Kendrick Johnson (5)

I’ve written before about this story, where a black high school football player from Valdosta, the largest city in very rural south Georgia, was found dead wrapped in a mat in his high school’s gym. There are layers and layers of small-town corruption happening here: missing video files, a misleading autopsy, an exhumation.

Johnson’s parents are suing the local authorities and local FBI agent Rick Bell, claiming Bell’s two sons Brian and Branden murdered Johnson, or had something to do with his death, and then had their crimes covered up by sympathetic law enforcement. The DOJ is investigating the local sheriff’s office and the Bells, and has repeatedly asked the courts to block discovery in the civil lawsuit on the premise that this would interfere with the criminal investigation.

Today, CNN reports that the civil court has released some of the details of the DOJ filing, which claims that there are obstruction and witness tampering issues involved. This is the clearest indication yet that the Johnsons have real merit to their case. The circumstantial evidence was already there, but reading the tea leaves here implies real physical or documentary evidence. This could be an effort to Bleak House the entire thing: drawing it out endlessly until somebody runs out of money. But it’s much more likely there’s a noose closing around the local sheriff or the Bells, and the criminal hammer will fall before the civil one does.

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Kendrick Johnson (4)

In the previous post on this topic, I listened to the brief interview with Branden Bell, the son of an FBI agent in Valdosta GA, who is alleged to have had an ongoing conflict with Kendrick Johnson, a highschool classmate of his who was found dead about two years ago in the highschool gym. Johnson’s death was ruled an accident, but there are red flags all over the investigation, so much so that the US Attorney’s office raided Bell’s and his father’s home and the local sheriff’s office, looking for evidence of tampering or obstruction. This investigation is ongoing.

Bell and his younger brother Brian offered to weirdly involved WSB reporter Mark Winne “unscripted” (I really doubt this) interviews without their lawyers present. I can’t imagine a competent lawyer NOT telling his adolescent charges never to say anything other than “no comment” to police or press, but this is what we have to work with. Branden Bell’s interview was short and not obviously dishonest; today, we’ll watch the first of Brian’s two, where he responds to the allegations of obstruction, and see what we can extract from it.

The video is short (2:48), but significantly longer than his brother’s.

  • Bell begins by recounting his feelings when police burst into his Akron OH dorm room to begin the search. He’s good at “confused”. He also has a real slur to his voice: he speaks with “vocal fry” and doesn’t articulate well. He says, “What did we do?” as if he wouldn’t be aware his family was under investigation.
  • He then recounts the marshals’ taking his phone and extracting the passcode from him. “Lack of affect” characterizes him well. “I’ve got nothin’ to hide,” is his go-to phrase.
  • Winne asks him if he’s tampered with any witnesses. This is kind of funny to Brian, or maybe it’s embarrassment masquerading as funny, as many people have the habit of doing. “Not that I know of” is his answer. But watch his eyes: this is at 1:15 in the video. They keep flicking left (i.e., his right) just before he answers.
  • Winne then hems and haws, and says, “If you laugh, people are going to read something into that,” then repeats the question. This is a terrible interviewing technique, by the way. Bell says “No” to Winne’s repeated questions, but to “Have you destroyed any evidence?”, the humor comes back. There’s a disconnect here between Bell’s tamped-down voice tone and his flickering eyes.
  • Winne asks how Bell felt with marshals in his dorm room. Bell says, “I broke down, honestly.” It is very much a cliché to say that whenever someone uses “honestly” or one of its synonyms, they are misrepresenting themself.
  • Winne recounts Bell’s (impressive) football statistics, and then says “You broke down and cried?” [WTF?] Bell seems at his most honest here, saying “Yes”.
  • Winne asks Bell if he “thought it was over”, and again Bell seems pretty on point. “My dad said it was going to get worse before it gets better.”

As with Brenden’s interview, it’s Winne that stands out more than the man he’s interviewing. Some odd questions here: Winne seems real sympathetic. Brian Bell is ambiguous: it’s real hard to tell how much of what he’s saying is coached or gleaned from overhearing his elders. It’s hard to tell how much of his affect is football player, how much stage fright, how much dishonesty.

