Railroading innocent persons into prison, or extracting outsized settlements from them, is now a defining feature of civil rights activism. The possibility of such an outcome explains why Kendrick Johnson, a Valdosta, Georgia black teen who died in a freak accident at his high school nearly three years ago, has become a rallying symbol for “anti-racist” activists. Johnson isn’t as familiar as the late Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown. But give it some time. From the start, the Johnson family and supporters have insisted, without evidence, that he was the victim of a racially-motivated murder and cover-up. They’ve convinced the Justice Department to search for the “killer,” and with methods that subvert due process. It’s only fitting that Al Sharpton, a master of racial hoaxes, has left his mark.
The hash tag phrase “#Black Lives Matter” suddenly has become a meme among young blacks across the nation. Strictly speaking, it shouldn’t be controversial – all lives matter. But the campaign is far less about protecting innocent lives of any race than it is about conveying the widespread impression that blacks are being systematically targeted for death by police, prosecutors and the media. Young black radicals, like their mentors, seize upon what appears to be a crime with racial overtones and then apply a double standard: 1) a white individual should be presumed guilty if the victim is black; and 2) a black individual suspected of, or charged with, a crime should be presumed innocent if the victim is white. In their minds, a presumption of innocence, the very basis of a functioning criminal justice system, ought to apply only to black defendants. Even if evidence overwhelmingly shows an accused white cop or civilian to be innocent (including clear-cut cases of self-defense) or an accused black to be guilty, the outcome of the case must affirm the preset storyline, “white racist, black victim.”
This mindset creates complications for our criminal justice system, which rests on the bedrock premise that evidence does matter. No rational grand jury is going to indict a white person for a crime simply because he or she is white. And no rational trial jury is going to convict a white person on the basis of his race either. Unfortunately, the Black Lives Matter movement is not rational. Possessed of racial identity aggression and push-button hysteria, its followers demand the arrest, indictment and incarceration of a white or group of whites for any unexplained death of a black. If such a result does not materialize, these activists may riot or incite others to do so. This is what happened in Baltimore in May following the funeral of a black career petty criminal, Freddie Gray, who had died several days after being taken into police custody (the riot ended when the black district attorney announced the hasty arrests of a half-dozen police officers, three of them white and three of them black). This is what happened in Ferguson, Missouri last November in the wake of the sensible refusal of a St. Louis County grand jury to indict a local white cop for the shooting death of an “unarmed” violent black attacker, Michael Brown. And this is what happened in July 2013 in Los Angeles and Oakland in the wake of the wholly justified refusal by a Florida state trial jury to convict a white neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, for defending himself with lethal force against a black teen, Trayvon Martin, who had violently assaulted him.
Thus, “civil rights” in this country has descended into sheer demagogery. Black race-baiters and their aggressive followers rarely waste an opportunity to make life miserable for anyone whom they deem racist. And whether out of habit or fear, many whites, especially those in positions of authority, accommodate them. This mentality, among other things, drove the highly-publicized, and false, prosecution of three white Duke University lacrosse players for their March 2006 “rape” of a local black female stripper at a party. The dice were loaded against the defendants. The politically ambitious Durham County, N.C. white district attorney, Michael Nifong, eager to win convictions and thus win favor with the heavily black electorate for his re-election, brazenly cut ethical and legal corners. And campus administration and faculty, rather than defend the trio, displayed little but contempt. Yet when the evidence supporting the claims of the prosecution became increasingly suspect, the case collapsed. The black accuser, Crystal Mangum, who years later in 2013 would be found guilty in the second-degree murder of a boyfriend, had given highly conflicting stories to police. It was a hoax by any other name. Nifong would be removed from the case, slapped with ethics charges by the state bar association, and eventually disbarred and sent to jail. Yes, evidence does matter, regardless of mobs who demand that it shouldn’t.
