Will a Country Sheriff Face Charges?
AS THE FBI AND US ATTORNEY’S OFFICE INVESTIGATE THE 17-YEAR-OLD’S DEATH, QUESTIONS ABOUT A POSSIBLE COVER UP PERSIST
Soon after Lori Taylor* and her younger sister, Noel found the body, Robbie O’Connor began tweeting.
“My class just found a dead person upside down in a girls competition mat.”
“Lies,” his friend, Chet Goode replied moments later.
NOTE: The names of all students under the age of 18 have been changed.
“Not funny dude. Kendrick Johnson we think,” O’Connor tweeted back.
“Wait, for real? That’s my friend! He have dreads?”
Goode was understandably shaken.
“Dude, please tell me you [were] just kidding.”
“I’m not kidding,” O’Connor Tweeted. “It’s gonna be on the news.”
“Ok man, I believe you. I just can’t believe it! It’s crazy.”
“Yea, juss [sic] pray for him. He went missing like yesterday.”
Carrying a yellow notebook under his arm, Kendrick “KJ” Johnson had gone into the old gym at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Georgia at approximately 1:35 PM on January 10, 2013. He never came out.
“I’ve talked to a few law enforcers that are closer to friends than they are the department, and KJ was lured into the gym for a fight,” Valdosta High School student Frank Walton later Tweeted. Further, Johnson’s family, “believe he was lured into the gym…by a ‘White girl'” the Daily Mail Online (UK) reported on November 4th of last year.
His mother Jackie reported him missing that night.
The next morning, the Taylor girls, whose father Wes Taylor is the Superintendent of the Lowndes County School System, discovered a pair of feet sticking up from the inside of one of the rolled up gym mats in the corner of the gym.
Along with O’Connor and others, they were in Coach Philip Pieplow’s second block “Life Sports” class. Mounting the bleachers, they had climbed on top of the mats to lie down. The Taylor girls looked down and made their discovery. Summoning help, another student and Pieplow mounted the bleachers and tried to free the person from the top.
According to the police report, when that effort failed, the student “and Pieplow began to move the mats by pulling them away,” until finally they got to the one in the rear with the person in it. While wrestling it to the wooden floor, someone called 911.
School resource officer Michael Adams quickly responded, arriving at 10:35AM.
“I observed a blue cheerleader mat. I observed two feet lying horizontal.”
Moving some more mats, he was finally able to unroll it enough to observe, “a Black male torso and head wearing white, exposed down to his rib cage. The facial area was severely disfigured and swollen.”
O’Connor, though, recognized KJ from his trademark dreadlocks and began his texting. As he and the rest of the class continued to watch, EMS personnel and sheriff’s detectives Lt. Stryde Jones and Sgt. Jack Winningham arrived. Instead of processing the crime scene as what police later admitted in a press release was a “possible homicide,” something contradictory to established investigative procedure allegedly occurred.
“The body was definitely moved, before I walked out [of] the gym [prior to noon]. He went by in a stretcher with paramedics,” O’Connor later tweeted on October 10, 2013, on what would have been KJ’s eighteenth birthday.
Yet the day the body was discovered on Jan. 11, at 3:45PM, when Lowndes County Coroner Wilbur (Bill) Watson, along with Deputy Coroner William Broadwell Carter, finally arrived to make the official pronunciation of death, the body was back in the gym.
Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine weighed in on the matter.
“I swear to you – no law-enforcement officer touched that body until the coroner got there and examined it,” Prine told the Valdosta Times on Sept. 6.
“Nothing was done with KJ’s body,” Lt. Stryde Jones assured the Daily Mail Online in the November 4 article. “He wasn’t moved. He wasn’t examined until the coroner [Bill Watson] arrived.”
But O’Connor’s tweet directly contradicts those statements, implying that the body was removed by Lowndes County officials and later brought back and placed back in the mat.
“I was with Bill when we went into the gym. I saw what he saw. The body was half in and half out of the gym mat,” Deputy Coroner Carter observed.
Multiple calls to Prine and Jones seeking comment have gone unreturned. But their statements to these media outlets and others are a matter of public record. The coroner himself contradicts the two police officers accounts and supports O’Connor’s.
“The investigative climate was very poor to worse when I arrived on the scene. The body had been noticeably (sic) moved. The scene had been compromised and there was no cooperation from law enforcement at the scene,” Watson said in his official report, also noting, “I was not notified in (sic) this death until 15:45 hours.”
According to Georgia Law § 45-16-24, “It shall be the duty of any law enforcement officer or other person having knowledge of such death to notify immediately the coroner or county medical examiner of the county in which the acts or events resulting in the death occurred or the body is found.”
“It took six hours before they called the coroner,” O’Connor Tweeted his friend Goode on October 10.
Watson tells EBONY.com exclusively, “I don’t think people realized the magnitude of this.”
Michael J. Moore, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, opened an official investigation into KJ’s death on Oct. 31 and dispatched FBI agents to Valdosta to investigate.
“There are four or five different agents in Lowndes County now,” says Deputy Coroner Carter, who has already been interviewed by two of them.
“I’m pleased the FBI took it,” he adds.
O’Connor will be interviewed by the FBI, as well as other students in Pieplow’s class. Last month, the FBI confiscated the hard drives of the school’s surveillance system, hoping to find footage of what exactly happened to the seventeen-year-old teenager after he entered the gym.
If the FBI subsequently finds that the body was moved or the crime scene compromised, Moore can prosecute on “Obstruction of Justice” charges, though he tells EBONY.com, “I cannot make any comments while we are still investigating.” But Moore’s record shows that when he does find local police corruption in his district, he doesn’t kid around.
On October 22, 2012, Moore announced that Stacy Bloodsworth, the former sheriff of Wilcox County, GA, pleaded guilty to assaulting an inmate inside the Wilcox County jail on July 23, 2009 and subsequently conspiring to cover up the assault. Bloodsworth’s son, Austin Bloodsworth, also pleaded guilty to conspiring to cover up the same assault.
“We expect our law enforcement officials to uphold the law – and to protect those they serve,” Moore said at the time. “Today’s guilty pleas by former Sheriff Bloodsworth and Austin Bloodsworth remind us that no one, not even an elected sheriff, is above the law.”
Time will tell if the same goes for Sheriff Pryne.
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