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Investigation into Georgia teen found dead in gym mat is closed without charges

Kendrick Johnson's body was found in a wrestling mat Jan. 11, 2013, in the Lowndes High School gym in Valdosta.

A local investigation into the death of a 17-year-old Georgia student who was found dead in 2013 in a rolled-up gym mat has been closed with no charges filed.

Kendrick Johnson’s body was found in a wrestling mat Jan. 11, 2013, in the Lowndes High School gym in Valdosta, Georgia. State and local law enforcement officials ruled the death an accidental asphyxiation, saying Johnson died after he climbed into a rolled-up mat to retrieve his sneakers.

Image: Kendrick Johnson
Kendrick Johnson's body was found upside down in a rolled-up wrestling mat at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Ga., on Jan. 11, 2013. Investigators ruled his death an accident.NBC News

The Lowndes County Sheriff's Office reopened the case in March. Sheriff Ashley Paulk detailed his findings in a 16-page document, concluding that evidence and other information do “not produce anything to prove any criminal act by anyone that would have resulted in the death of Kendrick Johnson.”

Johnson’s family, however, has repeatedly said they believe he was killed, and they reiterated that Thursday afternoon after the release of the sheriff's report.

“I will fight as long as I have to uncover what exactly happened to Kendrick Johnson,” said his father, Kenneth Johnson, wearing a T-shirt that read: "Kendrick Johnson didn’t roll himself up into no mat.”

Kenneth Johnson said at a news conference that he believes his son's death is being covered up.

Paulk, the sheriff, could not immediately be reached for a response Thursday.

The report addresses a number of what Paulk calls "rumors and accusations," including claims of a cover-up. Paulk wrote that because so many federal and local agencies were involved, “any person who looks at this case objectively would know that it would be impossible to conceal any evidence.”

He said an FBI investigation also found that there was no cover-up or conspiracy.

Paulk wrote that video inside the gymnasium showed Johnson “walking at a fast pace toward the area where the mats are stored” shortly before 1:30 p.m. Jan. 10, 2013. That was the last time he was seen alive.

His body was discovered the next morning when a class entered the gym and sat on the bleachers next to the mats, the report says. Johnson's body was head-down in a rolled-up mat that was positioned vertically. The report says his feet were visible from the top of the mat.

A coach placed the mat in a horizontal position, “exposing the upper half of the torso," according to the sheriff's report.

One person said he saw a small bruise on Johnson's jaw, according to the report, while another person "who viewed the body" said he did not observe any signs of trauma.

The sheriff's report was based on about 17 boxes of files provided by the U.S. attorney for Northern Ohio, Paulk said.

The files included material from the Justice Department, the FBI, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. attorney’s office for Middle Georgia and several other law enforcement agencies. They also included federal grand jury testimony from 58 people, as well as additional autopsies by a doctor hired by the Johnson family and the Defense Department.

The U.S. attorney for Northern Ohio declined to comment Thursday.

A spokesperson for the U.S. attorney's office for Middle Georgia said in a statement: "The final conclusion in the Kendrick Johnson investigation was reached and announced in 2016 by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio, which handled the matter. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia was recused from the investigation many years ago."

Seven people testified that students, including Johnson, often stored shoes or other items inside the mats, according to the sheriff's report. One student testified that they would go down into the mats to retrieve the items, according to the report. Another said he and Johnson had stored their shoes in the mat in the past and would retrieve them by tipping the mat.

The report also details the findings of several separate autopsies. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation conducted the initial autopsy Jan. 14, 2013, and listed Johnson's cause of death as positional asphyxia with the manner accidental, Paulk wrote in his report.

William R. Anderson, a doctor hired by Johnson's family, conducted the second autopsy in June 2013 after his body was exhumed. He found that Johnson died from "blunt force trauma to the right neck involving the right mandible," Paulk said.

In September 2018, Anderson added an addendum to his report to include "blunt force trauma, right thorax" after the body was exhumed a second time.

The Armed Forces Medical Examiner did the final autopsy and in an August 2014 report listed the death as positional asphyxia and the manner accidental. The agency amended the autopsy in 2016 to say the cause and manner of death were undetermined, according to the sheriff.

"This change is attributed to the fact that additional materials were submitted for evaluation by the United States Department of Justice," the report says. "The most significant item that was added appears to be a report from the South Georgia Medical Center Mobile Healthcare report that states they saw a bruise on the right side of the jaw."

Paulk also addressed claims that two students may have been involved, as well as conflicting accounts of Johnson's missing organs.

He wrote that a student was alleged to have left the school about an hour before Johnson was last seen alive for a wrestling tournament. Before his death, Johnson had gotten into an altercation with the student's brother.

The brothers, who have repeatedly denied involvement, were not charged. An FBI video analysis concluded that they were in different areas of the school when Johnson entered the gym.

In a section of the report addressing the missing viscera, or internal organs, Paulk wrote that the viscera were in the body when it was taken to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for the initial autopsy and that the "only plausible explanation would be that the viscera were disposed of by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation because of their advanced decomposition."

"In closing, I am quite sure that there will still be a contingent that will believe there was foul play. I encourage everyone to study ALL the evidence in this file before forming an opinion," wrote Paulk, who was not sheriff when Johnson died.