At least one federal prosecutor appears afflicted with Nifong Syndrome. That would be Michael J. Moore, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, who happens to be resigning today. He and his staff have done everything they can to transform the death of Kendrick Johnson from an accident (the official ruling) into a crime. An objective investigation never would have allowed this case to morph into the witch hunt it has become. Moore, who is white, announced earlier this month that November 23 would be his last day in office. To the people caught in his dragnet, today couldn’t have come soon enough. Karen Bell, the wife of veteran FBI agent Rick Bell, conveyed her sense of desperation in an interview with National Legal and Policy Center: “Michael Moore, along with Kendrick Johnson’s family and supporters, are doing everything they can to make life miserable for us. My family is hounded daily with online stalking and threats. All of this has resulted from Moore conducting an investigation that has no basis in fact.”
The focal point is Valdosta, a city of about 55,000 in Lowndes County, Georgia, in the state’s southern tier just north of Florida. What follows is a timeline narrative, derived from published and unpublished sources, strongly pointing to Kendrick Johnson’s death as accidental. That is, it is highly improbable that his death was related to any crime, racially-motivated or not. Yet the U.S. Justice Department investigation apparently desires to nail guilty whites to the wall – and any whites will do. If rule of law were the order of the day, this investigation never would have occurred.
It was Friday, January 11, 2013, a date unlike any other at Lowndes High School in Valdosta. On that afternoon, a macabre scene had been discovered in a gymnasium: A student, Kendrick “KJ” Johnson, a 17-year-old black male, lay dead, upside down inside one of several vertically-stacked wrestling mats. A school surveillance camera – there were more than 40 cameras positioned throughout the 3,000-student campus – revealed that Johnson, possibly late for class, during the previous afternoon, January 10, sometime during 1:23-1:30 P.M., had entered the gym for the purpose of retrieving an athletic shoe that he believed was inside a rolled-up mat. Johnson, a member of the wrestling team, would not live to see his mission accomplished. Sitting atop a mat to see if that was the one containing his shoe, he slipped and fell headfirst down into bottom of the mat. The mat, like all the others, was bound by a strap, so there was no way he could widen the opening with his hands or feet in order to clear extra space. Unable to escape and lacking ventilation, he suffocated. Within 24 hours of the body’s discovery, Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine announced that foul play was not involved. A preliminary autopsy by his office indicated Kendrick Johnson died of “positional asphyxia.” The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and Valdosta Police, after months of lab analysis and interviews with more than 100 persons, arrived at the same conclusion. Positional asphyxia – it was a hell of a way to go. The case was ruled an accident and officially closed that May.
Some people were determined not to believe this story. Foremost among them were Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, the parents of Kendrick Johnson. On Saturday, January 12, 2013 – one day after the discovery of their son’s body and months before the release of the final autopsy reports – the parents posted a video on YouTube, stating: “This had to be a cover-up, that rumor has it that there was some type of altercation on a school bus between a son of a GBI agent and KJ.” Far from being an accident, claimed family members and supporters, KJ was beaten to death. The Johnsons also accused the local sheriff’s department of failing to follow standard protocol, moving the body and mishandling evidence. It all was part of a cover-up, they asserted. Despite having no evidence to back up their claims, they were certain they had uncovered a conspiracy.
That day, the family hired black attorney Chevene King Jr. King alleged that had Kendrick been white, the investigation would have gone differently. Lt. Stryde Jones of the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office disputed this claim. “Race never played into it,” said Jones. “The victim played into it. That’s who we’re working for – the victim and the victim’s family.” The Johnson family charges seem implausible. But given the turn of civil rights activism in recent decades, suspicion all too often has sufficed as proof. And with the YouTube video beginning to go viral, the Johnson family and their supporters took to the streets. Starting in April 2013, Valdosta played host to daily demonstrations by dozens of local blacks chanting: “No justice! No peace!” At an April 25 demonstration, authorities arrested the Johnson parents and five other family members for willfully blocking a courthouse entrance door. The arrestees each faced up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine, but in January 2015 wound up receiving suspended 12-month sentences and no fines.
