Parents file $100 million lawsuit in gym mat death in Georgia

Kendrick Johnson's body was found in a rolled-up gym mat in 2013.

Story highlights

  • Kendrick Johnson, 17, was found dead in 2013 in an old rolled gym mat
  • "We know who killed him. We just have to prove it," says mother Jacquelyn Johnson
  • Attorneys accuse two brothers and their father, who is a local FBI agent, of wrongful death

(CNN)The parents of Kendrick Johnson, 17, never believed their son died accidentally after getting stuck upside down in the center of a rolled gym mat while reaching for a shoe.

"We know who killed him. We just have to prove it," Johnson's mother, Jacquelyn Johnson, told CNN.
Now, attorneys for Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson have filed a wide-ranging, $100 million lawsuit that claims several former classmates beat their son to death inside the old gym at his south Georgia high school in January 2013. The suit names 37 people, mostly members of local law enforcement, plus the city of Valdosta as defendants.
    The four-count lawsuit was filed Monday in Superior Court of DeKalb County in metro Atlanta, more than 200 miles from Lowndes County, where Johnson was found dead January 11, 2013. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation's headquarters is in DeKalb County.

    'Violently assaulted'

    In the filing, attorneys claim Johnson was "induced" by a female student to go to the old gym at Lowndes High School on January 10, 2013. Attorneys do not name the female student.
    Attorneys accuse two former schoolmates, who are brothers, and their father, who is a local FBI agent, of wrongful death. Attorneys claim that the brothers "violently assaulted" Johnson in response to their father's command and that Johnson "suffered a fatal injury which led to his death." A third former schoolmate is also accused, as well as John Does and Jane Does.
    The students then put Johnson's body in the center of the gym mat and placed it in the corner, the suit alleges. Only the defendants in the wrongful death claim are being sued for "at least" $100 million. Defendants in the remaining three claims are being sued for undetermined punitive damages.
    "This is yet another frivolous lawsuit filed by [the Johnson's attorney] Chevene King in connection with the death of Kendrick Johnson. It contains allegations against [my clients] that he and his clients know are untrue and defamatory," Brice Ladson, attorney for the FBI agent's family, wrote in a statement to CNN.
    The FBI agent and his sons have all received letters informing them they are targets of an ongoing investigation into Johnson's death by the Department of Justice, according to Ladson.
    "[The agent] remains actively and fully engaged in his duties as an FBI special agent," Atlanta Special Agent in Charge J. Britt Johnson wrote in a statement to CNN.

    'Flawed investigation'

    After a nearly four-month investigation and more than 100 interviews, the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office concluded that no foul play was involved in Johnson's death. In May 2013, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation released its autopsy report, which supported the investigators' conclusion and determined the cause of Johnson's death was accidental positional asphyxia. The case was closed.
    "We examined all the alternatives that were presented to us. The only one that fit the physical evidence and the forensic evidence and the testimony that we received was this was an accident," Lowndes County Sheriff's Office Lt. Stryde Jones told CNN soon after the case was closed.
    In June 2013, Johnson's body was exhumed. Johnson's parents hired Florida-based forensic pathologist Dr. William Anderson, who found evidence of "unexplained, apparent nonaccidental blunt force trauma" to Johnson's neck. Anderson determined Johnson's death was the result of a homicide.
    In the lawsuit, attorneys for the Johnsons accuse employees of the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office, the city of Valdosta, the Valdosta Police Department and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation of violating Johnson's right to due process and equal protection under the law.
    The attorneys allege the defendants conducted an investigation that was designed to "maliciously cover up the less-than-adequate effort" to investigate Johnson's death and to "cover up the identities of those individuals responsible" for killing Johnson.
    Additionally, the city of Valdosta, Valdosta City Police Chief Frank Simons and Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan have been accused of failing to properly hire, train and supervise members of their respective agencies and departments.
    The Valdosta-Lowndes Regional Crime Laboratory, which collected and tested evidence at in the gym, is managed by the city of Valdosta.
    Attorneys claim "various law enforcement agencies deliberately and maliciously mishandled the ... investigation in such a way that anyone who might ever be charged with [Johnson's] death would never be convicted due to a patently flawed investigation."
    All defendants are accused of intentionally inflicting emotional distress on Johnson's parents.
    "We have received and reviewed the complaint filed in DeKalb Superior Court by the Johnsons and their lawyer against 38 named defendants including 17 Lowndes County Sheriff's Office personnel. The accusations made against Sheriff [Chris] Prine and his officers are unfounded and lack any basis in law or in fact. We will respond further to these baseless accusations through the courts," Jim Elliott, attorney for the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office, wrote in a statement to CNN.
    "The city of Valdosta does not typically comment on pending litigation. However, based upon the sensational nature of the allegations being made, the city, and the employees named, categorically deny all allegations of wrongdoing and consider the claims to be meritless. The city looks forward to defending itself in a court of law," Valdosta City Manager Larry Hanson wrote in a statement to CNN.
    An attorney representing Lowndes County Schools had no comment.
    Several calls made and emails sent to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for comment have not been returned.
    Attorneys for Johnson's parents made similar claims by amending a 2013 lawsuit against Sheriff Prine and Lowndes County Schools in the Superior Court of Lowndes County on Friday.
    In 2013, a judge granted CNN's request to intervene in the suit filed in Lowndes County related to claims of violations to Georgia's Open Records Law.