The parents of a Georgia high school student found dead rolled up in a wrestling mat in January have asked federal investigators to reopen their investigation into their son's death after an independent autopsy found his death resulted from non-accidental blunt force trauma.
Investigators initially suggested Kendrick Johnson, 17, had crawled into the 6-foot-tall wrestling mat which was stored upright, at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Ga. in order to retrieve a sneaker and died from asphyxiation. Police investigators closed the case in May after a four month investigation. His parents had his body exhumed in June after receiving approval from a judge.
Johnson's parents believe the county sheriff's office acted too quickly, ruling no foul play within 24 hours of finding the body and mishandled the crime scene.
"I definitely would not have ruled it an accident," county coroner Bill Watson told Grantland. Watson received a call from investigators six hours after Johnson's body was discovered, in contrast with Georgia law which requires police to notify a coroner or medical examiner immediately after discovering a dead body.
Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine told the Valdosta Daily Times in May that he waited to contact the coroner out of fear of a leak to the news media.
"It's been kind of an understanding with all of the coroners from the surrounding counties," said Prine. "Rather than sitting there in the parking lot waiting for us to finish, you just call them when you get to the body. And I swear to you – no law-enforcement officer touched that body until the coroner got there and examined it."
Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Sherry Lang told ABC News the agency stands by their findings in the initial autopsy report.
Surveillance footage shows Johnson entering the Lowndes High School gym around 1 p.m. on Jan. 10. Lowndes County officials told the Daily Times that other students were seen entering the gym for class shortly after.
Johnson's body was discovered a day when two students noticed his socks sticking out from one of the mats that had been stored vertically behind a set of bleachers during the holiday break.
According to the Daily Times report, students often stored belongings in the wrestling mats to avoid locker fees. Prine said Johnson had climbed onto the mat to retrieve a shoe that may have fallen into the middle of the stack.
Kenneth and Jackie Johnson, Kendrick's parents, told Grantland that although their son did not have a locker, they never believed the investigation's version of events.
They are suspicious of their son's motivation to crawl into a 6-foot tall mat when he was only 5 feet, 10 inches tall. The fact that drops of blood were found on a wall 50 feet from Johnson's body also raised eyebrows. DNA tests show the blood did not belong to Johnson, though a member of the school's color guard told investigators she injured herself the night Johnson went missing.
"How did my son go missing during school hours in broad daylight? We know our son was murdered while he was at Lowndes High School," Kenneth Johnson told WALB-TV in January.
CNN reported the family's attorney, Chevene King, has sent the results from the independent autopsy to the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Attorney for Georgia's Middle District and the Lowndes County Coroner for review.