The “No justice! No peace!” chant, as many know, is the tag line of Al Sharpton, the nation’s most powerful black civil rights leader, always on the lookout for opportunities to highlight America’s allegedly racist character. Bonita Lacy, an activist with the Atlanta chapter of National Action Network, Sharpton’s New York-based nonprofit group, had taken part in rallies in April and again in early May 2013. During that latter period, in fact, the Reverend Al put in a personal appearance in Valdosta at the invitation of the Serenity Christian Church. Before a packed house, Sharpton began his sermon by soliciting donations for a reward fund for information proving Johnson’s death was not an accident. “I’m going to start this off with five hundred dollars cash,” he announced, reaching into own wallet. He then broke into song: “We want justice…got to have justice.” Sharpton exhorted the crowd: “We’re going to rally together. We’re going to get answers together. We want Valdosta to know: ‘No justice, no peace. No justice, no peace.’”
Kendrick Johnson’s parents were all over the place. They appeared at other rallies with Sharpton; did radio interviews; and set up accounts under GoFundMe and Bank of America to bankroll investigations into the “real” circumstances of their son’s death. Sharpton’s personal interaction with the family actually was short-lived. He has not been seen with the parents since. Yet the parents, having become minor celebrities in their own right, might not need him anyway.
Several weeks after Sharpton’s departure, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson ramped up their campaign: They hired Tallahassee, Fla.-based black lawyers Benjamin Crump (in photo with Sharpton) and Daryl Parks to join Chevene King in representing them. Crump and Parks, friends of Al Sharpton, had represented the family of Trayvon Martin; the following year they would represent the family of Michael Brown. Their strategy, here as elsewhere, would be to create the illusion of a racial hate crime – attributable to whites, of course – and thus ease the way for a full-scale Justice Department investigation. The Crump-Parks team hired a Florida-based forensic pathologist, Dr. William Anderson, to exhume Kendrick Johnson’s body and conduct another autopsy. The conclusion: “KJ died from possible blunt force trauma as in one blow to the neck area.” Anderson went on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” show early in September 2013 to declare that Johnson’s death “was a homicide.” He also discovered – or claimed to discover – that all of Johnson’s internal organs had been removed and replaced by newspaper. The Johnsons soon would file suit against Harrington Funeral Home in Valdosta for mishandling their son’s body. Meanwhile, Benjamin Crump worked the media, reportedly convincing black CNN reporter Victor Blackwell to cover “the mysterious death of KJ.” He also gave radio and television interviews claiming Kendrick Johnson had been murdered by unnamed classmates, possibly members of the wrestling team, and that law enforcement officials covered the crime up. And he regularly appeared with the Johnson family at rallies at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta.
There is now some serious money at stake. In January 2015, Crump and Parks, on behalf of the Johnson family, filed a $100 million wrongful death suit in DeKalb County, Ga. (suburban Atlanta) Superior Court against 38 individuals, including members of the Bell family. From any angle, it looked like a shakedown. The civil action alleges that FBI Agent Rick Bell’s two sons, Branden and Brian, ages 17 and 15, murdered Kendrick Johnson on their father’s orders and that the murder was covered up on the orders of Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine and Lowndes County School Superintendent Wes Taylor. The charges are, by any reasonable assessment, improbable and bizarre. Indeed, Kendrick Johnson’s parents themselves effectively have admitted as much. During a hearing early this month at which South Georgia Circuit Judge J. Richard Porter denied three separate Justice Department motions to end the discovery process, Tim Tanner, legal counsel for the City of Valdosta, presented sworn testimony by Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson at depositions held the previous week. At one point, Tanner asked the father, Kenneth Johnson, about the evidence he had to support the claim of a murder and coverup. Johnson’s response: “I believe…Brian and Branden (Bell) had a lot to do with my son’s death.” Johnson’s parents, asserted Taylor, responded with “I don’t know” or “I do not recall” more than 1,000 times. Moreover, they were unable to identify several defendants named in their suit or provide any specific reasons as to their inclusion. Stated Tanner at the court hearing: “This case is made up. This case is built on rumor and social media. This case is not built on truth.” Judge Porter, sensing the Justice Department was impatient with the formalities of legal process, admonished the department attorney. “There…has been no indictment. This investigation has been going on for two years, and there is no indictment…It would not be appropriate to intervene without an indictment.”
