consistent with accusations a witness made in an affidavit filed in August 2017. Johnson’s parents presented the document days before they were ordered to pay $300,000 in lawyer’s fees to state and local officials named in a wrongful death lawsuit.
In the document, the interviewee alleged he was told that Johnson’s organs were removed and replaced with newspaper to conceal his actual cause of death. He also said Brian Bell had struck Johnson in the neck with a 45-pound dumbbell during a “roid rage” episode — and that someone who witnessed the murder was threatened with violence if they told.
According to the witness, multiple people also conspired to have an hour-and-a-half of the high school surveillance video deleted or corrupted, presumably to make it look like Johnson’s killer or killers were not in the gymnasium when he died.
Bell’s family has repeatedly denied the brothers’ involvement in Johnson’s death.
Police said they are in the process of examining evidence in Johnson’s case, which includes 17 boxes of documents, computer towers, and computer drives. They have not provided a timeline regarding their ongoing investigation.