On January 10, 2013, Kendrick Johnson, a Black 17-year-old junior at the Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Ga., didn’t return home from school. The next day, he was found dead, his body rolled up in a wrestling mat that was standing upright in a corner of the school gym with his sock-covered feet sticking out of the top.
While authorities ruled his death an accident, Kendrick’s family sensed foul play and demanded a second independent autopsy. The forensic pathologist not only determined the cause of death to be from non-accidental blunt force trauma, but also discovered that organs were missing from his body.
Yet to this day, despite multiple investigations, lawsuits and autopsies, no one can say for certain whether the death of Kendrick Johnson was an accident or a murder.
In the new documentary Finding Kendrick Johnson, released online in August and now set to screen in U.S. theaters October 25th, writer-director-producer Jason Pollock, acclaimed for his 2014 documentary “Stranger Fruit,” on the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., tries to get us closer to an answer.
Using state evidence gathered from a four-year undercover investigation, as well as interviews with Mitch Credle, a homicide detective assigned to the initial 2013 federal criminal civil rights investigation launched by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia, the film reveals a case riddled with errors, and hampered by conspiracy and obstruction in law enforcement that included the FBI.
In a wide-ranging conversation with The Crime Report, Pollock and Credle discuss the racial animus that perpetuates in cities and towns like Valdosta across the country, call out the failure and avoidance on the part of the entertainment industry to tell Black crime stories like Kendrick’s, and suggest what should be done now that the case has finally been reopened.
The documentary is available for rent or purchase on iTunes, Netflix, Google Play and elsewhere.
The following transcript has been edited for space and clarity.
The Crime Report: Jason, what prompted you to get involved in this story and what were some of the hurdles you encountered in making it?
JASON POLLOCK: It all started in Ferguson [Missouri], right after Mike Brown was killed. I was there filming “Stranger Fruit,” which actually cracked the Mike Brown case open. So, when I was down there I met a lot of different families that had been victimized by police and government violence and had traveled to Ferguson from around the country to support the movement growing there.
That’s when I first met Jackie, Kendrick’s mom, and we became Facebook friends. I saw all the horrendous images she was sharing of him and I was traumatized by what I saw. Then, looking into the story and seeing how truly unbelievable it was, how it had been almost completely dropped by the media, and how nobody seemed to care about it, after speaking with the family and getting their permission we decided that what I did with the Mike Brown case really needed to be done for Kendrick’s case.
We started investigating in 2017, and most of the film was done by the beginning of 2020. The biggest problem was getting Hollywood to put it out. Everybody rejected it, every network rejected it. It really showed how the media only cares if the case is famous or not. Most people in Hollywood, especially white people, hadn’t heard about KJ’s story and we had a lot of doors closed because of that fact.
And then COVID hit and everything became even more impossible. But I just didn’t let this die, I sat on my little egg all of last year just waiting for the right moment to figure out how to get it out because it’s a very important story in American history and one that has been completely forgotten about and covered up pretty much until now.
TCR: Mitch, as a homicide veteran of the DC police department, how does this story compare to other murder cases you’ve handled?
MITCH CREDLE: This is the first time I’ve ever experienced any type of homicide investigation that was done this way. I’ve been doing homicide 23 years and 12 of those years I’ve investigated cold-case homicides. So, getting involved in a case where things occurred three or four years before I became involved wasn’t unusual; but when I got this case I realized that everything at the beginning was done improperly as far as a homicide or death investigation is supposed to go.
It was unprofessional and they dropped the ball. And when you drop one ball, it starts a chain effect. They treated everything as if it was an accident, which was improper and premature.
TCR: Why do you feel it’s so difficult for people to come to terms with the racist realities that lead to crimes like this and how does that avoidance of reality precipitate their continuance?
POLLOCK: It’s worse than avoidance. It’s an aggressive malpractice in the education system that is teaching white, racist communities a version of the history of our country that didn’t exist. So many people in the South can’t even admit the [region’s] connection to slavery.
From the day you are born white in certain zip codes you are taught a lie about our nation. You believe that lie because you’re taught it by your teachers, your parents, your pastors, and then you grow up and are told you bought into that lie and you get made about that. This is America in 2021. What I do in the film is show things that people don’t want to talk about that we forgot about that have been pushed under the rug because it’s easier for these southern white communities to pretend that it didn’t happen than to have to change.