That brings us to the DOJ criminal probe, which had begun well before. An investigation was not hard to predict. What federal prosecutor was going to risk his job and reputation by diverting his eyes away from a possible “hate crime” in his own jurisdiction, especially if his boss happened to be Attorney General Eric Holder, a racial identity politician and a friend of Al Sharpton to boot? On October 31, 2013, U.S. Attorney Michael J. Moore announced at a news conference that his office would be conducting a review of Johnson’s death. That Moore was trophy-hunting was underscored by the fact that even the Justice Department’s own Civil Rights Division, long a home for race-based legal zealotry, earlier in the month stated that it would not be opening a probe.
The wheels were in motion. Sometime in late November or early December 2013, about 20 FBI agents arrived in Valdosta for the sole purpose of interviewing students at the high school. The interviewees included Branden and Brian Bell, respectively, the older and younger son of FBI Agent Rick Bell, who worked in the Valdosta office, and his wife, Karen Bell. Initially, the parents agreed, but on the advice of their attorney, they told FBI agents Carlton Peeples and Greg McClendon that they would participate only on the condition of being given advance notice of all questions. The two agents already had interviewed the Johnson family for three and a half hours without probing too deeply. The Bells stated they might change their minds if and when the FBI viewed all surveillance footage from the 40-plus cameras in the high school.
The U.S. Justice Department, resentful of this resistance, in February 2014 sent Rick Bell and his two sons, Branden and Brian, “target letters” to testify before a grand jury. After inclement weather postponed the convening of the jury, the Bells received new target letters in March. They told nobody about these letters. Yet somehow word had gotten out to CNN’s Victor Blackwell, a media mouthpiece for the Johnson family. Blackwell called Rick Bell through the latter’s FBI-issued cell phone on March 5, 2014 and asked Bell if he was going to allow his children to testify. Blackwell also filmed students entering the courthouse in Macon on March 13 who were set to testify. It was hard to avoid concluding that someone over at DOJ was feeding Blackwell information, either directly or through Benjamin Crump.
In April 2014, Karen Bell drove to Macon and met with FBI Agents Peeples and McClendon to answer questions. She expressed great surprise that they were still asking her the whereabouts of her older son Branden, a member of the wrestling team, during January 10-12, 2013. Actually, Branden Bell had left Lowndes High around 11:30 A.M., January 10, to board a school bus en route to a wrestling tournament in Macon. Interviews with student wrestlers and coaches verified this. Since Kendrick Johnson was last seen alive on video footage around 1:30 P.M. that day – an hour and a half later – it was impossible for Branden Bell to have been at the school at the time of Johnson’s death. Yet even at this late date, the FBI had yet to review all video surveillance tapes. That task finally was completed after the FBI sent hard drives to the bureau’s Quantico, Va. operations center in October 2014, a year after they had received them.
The basis for the Johnson parents’ lawsuit and the FBI probe appears to lie solely in the fact the team bus departure, whether due to mechanical failure or some other reason, was delayed by several hours. The travel log showed that the bus left the school grounds at 4 P.M. Yet this fact alone in no way proves or even suggests foul play. To assume that Branden Bell, some other teammate or a coach used the delay as an opportunity to murder Kendrick Johnson is ludicrous and grossly irresponsible. There is no evidence that anyone had the means or the motive to commit a murder. That a crime could been committed is a leap of judgment that, shorn of evidence, could ensnare any number of innocent persons. It is on par with the assertion (now making the rounds in the darker precincts of the Web) that the massacre of students and teachers at that Newtown, Connecticut school in December 2012 was an elaborately staged event to justify tough federal gun control legislation. Should such nonsense be taken seriously simply because there is a one in trillion chance it could be true? Obviously not. If every far-fetched claim were pursued to the fullest extent because of the smallest possibility that it could be true, our entire legal system would collapse. Even in a civil case, where the standard for proof of an accusation is “a preponderance of the evidence” rather than the more stringent “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the evidence must be there. Suspicion is not proof. And in this case, there was no evidence of a crime, much less evidence linking a specific person to an actual crime.
