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Gym mat death of Georgia teen still being questioned

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Lowndes High School has dozens of security cameras watching over its hallways, entrances and parking lots. Four motion-activated cameras are posted in the gym where Kendrick was last spotted on Jan. 10, 2013.

Surveillance footage shows him entering the gym shortly after 1 p.m. and walking toward the far corner where the mats were stored. It doesn’t capture him leaving, and Kendrick never showed up for his fourth-period weight training class.

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Footage released by the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office fails to show what led to Kendrick’s death. Investigators suspect he was outside the range of the nearest camera’s motion sensor. Instead, detectives tried to piece together how he died based on clues at the scene, interviews with friends and autopsy findings.

The Associated Press obtained the 522-page case file through an open records request and reviewed it, along with security camera footage and crime scene and autopsy photographs, for this story.

Three students told deputies that some classmates kept gym shoes stashed behind or beneath the gym mats, especially if they didn’t rent school lockers. One said he and Kendrick shared a pair of Adidas shoes and that after class the student always would "go to the mats, jump up and toss the shoes inside the middle of the hole."

When Kendrick was found, the Nike shoes he’d worn to school were tucked behind his legs inside the mat. A science textbook and a folder containing his class schedule and latest report card lay on the floor near the mats. Also on the floor was an Adidas shoe. Deputies found its match pinned beneath Kendrick’s arm and head.

Medical Examiner Maryanne Gaffney-Kraft found no wounds except for a scrape on the back of Kendrick’s right wrist and three small injuries on his right pinky. She determined he died accidentally from "positional asphyxia," meaning his body was stuck in a position that prevented him from breathing.

After receiving the autopsy, investigators concluded Kendrick fell into the mat while trying to retrieve one of his gym shoes. Nobody saw him struggling or heard him cry out, though a steady stream of students were in and out of the gym until 8 p.m. It’s unclear how long Kendrick could have survived, but he likely passed out soon from blood rushing to his head, Lt. Jones says.

"We never had credible information that indicated this was anything other than an accident," he says.

The case was closed May 2. But to Kendrick’s family, it remained an unsolved crime.

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Kenneth Johnson doesn’t say much when asked why someone might have wanted to kill his son, or who he thinks could have done it. The family’s attorneys told him not to discuss the case, and they also won’t discuss possible suspects or motives.

"I can go as far as to say that if they’re covering it up, they’re not covering it up for a nobody," Kendrick’s father says. "It’s got to be a somebody."

For those inclined to reject the official findings, the case has its share of stumbles and loose ends to fuel alternate theories.

The lack of camera footage showing Kendrick’s last moments has been seized on by family attorneys, who say they fear the footage was edited as part of a cover-up. Images from the camera pointed toward the gym mats are also blurred. School officials told investigators a basketball had knocked the camera out of focus.

A paramedics’ report noted bruising near Kendrick’s right jaw, but no bruises were mentioned in the autopsy report. Jones says the bruising was likely discoloration caused by lividity, which occurs when the heart stops pumping and blood settles in the body.

Investigators also waited to call the county coroner until six hours after the body was found, though state law requires immediate notification. It was standard practice in Lowndes County to process potential crime scenes first, but that has since changed, Jones says. While critical of the delay, the coroner agreed the death was accidental.

"At best it was incompetence," says Benjamin Crump, an attorney for the Johnson family. "At worst it was some conspiracy to conceal the truth."

Authorities did look into tips that two teenagers might have wanted to harm Kendrick. One was a 16-year-old dropout who told police he didn’t know Kendrick and hadn’t been to the school in at least two years. Jones says alibis also ruled him out as a suspect.

Detectives also tried to interview the football teammate with whom Kendrick had fought a year earlier, as well as the boy’s brother, who also attended Lowndes High. Their father referred investigators to an attorney, who declined to let authorities interview the boys. The attorney, Jason Ferguson, did not return phone messages.

School records included in the investigative file show one brother was absent the day Kendrick vanished. The other shared a morning class with Kendrick. But investigators reviewing surveillance footage determined the boy never entered the gym around the time Kendrick went missing, Jones says.

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