SAVANNAH, Ga. – The parents of a Georgia teenager found dead inside a rolled-up gym mat are "in a state of bewilderment" after the Justice Department decided to close a long investigation into the 2013 death while releasing only a vague account of its findings, a family spokesman said Tuesday.
Classmates at Lowndes High School found the body of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson of Valdosta in the center of an upright mat propped against a gym wall on Jan. 10, 2013. State and local authorities concluded Johnson died in a freak accident after getting stuck upside down while trying to retrieve a gym shoe. His parents insist their son was slain.
The Justice Department announced Monday that it was closing a 2 ½ year investigation into Johnson's strange death that ultimately "found insufficient evidence to support federal criminal charges." The department's statement steered clear of saying whether its findings pointed to an accident or homicide as the cause of Johnson's death.
The teenager's parents, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, also came away with few answers after meeting Monday afternoon with federal prosecutors in Macon, said Marcus Coleman, a spokesman for the family.
"They're in a state of bewilderment," Coleman said Tuesday. "The statement that came from the DOJ is very vague. Their findings were very vague — I would even say incomplete. ... We haven't really learned anything new."
The parents voiced their frustration Monday during a news conference in Macon.
"It just pushed the dagger a little bit further," Jacquelyn Johnson told reporters, adding: "We've still got no truth."
Prosecutors at the U.S. attorney's office insisted on meeting with Johnson's parents privately to discuss their findings, Coleman said, leaving himself and the family's attorney to wait in a lobby.
Coleman said Johnson's father told him they discussed dueling autopsies at the heart of the case. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation's autopsy found Johnson died from being stuck upside down and unable to breathe. A private medical examiner hired later by Johnson's parents concluded he was killed by a blow to the neck.
"They were adamant to Mr. Johnson that the second one was more accurate," Coleman said. "According to Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, verbatim: The first pathologist got it wrong."
Mike Tobin, a spokesman for acting U.S. Attorney Carole Rendon, whose office in northern Ohio led the investigation, confirmed that Johnson's parents alone met with prosecutors. He declined to comment further on what was discussed in that meeting or about the investigation's overall findings.
The Associated Press asked to speak with Johnson's parents Tuesday. Coleman said he would relay a message, but they did not immediately respond.
"Kendrick's death has not been ruled an accident and Kendrick's death has not been a ruled a homicide," Coleman said. He added: "That still leaves the suspicion lingering."