That month, October 2014, U.S. Attorney Michael Moore revealed his true leanings in a meeting with Agents Peeples and McClendon, plus Special Agent in Charge Britt Johnson. The agents told Moore they had found Branden and Brian Bell, along with another targeted classmate, Ryan Hall, on every possible surveillance tape during January 10, 2013. There was no way, the agents asserted, that those kids had anything to do with Kendrick Johnson’s death. Moore, rather than rethink his position, sat back and said, “Well, maybe KJ was murdered at night. The three agents shook their heads, perhaps in disbelief, and responded, “No, he wasn’t murdered at all.” Britt Johnson then said that the bureau had concluded its investigation and was closing the case. A highly irritated Moore responded they both worked for Attorney General Holder, and thus Holder would have to make the call. Johnson replied: “No, I work for FBI Director (James) Comey and we are closing this case. Period. We will not take part in this witch hunt any longer.”
About a week after this testy exchange, Special Agent Britt Johnson had found out that Moore, before the meeting, had sent a letter to the U.S. Justice Department requesting that a special prosecutor be assigned to the case. Talk about reaching a conclusion first – Moore wanted a special prosecutor, knowing fully well the FBI still had crucial information to hand over to the defense. Johnson called Moore and asked why he was seeking a special prosecutor. Moore allegedly replied: “I had to.” Johnson reportedly has a copy of the letter that Moore sent to Holder. The contents, Johnson said, read like a script for a daytime soap opera. Johnson further hinted that if this case goes to trial, his sympathies would be with Rick Bell.
Nobody could doubt that Moore, along with his First Assistant, G.F. “Pete” Peterman III, had it in for Rick Bell and his family. FBI Agent in Charge Britt Johnson sensed as much. Johnson told Bell not to let his kids speak to Moore. “He has some type of personal agenda,” said Johnson. The Department of Justice, meanwhile, made good on Moore’s request for a special prosecutor. Tapped for the task was a seasoned black prosecutor, Deborah Sines, deputy chief of the homicide division for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. The DOJ continued to convene grand juries. Witnesses included friends of the Bell family. In each case, they told the family afterward that initial questions revolved around the Bells. Karen Bell recalled: “All of my friends would tell me, ‘They are out to get you all.’”
For several months, all seemed calm. Then, in the wee hours of July 21, 2015, D-Day came. FBI Agent Rick Bell was awakened at the temporary family home in Ponte Vedra, Fla. (near Jacksonville – the family had been moved for their own personal safety) by a call on his cell phone telling him not to get dressed and come straight to the front door. Greeting him at the opened door was a U.S. marshal, who asked Bell to step outside. Bell then called out to his wife to get dressed and come to the door. Husband and wife had to stand on their own front porch as about two dozen marshals, dressed in military camouflages, exited an Armored Personnel Carrier with what appeared to be machine guns and entered the home. The lead agent said they were there to “collect data.” He then handed the couple a copy of the search warrant signed by an inexperienced judge in Macon. The marshals parked their vehicles and then searched the house from 5:05 A.M. until 10:30 A.M.
This was not the end of the family ordeal. U.S. marshals also raided the college dorm rooms of both sons. It was a particularly bitter experience for the younger of the two, Brian Bell. Back in January 2014 he had won a football scholarship at Florida State University. Early this year, however, he had to kiss that dream goodbye. Kendrick Johnson’s parents, their lawyers and a growing legion of supporters pressured the university to withdraw the scholarship, incessantly calling, e-mailing and tweeting FSU President John Thrasher, who had taken office in November 2014. Thrasher quickly relented. Early this February the university announced that it had rescinded the scholarship. Mrs. Bell, not one to back down, sent Clay Land, U.S. District Chief Judge for the Middle District of Georgia, a letter informing him of the family situation. The letter read in part:
My family is hounded daily with online stalking and threats. My son who now attends the University of Akron has continued to be harassed and threatened. (Attached are just a few threats of the hundreds directed at him). The ongoing vilification of an FBI agent, and his sons, stems directly from U.S. Attorney Moore’s moving forward with an investigation that is unsupported by any credible evidence. His failure to announce publicly, much as Attorney General Holder did in March about the actions of Officer Darren Wilson, the wholesale lack of such evidence undermines trust and respect for him, for the office he holds, and for the Department of Justice.
