Sheriff reopens probe into death of teen found in rolled-up gym mat in Georgia school

Around the South

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP/CBS News) — A Georgia sheriff says he’s reopened an investigation into the 2013 death of a teenager whose body was found inside a rolled-up gym mat at his high school.

Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk said Wednesday he is personally leading a new examination of the death of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson of Valdosta after the U.S. Justice Department gave the sheriff’s office 17 boxes of evidence it collected in its own investigation that ended in 2016.

The U.S. Department of Justice determined in 2016 it lacked evidence to file hate crime charges as it would have needed to prove Johnson was killed because of his race. The results of that investigation were sealed.

But now, for the first time, investigators will have access to that evidence coupled with the state’s original files.

Federal authorities never brought charges in the case and state and local investigators concluded years earlier that Johnson died in a freak accident.

In Jan. 2013 surveillance video showed Johnson walking the hallways at his high school. Sometime in the next 24 hours, the 17-year-old three-sport athlete died. His body was found the next day rolled up head-first in a wrestling mat.

State investigators ruled the death an accident — they initially said Johnson dove into the mat to retrieve a shoe, got stuck, and died from “positional asphyxia.”

But two other autopsies requested by the family in the following months determined blunt force trauma to the neck caused his death.

His parents have long insisted he was slain.

“I know that my son was beat to death and rolled up in the mat. I’m not going to even say think again. I know my son was beaten to death,” said Jacquelyn Johnson, Kendrick Johnson’s mother.

Family spokesman Marcus Coleman said Johnson’s parents are grateful the case getting a fresh start.

Paulk was not part of the original investigation and will lead the new one.

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