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Gym mat death shocker: Body stuffed with newspaper

By Victor Blackwell and Devon Sayers | 10/10/2013, 8:38 a.m.
The death of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson was awful enough for his parents.
Kendrick Johnson

VALDOSTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The death of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson was awful enough for his parents. Then came the doubts about investigators' conclusion that it was an accident.

But the discovery that their son's body and skull had been stuffed with newspaper before burial added a horrific new dimension to their anguish and further fueled their skepticism of the official findings.

"We have been let down again," his father, Kenneth Johnson, told CNN. "When we buried Kendrick, we thought we were burying Kendrick, not half of Kendrick."

Kendrick Johnson was found dead in a gym at Lowndes County High School in January. State medical examiners concluded that the three-sport athlete suffocated after getting stuck in a rolled-up gym mat while reaching for a sneaker.

His parents, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, never have bought that explanation. They won a court order to have their son's body exhumed and a second autopsy performed in June.

During an autopsy, internal organs are removed and examined before being returned for burial. But when Dr. Bill Anderson, the private pathologist who conducted the second autopsy, opened up the teen's remains, the brain, heart, lungs, liver and other viscera were missing. Every organ from the pelvis to the skull was gone.

"I'm not sure at this point who did not return the organs to the body," Anderson said. "But I know when we got the body, the organs were not there."

Two entities had custody of Kendrick Johnson's body after his death -- the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which conducted the first autopsy in January; and the Harrington Funeral Home in Valdosta, which handled the teen's embalming and burial.

GBI spokeswoman Sherry Lang told CNN that after the autopsy, "the organs were placed in Johnson's body, the body was closed, then the body was released to the funeral home." That's normal practice, Lang said.

The funeral home would not comment to CNN. But in a letter to the Johnsons' attorney, funeral home owner Antonio Harrington said his firm never received the teen's organs. Harrington wrote that the organs "were destroyed through natural process" due to the position of Kendrick Johnson's body when he died, and "discarded by the prosecutor before the body was sent back to Valdosta."

Stuffing a body with old newsprint and department-store circulars -- "like he was a garbage can," as Jacquelyn Johnson put it -- isn't exactly standard practice in forensic pathology or the mortician's trade. Vernie Fountain, the founder of a Missouri embalming school, called it "not consistent with the standards of care" in the industry. And Dr. Gregory Schmunk, the president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, told CNN, "I have never heard of this practice."

Organs are typically placed in plastic bag, which is then put back into the body cavity after an autopsy, Schmunk told CNN in an e-mail. While individual organs may be kept back for further testing, he wrote, "This would not amount to all of the organs in any circumstance that I can imagine."