Judge Land, having read the letter, forwarded it to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz (no relation to the author) on September 30, 2015. Following the ordeal, Mrs. Bell also sent a letter to the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility requesting a probe of Moore’s conduct. The office replied that U.S. Attorney Moore, given his position, had immunity and thus could not be investigated. Brian Bell, at least, is playing football at Akron.
The Bells have been fighting back in other ways. In March of this year, the family countersued the family of Kendrick Johnson for $1 million for making defamatory comments in news and social media. They denies all allegations of involvement in Johnson’s death in any way. The suit asserts that the accusations in the Johnson family suit lack “substantial justification” and contain “a complete absence of any justifiable issue in law or fact.” The action is focusing on a November 2014 video and a Facebook post on a Kendrick Johnson memorial site insisting that FSU rescind its football scholarship to the younger son. In addition, the Bell family in October 2014 filed a federal lawsuit against Ebony magazine and one of its writers, Fred Rosen. In her letter to Judge Land, Karen Bell wrote:
I have many articles, a recording of a radio show and Fred Rosen’s own Twitter statements that he had exclusive interviews with U.S. Attorney Moore. Why was Moore speaking with a “true crimes” writer about this case during grand jury proceedings? After we sued Fred Rosen (case is still pending), Ebony removed the online articles. However, Moore specifically asked about FBI Special Agent in Charge Britt Johnson about our Ebony case. Why is U.S. Attorney Moore concerned about our civil lawsuit against Ebony magazine and Fred Rosen?
Michael J. Moore isn’t so immune anymore. Today, November 23, is his last day in office. He had made the announcement nearly three weeks earlier. Moore claims his hands are clean. After the raids on the Bells, he told certain people in Valdosta, including Police Chief Brian Childress, that he had nothing to do with the raids. Such a statement strains the imagination. Moore is the very person who ordered the target letters sent to the Bell teens and their classmate, people whose previous statements on video camera and in school records easily would have vindicated them. It could be argued that Moore did the right thing by leaving, that he was expressing his disdain for having to take part in this circus any longer. But Ron Hosko, a former assistant FBI director and president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, rejects such a notion. Indeed, he argues that Moore should be investigated for initiating his review of the Johnson suit on “nothing more than a rumor” and that he likely had violated his oath of office. “Mr. Moore should now, before he flees the scene, tell us exactly what information he had over two years ago indicating the existence of federal criminal activity in the Johnson case,” said Hosko.
All credible evidence shows that the accused kids were nowhere near Kendrick Johnson on that fateful day of January 10, 2013. Footage reveals Johnson running into the gym toward the mats without anyone else in the vicinity. In the nearly three years since his death, not one scintilla of evidence has been introduced to indicate a murder or a cover-up. The conclusion is inevitable: Kendrick Johnson died in a tragic accident. And his parents, with the help of their lawyers, the peripatetic Al Sharpton and “civil rights” paladins, have perpetrated a malicious and preposterous hoax which the U.S. Justice Department has chosen to take seriously.
This case, far from resolved, is the product of a badly deformed political culture in which affirmation of civil rights is synonymous with “discovery” of acts to punish if such acts can be pinned on whites. That it has progressed this far underscores how far law and criminal justice are being reconfigured to meet the demands of black-identity hustlers who see any ‘hate crime’ as an opportunity to promote revolution. Prone to inventing hoaxes, they are convinced American blacks constitute an oppressed class. That their assertions are ill-informed and often ludicrous is bad enough. But what makes this situation worse, much worse, is the eager participation by the legal profession, in and out of government, in these intimidation campaigns. Prosecutors such as Michael J. Moore, litigators such as Benjamin Crump, and race hustlers like Al Sharpton are corrupting rule of law, lending weight to suspicions that the main premise of black radicalism is not that black lives matter. It’s that white lives don’t. Just ask Rick Bell and his family.