On Wednesday, May 29, documents and reports that had been previously withheld pertaining to the Kendrick Johnson investigation are slowly coming to the light — months later.
The release of some of these records and reports coincides with the involvement of the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney of the Middle District of Georgia based in Macon requesting all documentation pertaining to the case.
Michael Moore, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia since 2010, had promised a “very deliberate review” and CNN’s Victor Blackwell had confirmed that the Department of Justice is reviewing whether a full investigation is needed for the mysterious death of the 17 year-old Lowndes High School student.
Even though Johnson’s death has been ruled an accident by the GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) and the findings are supported by Chris Prine and his investigators associated with the Lowndes Sheriff’s Office, the timeline of events on January 11, 2013 have remained primarily a mystery.
However, one report that details the genesis of the GBI’s involvement provides a few answers that have been previously withheld.
How and when did the Valdosta-Lowndes Crime Lab become first involved in the Kendrick Johnson case and investigation?
Who requested the assistance of the GBI less than two hours after Kendrick Johnson was found dead at the Old Gymnasium?
The answer to these particular aforementioned questions according to a ‘GBI Assistance Rendered Report’ was the Lowndes Sheriff Office’s Captain Wanda Edwards.
It isn’t unusual for the GBI to be asked to join cases that involve various crimes including homicides and unexplained deaths, but typically in Georgia, the local District Attorney (J. David Miller) is one of the commonly designated and authorized persons who make the call to the GBI.
Subsequently, this is one example where protocol takes a backseat, and a quote from Lowndes County Coroner that appeared in the Valdosta Daily Times on April 17 brings the actions of Edwards and the Lowndes County’s Sheriff’s Office into a different light of deserved scrutiny.
“This was not fair to the decedent, his family, and the citizens of Valdosta and Lowndes County, Ga. And it’s wrong as rain,” Watson said in January when he spoke to The Times. “You may not want me on your crime scene, but it’s a law. It’s not something you can change your mind about.”
Why is Wanda Edwards, a veteran law enforcement officer, ignoring state law and not contacting the coroner immediately. Yet is compelled to contact the GBI by request even though she isn’t designated by law to do so.
The obvious question is who is designated by law to request assistance?
According to the GBI website and/or by Georgia law, the following are the ones who can ‘request’ assistance:
1. District Attorneys
3. Governing officials of a municipality
4. Superior Court Judges
5. Chief Law enforcement officers of any municipality
6. Chiefs of county police departments (in counties with population in excess of 100,000)
7. Chiefs of regular or volunteer fire departments (in suspected arson cases)
8. Governor of Georgia (by directive)
Even if Sheriff Prine was allegedly “out of town”, where is J. David Miller, the District Attorney of the Southern Judicial Circuit? Where was the Chief of Law enforcement of a municipality or in other words, Brian Childress— the Chief of Police of the Valdosta Police Department?
Any one of the Superior Court judges could have requested the GBI or even a local City Council member who would fall under the ‘governing officials of a municipality’.
Edwards does not fall into any one of those eight separate and distinct categories in regard to requesting GBI assistance.
However, Edwards, as a law enforcement officer is qualified and authorized by state law to immediately call the coroner and allegedly that didn’t happen. And Bill Watson says he wasn’t notified until several hours later.
Edwards is also responsible for bringing in the Valdosta-Lowndes County Regional Crime Lab, but did not call the coroner.
The April 11 edition of the Valdosta Daily Times wrote about Watson’s relationship with the GBI and the Sheriff’s Office in regard to the Kendrick Johnson case.
...”Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson has been in contact with the GBI regarding Kendrick’s autopsy, he said. But the Coroner hasn’t enjoyed the same level of cooperation from the sheriff’s office as the GBI, said Watson, who also stated he wasn’t contacted when Kendrick’s body was first discovered….”
On the day Kendrick Johnson was found dead, a paramedic was eventually notified for the first time at 10:32 am in the morning of January 11 and arrived on the scene ten minutes later at 10:42.
However, the paramedic was initially informed by a dispatcher –and this was pointed out in Nicholas Tomlinson’s EMT report–that the Lowndes County student was having cardiac issues or heart attack.
Keep in mind, a 911 called clearly stated that a dead body had been found at Lowndes High School.
When the paramedic came on the scene, the EMT noticed Kendrick Johnson’s injuries to his face and other parts of his body and refused to move the body or transport the body.
Additionally, the EMT or paramedic pronounced Kendrick Johnson was dead as part of his EMT report on January 11 and mentioned the Old Gymnasium should be considered a crime scene.
One would think the coroner needs to come after the professional, informed observation of the EMT (Nicholas Tomlinson) and Kendrick Johnson’s body would be transported to a public hospital for an eventual autopsy by the Office of Coroner.
However, this didn’t happen. Johnson’s body remained in the Old Gymnasium–decomposing further– for hours with temperatures slowly rising into the 70’s on a unseasonably warm January morning and eventual afternoon.
After the paramedic from the South Georgia Medical Center finished, Wanda Edwards requested Region 9 Crime Scene Specialist Wes Horne to assist Valdosta Lowndes County Crime Scene Investigator James Thornton to process the scene of the death.
Did James Thornton, an employee of the Lowndes Sheriff’s Office and criminalist/chemist/investigator with the Valdosta-Lowndes Regional Crime Lab know that coroner was not officially notified prior to processing the death scene?
It took the GBI’s Horne, who was based out of Thomasville, more than a hour to come to Valdosta.
Horne and Thornton are not medical examiners, yet Johnson’s death was ruled an accident by essentially ‘special agents’ and no input from the Office of the Coroner on the same day Kendrick Johnson was found dead on January 11.
Typically, a county coroner usually performs an autopsy and determines a cause of death. Then, the GBI could come in and perform a post-mortem autopsy.
Yet this wasn’t your typical case.
Some people may forget that the county coroner signs the official death certificate, not the Lowndes Sheriff’s Office or the GBI even though it offers an official theory.
As of May 30, nearly five months later, the official death certificate hasn’t been signed by Bill Watson, the Lowndes County coroner.
The closest GBI medical examiner resides in Macon– nearly three hours away.
The Kendrick Johnson case wasn’t a normal case. It was a death scene case, and death scene investigations are supposed to be treated differently–by law.
This is when the Office of the Coroner and his own investigators needed to appear on the scene.
After the Valdosta-Lowndes Regional Crime Lab and GBI finished ‘processing’ the scene, Watson had said to WCTV-TV on April 11 the following:
“Well it compromises my investigation one hundred percent,” Watson said. “I don’t know what the county did when they got there on the scene. The body had been moved. The scene, in my opinion, had been compromised.”
Capt. Wanda Edwards did talk about those early moments on January 11 with the Valdosta Daily Times in an article on May 4.
“A patrol officer knows the first thing he does is put up crime scene tape and keep everyone out until we get there,” said Edwards. “We make an initial examination, and then we back up because I have crime scene technicians that are trained to do it. So I let them do their job and process the scene.”
This is where things get a little blurry and it is important to make a distinction between a crime scene and a death scene.
On January 11, 2013, state laws and protocol were ignored and many questions need to asked by the Department of Justice.