A year ago today, Kendrick Johnson died inside a rolled-up gym mat at his high school. According to investigators it was a “freak accident”. It was determined that the 17-year-old fell head first when he was reaching for a shoe and got trapped. A day later, his body was found.
On January 11, 2013 students were sitting in Lowndes High School’s gymnasium and filling out a class survey. While some in Philip Pieplow’s class were doing the survey, others were climbing on top of the wrestling and cheerleading mats that were against a wall. The mats were about 6 feet high and 3 feet across. Soon students yelled after noticing a pair of feet in socks sticking out a mat.
“I reached (and) grabbed one of his ankles hoping for a response,” Pieplow said in a written statement included in the investigative file on Kendrick’s death. “There was none, and I knew he was lifeless at that point.”
Students began calling 911 and, within minutes, police and paramedics arrived.
Footage released by the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office fails to show what led to Kendrick’s death. Investigators suspect he was outside the range of the nearest camera’s motion sensor. Instead, detectives tried to piece together how he died based on clues at the scene, interviews with friends and autopsy findings.
The Associated Press obtained the 522-page case file through an open records request and reviewed it, along with security camera footage and crime scene and autopsy photographs, for this story.
Three students told deputies that some classmates kept gym shoes stashed behind or beneath the gym mats, especially if they didn’t rent school lockers. One said he and Kendrick shared a pair of Adidas shoes and that after class the student always would “go to the mats, jump up and toss the shoes inside the middle of the hole.”
When Kendrick was found, the Nike shoes he’d worn to school were tucked behind his legs inside the mat. A science textbook and a folder containing his class schedule and latest report card lay on the floor near the mats. Also on the floor was an Adidas shoe. Deputies found its match pinned beneath Kendrick’s arm and head.
Medical Examiner Maryanne Gaffney-Kraft found no wounds except for a scrape on the back of Kendrick’s right wrist and three small injuries on his right pinky. She determined he died accidentally from “positional asphyxia,” meaning his body was stuck in a position that prevented him from breathing.
Kendrick Johnson’s parents, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, never believed that story, and a year later they’re still fighting for the truth. The Johnson family attorneys believe there’s a cover up going on.
“My family won’t be satisfied until someone is behind bars and someone is convicted for what happened,” says Kenneth Johnson. “Going over it with common sense, how can it be an accident?”