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Gym Mat Death: Family Says Blog Posts Suspicious

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Copyright 2017 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

 

As the federal probe into the unusual death of Kendrick Johnson progressed, it seemed investigators and the Valdosta teen's parents were on the same page.

Benjamin Crump, former co-counsel for Johnson's parents, confirmed as much in January 2015 when he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Michael Moore, the former U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia who opened the investigation, believed Kendrick was murdered. By then investigators had zeroed in on Brian and Branden Bell, sending them target letters indicating "substantial evidence" linking them to a crime.

Now, newly released evidence uncovered in a civil suit filed by the Bells reveal just how open the lines of communication were between federal investigators and the Johnson family.

They show a blogger -- identified as Ralph Moss, or Ralph James Moss -- with close ties to the Johnson family posting, in March 2015 and again three months later, about raids to be conducted by federal marshals at the Bells' homes in Valdosta and Jacksonville. Those military-style raids were carried out on July 21 of that year.

The federal investigation was closed last summer with the Justice Department concluding it found insufficient evidence that would "prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone or some group of people willfully violated Kendrick Johnson's civil rights or committed any other prosecutable federal crime."

Related: Gym Mat Death: FBI Video Inquiry Questioned

Johnson's body was discovered in a rolled-up gym mat in January 2013 in the old gymnasium at Lowndes High School. Local and state investigators ruled his death an accident, determining he had died of "positional asphyxia."

While Moss could have simply surmised that search warrants would be executed, the timing is suspicious.And Karen Bell, Brian and Branden's mother, said only the Johnsons' attorneys would have known they had moved to Jacksonville.

"No one would have ever said the U.S. marshals (were leading the raid) if they didn't absolutely know from the inside, because at that time everyone was talking about how the FBI was investigating," she said.

A former federal prosecutor told The AJC that repercussions from such a disclosure are significant.

"You've got someone from the inside who is compromising the integrity of the investigation at a minimum," said former Assistant U.S. Attorney Buddy Parker. "I can't say if it's criminal or not, but clearly it shouldn't be done."

The source of the leak is unclear, though the FBI can probably be ruled out since it had withdrawn from the investigation in September 2014 after it turned over a video analysis showing the Bell brothers were nowhere near the old gym. Prosecutors utilized a Washington, D.C., police officer, Nelson Rhone, in place of the FBI.

"This is unusual in the extreme," said Savannah defense attorney Tom Withers, a former federal prosecutor. "You don't want to lose that element of surprise or risk the officers' safety."

That wouldn't have been an issue in this case, since the Johnsons wouldn't want to do anything that would help the Bells. But it leads to questions about the influence the Johnsons and their supporters may have exerted on the investigation.

"I wouldn't be providing the substance of interviews. You run the risk of compromising the integrity of the investigation," Parker said. "You've got to be able to prove that the local investigators were wrong. You can't presume corruption. You can't assume collusion."

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June 23, 2017
 
 
 

 

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