The death of a Black teenager whose body was found upside-down in a rolled-up gym mat at his Georgia high school in 2013 was an accident, the local sheriff announced this week, affirming a previous investigation’s finding that there was no evidence of foul play.

The teenager, Kendrick Johnson, 17, most likely crawled headfirst into the mat to retrieve a pair of sneakers that he had thrown inside earlier and became trapped, Sheriff Ashley Paulk of Lowndes County said.

“It’s a weird accident,” he said Thursday, one day after he had released a 16-page report that detailed his findings and echoed the ruling made by a previous sheriff in 2013.

For years, the case has confounded residents in Valdosta, Georgia, a city of about 56,000 in southern Georgia. It inspired a 2021 documentary questioning the findings of law enforcement officials and prompted calls for murder charges by Johnson’s relatives, who believe he was killed by two white students at Lowndes High School.

Federal prosecutors began reviewing the case in 2013 after the family requested a separate investigation.

The federal investigation focused on the two students and another person, according to Paulk’s report. In 2016, federal prosecutors said that to bring a case to trial, they would have to show two things: that Johnson had been killed, and that the killing had been “motivated by racial animus.”


There was “insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone or some group of people willfully violated Kendrick Johnson’s civil rights or committed any other prosecutable federal crime,” prosecutors said in a statement announcing that the Justice Department was closing its case.

Paulk said Thursday that there was no evidence to show that anyone else was responsible for Johnson’s death. One of the students investigated by prosecutors was on a bus headed to a wrestling match at the same time that Johnson went into the gym, according to his report. Footage from cameras at the high school showed that Johnson did not cross paths with either of the two other people in the federal investigation at any point on Jan. 10, 2013, the day he died, the report said.

At 1:27 p.m. that day, camera footage showed Johnson walking by himself into the gym, toward the bleachers, where gym mats were rolled and stored vertically. A teacher and students found his body the next morning.

Paulk said he had examined 17 boxes of evidence provided by prosecutors and investigators, including grand jury testimony. The evidence “does not produce anything to prove any criminal act by anyone that would have resulted in the death of Kendrick Johnson,” Paulk’s report said.

Johnson’s father, Kenneth Johnson, said he still believed that someone had killed his son, a popular athlete at Lowndes High and the youngest of five siblings.

Kenneth Johnson, 53, said that a forensic pathologist hired by the family, William R. Anderson, had found that the cause of death was blunt-force trauma to the right side of the boy’s neck, near the jaw.


“The truth is the truth,” Kenneth Johnson said. “You can’t make an accident out of a murder.”

The findings of Anderson’s autopsy, conducted five months after Johnson’s death, contradicted the conclusions of the medical examiner at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, who in 2013 issued an autopsy report that determined the cause of death was “positional asphyxia,” suggesting that Johnson had become trapped upside-down in the rolled-up mat and had suffocated.

Paulk said the conflicting autopsy reports were complicated by a third autopsy conducted by the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner in 2014. That report also ruled the death accidental and caused by asphyxiation but was later amended to say the cause of death was “undetermined.”

Even after the federal investigation, questions about Johnson’s death persisted in Valdosta.

In 2016, Paulk, who had retired the year before Johnson died, decided to run again for his old seat. He said that on the campaign trail, he had been approached several times by Black voters who wanted him to look at the case again.

“I felt that I should look at this,” he said. “Plus, I wanted to know myself.”


But Paulk, 76, said that as he had reviewed the federal government’s documents, it appeared that prosecutors had become determined to charge the two students. He described their investigation as a “witch hunt” and said email correspondence between prosecutors showed they had been feeling pressure to get results.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia declined to comment and referred questions to the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, which took over the case. (According to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Johnson’s family, the two students being investigated were sons of a former FBI agent in Georgia.) A spokesperson in the Ohio office declined to comment.

Michael J. Moore, the former U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia who agreed to review the case in 2013, said Thursday that there “was never pressure to find results one way or the other.”

“The only instruction that we got was to look at the evidence and follow where it leads you,” he said. “Any time you have the inexplicable death of a young man and there are conflicting reports out there, it is the job of law enforcement to look into those things.”

Kenneth Johnson said his family remained committed to proving that Kendrick had been murdered.

“We will keep pushing forward,” he said. “The truth, what happened to Kendrick, there is no stopping it.”


Paulk said he planned to make all the evidence in the case, with the exception of the grand jury minutes, publicly available.

In his report, Paulk said he knew “there will still be a contingent that will believe there was foul play.”

He added in the report, “I encourage everyone to study ALL the evidence in this file before forming an opinion.”