What really stands out to me is the disconnect between his low affect voice and his flickering eyes. Does this mean he’s lying? Not necessarily: it’s only 2:48 of video feed. Someone might be over there to his right: but is that person coaching him, or holding up a sign? Or baking cookies or whatever? Or just holding one of the lights? Not nearly enough information to tell. He’s not convincing at all, but he’s not obviously not convincing, either.

All of this really makes me wonder who cooked this stunt up and what the hell it’s supposed to do. Reassure us these kids are innocent? I’m not reassured—but it should be noted that neither am I much moved in the opposite direction. These two kids could be totally innocent of actual tampering or obstruction, and yet there could still be a structure of privilege protecting itself all around them.

Kendrick Johnson (3)

Yesterday I posted about this case, where popular Valdosta GA football player Kendrick Johnson was found dead about two years ago in a rolled-up gym mat. His death was declared accidental, with much obvious skulduggery, evidence tampering, and other clear indications of corruption. Johnson’s family filed suit, declaring that fellow student Branden Bell had a long-running conflict with their son; Bell’s father is a local FBI agent, with connections to all the law enforcement personnel in the area. The case stalled until last month, when Federal agents raided Bell’s and his father’s home, as well as the local sheriff’s office, clearly searching for evidence of tampering.

WSB-TV then posted interviews with Bell and his brother Brian, both of whom came forth on their own to speak about the case with reporters. Which is… wow. Today, I’m going to listen to Branden Bell. His brief (0:48) interview focuses on several issues:

  • He answers “No, sir” to reporter Mark Winne when Winne asks him if he had anything to do with any witness tampering or obstruction. He’s at least superficially persuasive.
  • Winne follows up with “Is it possible you said something to somebody?” Bell, a little more comfortable, says, “Once the marshals investigate, as the FBI has done, they will find that their evidence will be… none.” Hard to say if he’s been coached here. He’s calm, even-toned.
  • Winne asks the same question; Bell says “There was no witness tampering on my behalf whatsoever, nor my family’s, because we have nothing to hide. And the truth always comes out.”
  • Winne says, “You’re confident that syllable you’ve told us will stand up to the light of the evidence gathered in the Federal investigation?” Bell says, confidently, “Yes, sir.”

Nothing about Bell is obviously shifty: he looks like Central Casting got a call for White Stoner Bro from Mid-Sized Georgia City, and went with it. Clean stoner, though; not grubby. [Note: I’m talking about his general impression physically, not what he does.] Winne is weirdly emotional, as I mentioned yesterday, and actually talks more than Bell. If this ever becomes a novel (the title will be Positional Asphyxiation) then the trope of the reporter getting too close to the story needs to be front and center.

Let’s go through these four points the very short interview makes. Bell’s first answer could easily be fully true even if there has been obstruction and tampering. Why would he need to have anything to do with it? Other people would take care of him even if he didn’t ask. His second answer… it sounds like something memorized, but it could just as easily be a fairly articulate guy who kind of ran out of words on camera. It happens. But right there, he puts in “as the FBI has done”, we have to keep in mind that his father is an FBI agent. Do we really expect that an FBI investigation was going to reveal something criminal about their own agent, if there were something to be found.

Third answer is the sketchiest, because it sounds the most rehearsed. None whatsoever? The truth always comes out? This is not how a 19yo talks, typically; but of course, the case has almost certainly been discussed around him, so it’s not at all implausible he’s picked up the phrasing from there. Fourth one is just repeating himself.

So IMHO there’s not a lot about this interview that glows red with suspicion. He acquits himself well against some leading questions from a reporter who spends too much time talking and not enough listening. The one thing that really stands out, though, is the “as the FBI has done”. That’s his dad he’s talking about, but WSB doesn’t want to foreground that fact.

Tomorrow, we’ll parse what his brother Brian has to say.

Kendrick Johnson (2)

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.