Karen and Rick Bell lived normal, productive lives. Married with two smart and athletically-talented sons, one could say they were living the American Dream. But that dream would begin to turn to nightmare in 2013.
On January 11, 2013, a tragedy was discovered at the southern Georgia high school the Bell boys attended. That morning, a female student noticed a pair of feet inside a rolled-up wrestling mat in the school’s old gymnasium. First thinking the discovery was a prank, the student alerted others, who investigated further.
The feet belonged to a 17-year-old student, Kendrick Johnson, who had been reported missing by his mother that morning. With help, students lowered the mat to the ground and unrolled it to reveal Kendrick’s body.
Law enforcers from the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and the Valdosta-Lowndes Regional Crime Laboratory quickly responded to the scene. The police investigated the matter thoroughly and Georgia Bureau of Investigation experts conducted an autopsy.
After reviewing all of the evidence and information they amassed, police announced Kendrick had died of positional asphyxiation. Interviews indicated students routinely went into the old gym to play basketball between classes. Kendrick and others reportedly stored basketball shoes in, on, or around the wrestling mats in the corner of the gym. Police surmised his shoes had fallen into the center of the rolled-up mats, which were stored on-end. As Kendrick reached to retrieve the shoes, he apparently became trapped in the narrow opening in the center of the mat. The young man’s arms were pinned and no one else was near enough to hear his cries for help or to help him escape. He eventually suffocated in the narrow space.
Although the tragic loss of a promising teen’s life is always difficult to process, the investigation’s findings weren’t enough for Kendrick’s parents or those around them.
Rumors began circulating that the teenager’s death was related to an earlier altercation between Kendrick and the son of a law enforcement official. It wasn’t long before those rumors were pointed at Karen and Rick Bell’s sons. Two years before the death, their younger son was in a brief shoving match with Kendrick Johnson before a football game. The argument was quickly broken up and both boys were kept from playing in the game as punishment. As with most boyhood disagreements, one would have thought that was the end of it. And it was, until two years later.
With rumors swirling, the Johnsons disputed the asphyxiation theory and called for police to reopen the case as a murder investigation. They hired attorneys, including one now well known for his divisive rhetoric – Benjamin Crump – a private investigator, and a private pathologist who might deliver cause of death results more in keeping with the group’s beliefs. The Johnsons evidently concluded, without the benefit of any evidence at all, that Rick Bell’s sons had a hand in murdering Kendrick.
The machine of racial politics kicked into high gear in southern Georgia. But something important was missing – facts; evidence; truth.
Ignoring all the factors that would be needed to prove their son was the victim of a crime, the Johnsons and their attorneys prevailed upon the US Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, Michael Moore, to initiate a civil rights investigation into the matter. Shockingly, Moore went even further.
Despite the lack of physical evidence, despite autopsy results declaring Kendrick’s death to be the result of positional asphyxia, and despite what The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported as “seemingly ironclad alibis” firmly placing both Bell sons in locations far from the old gym, US Attorney Moore issued FBI Agent Rick Bell and his two sons “target letters.” Such letters may be issued when, according to internal guidelines, the prosecutor or grand jury has substantial evidence linking them to the commission of a crime and who is thereby a likely defendant.
The Bell Family’s American Dream has turned to a nightmare, one that’s accompanied by daily threats, threats against those who’ve supported their sons, by libelous published reports suggesting their sons were involved in Kendrick Johnson’s death, and by a US Attorney whose actions represent the excesses and abuses of Federal power that need to be reined in.
As the college football scholarship hopes of one of the Bell sons dissolves, the community in which they lived and the school their sons attended continue to be painfully and needlessly divided. US Attorney Moore has disregarded not only the facts but the admonitions of respected community leaders, including Rev. Floyd Rose, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and former NAACP president Leigh Touchton. Both have examined the matter and publicly repudiated the ongoing smear campaign against the respected FBI agent and his family.
UPDATE — August 2016: The U.S. Department of Justice finally walked away from the mess they created in June, announcing they were closing the case. Their statement said, “. . . there is insufficient evidence to 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.” But, the truth was they found NO EVIDENCE of ANY CRIME AT ALL! Even in defeat, the Obama Justice Department couldn’t admit the shameful truth about this sham of an investigation.
And now, as the inept lawyers who purport to represent the Johnsons file yet another baseless civil suit alleging a grand conspiracy to cover up a murder, the smears and threats against the Bell family continue. We at the LELDF are hopeful that the judge hearing the case involving repayment of massive attorneys’ fees incurred by dozens of defendants will be resolved in favor of all those wrongly accused. And we will stand by the Bells as they work to expose the misstatements and lies that subjected the family and others to recklessly executed search warrants obtained by federal prosecutors and U.S. Marshals and to three years of baseless rumors and abuse.