About two years ago, I wrote about the death of Kendrick Johnson, a popular high school football player from Valdosta, one of Georgia’s third-tier cities. Johnson’s body was found in the school gym, there was some kind of investigation in which third-tier Georgia city cops did about as good a job as you’d expect, and we ended up with a verdict of death by misadventure. I doubt it’s not relevant to the story that Johnson was black. His family sued, and things became sketchy right away:
Dr. Bill Anderson determined the teen died from a blow to the neck, but he also made another discovery: some of Johnson’s organs were missing. His lungs, heart and brain were not there, and the body was stuffed with newspaper.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation claims Johnson’s organs were placed back in his body after the first autopsy, but the Valdosta funeral home that embalmed him said the organs were discarded before the body was sent to them.
The Johnson family filed suit, claiming that a fellow (white) student had been repeatedly harassing and provoking Johnson at school before his death. Video surveillance cameras have footage missing. Here’s the comprehensive Wikipedia article on the story. Enough detail was given about the student to identify him as Branden Bell. It should be noted that Bell isn’t, wasn’t and can’t be a suspect in Johnson’s death, because the verdict was death by misadventure. A month ago, the US Attorney’s office seized electronic records relating to the Johnson investigation from the Lowndes [=Valdosta] County sheriff’s office, and also raided Bell’s and his father’s homes.
Last week, the television arm of WSB, one tentacle of the neoconservative Cox media empire, which also owns the equally woeful and destructive “news”paper the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, broadcasted and published unscripted interviews with Bell and his brother Brian. My eyebrows went straight up. This whole story is absolutely crazy: a pitch-perfect example of how the Southern white good ol’boy network has never died; and this particular WSB story is even crazier, not only because it’s actually addressing the issue, but also because the story is all about the reporter, not the crime. There’s a real unusual number of “I”s in the article, especially toward the end.
There’s also a lot of real strange details in this particular story; but there are two I want to center on right now. One is that the article mentions that Bell and his brother came forward to do these unscripted, lawyerless interviews on their own: the classic “clearing one’s name” scene that in crime fiction is nearly always done by the guilty:
Attorney Ferguson stated that after consulting with the father of Brian and Brandon Bell he had advised them not to make a statement and therefore the pair would not be meeting with investigators.”
Our recent phone conversations with Ferguson suggest he was unaware of the interviews until after we had completed them.
Hang on: y’all went and did this without your attorney knowing? That’s… that’s just bizarre. The second detail is even more telling, and has much to do with how Cox “journalism” functions. You have to scroll halfway down the long article to find out that the Bell brothers’ father is an FBI agent. Wait; what? If these two are just entitled white kids, that’s one story; but if their dad is an FBI agent? There’s a whole world of other inferences out there. This is absolutely crucial to the story and to the reactions of the cops, the coroner, etc. It turns out that when Johnson’s parents filed suit, every single judge in Lowndes County had to recuse themself from the case because of their longstanding contact with the senior Bell.
CNN tells us Bell is an FBI agent right away, because that’s where the drama is located. But Cox slips it in halfway through, leaving the impression, for those who have just skimmed the first few paragraphs as readers are wont to do, that this is just a he-said, he-said thing, instead of the obvious case of enterprise corruption that it is. Now, none of this proves Johnson was murdered or that Bell did it; but the FBI agent dad is the key detail in this story, and it’s pretty characteristic of Atlanta’s terrible corporate “journalism” that the lede gets buried this deeply.
In the next few days, I’ll blog about the interviews themselves and what they tell us about the case. Most of the time, I’m concerned with crime fiction, and it’s hard to deny that there’s a novel in here waiting to be written. But here’s the rare case where the real world is more dramatic, and horrible, than fiction—and it’s worth all our while to keep up with the story, because it exemplifies the deep corruption of the good ol’boy network that still runs Georgia.