Like you see in the film, Black people still can’t even go into certain restaurants and get served. It’s deep programming. 200-300 years of institutional racism brought us to the point where an entire city in the south is living with the cover up of the murder of this child and no one wants to do a damn thing about it.
One of the deepest, weirdest layers of the story is the fact that the city let it go on for this long. And that’s because the region has been bred on this type of gruesomeness. It could not happen in another state. Racism is the front and center reality of this story and all the other stories like it that are coming to the forefront now.
TCR: How is this kind of underlying and deep-seeded racism reflected in the handling of this case by both local law enforcement and the FBI?
CREDLE: In law enforcement, it’s all about how they deal with the culture of the environment that they are policing. And the issue can be summed up by one of my initial interviews of a 17-year old kid regarding this case. During the interview, my partner and I were very assertive, we were very professional, we were very thorough, but we were also somewhat aggressive.
And the kid very respectfully told us that he just wasn’t used to people like us talking to someone like him and treating someone like him in that way. And earlier we had heard that same kid call another one of his classmates n****r. That word came off his tongue like it was just a regular sentence. It was just how he was raised. So, when you look at that example, and you have police who work in that environment, their mindsets absorb that culture as well.
TCR: How did you maintain objectivity in a story that is so deeply personal to the people involved and really focuses on their experience over anyone else’s?
POLLOCK: I think that it is very important in our journalism and art culture that we have the op-ed and I did not feel that it was necessary to interview white people in Valdosta about this story, because there were already eight years of records of what they thought about it. I think what the film does is unspin this story. This white rehashing, of listening to what the other side has to say. Well, in this case, the other side is lying, so, why are you giving them air time? It’s that “what-about-ism” that Trump was pushing so much and that the media plays into. But what-about-ism is propaganda and Kendrick was a victim of that for eight years down there. So, there’s none of that in my movie because those are all lies.
The only things that are in my movie are data points in their own paperwork. I don’t suggest anything, hypothesize, or even come up with any theories. I just show data and line it up in such a way so you can see what happened because they would never do that. They’re going to spin it. I just stuck to the facts of the case and I didn’t let white arrogance enter the cycle. The regular media is constantly spinning.
TCR: So much of the suspicion in this case surrounds the involvement of a local FBI agent named Rick Bell, who is the father of the two key suspects in the case and engaged in rampant obstruction and intimidation of local witnesses. How was he able to act with such abandon and blatant disregard for the law?
CREDLE: What he did was obstruction of justice. And for a judge to sign roughly 21 search warrants meant that we had some pretty good information and I really thought that he was going to be arrested. But then, unexpectedly, my partner and I were taken off the case and I found out later that instead of getting arrested he was allowed to resign.
That was unbelievable to me, but I guess down there things work a little differently because, if he had been in D.C., he would most definitely have been charged. And, for me, it really took the air out of my balloon when it came to law enforcement in general. I felt embarrassed. I felt that we had let the Johnson family down. And it was a big disappointment that we couldn’t at least go after an agent who was obstructing justice and, as a result, improving the federal agency as a whole. Law enforcement at any level is not supposed to interfere with an investigation and, as an FBI agent, he should have known better.
TCR: Do you consider yourself a whistleblower in exposing the failures of law enforcement in this investigation?
CREDLE: During the investigation, we were deputized with federal powers and jurisdiction to do anything and everything we had to do from a law enforcement perspective. Aside from that, people know me. They know my morals and values when it comes to doing the job. So, I’m not worried about anything or anybody saying anything because even if Kendrick was white I would still be doing the job the same way.
And as a law enforcement official, the term whistleblower does not apply to me because as an agent of law enforcement you are supposed to do what’s right. It’s really simple. Just do what’s right, do your job.
TCR: Our documentary exposes a lot of the history surrounding the FBI and the treatment of African Americans in this country by criminal justice organizations. What kind of response are you hoping for by revealing that history?
POLLOCK: The reason I went down the FBI rabbit hole was because once we concluded that the FBI was the governing body of this cover-up, then I needed to show that this didn’t happen in a bubble. The FBI has been doing stuff like this for a long time. This is a random case where the FBI messed up. That organization has been engaged in a planned and coordinated attack against Black civil rights since the very beginning…that history is directly connected to Kendrick’s case.
TCR: Now that the case has been reopened, what do you think the next steps should be in the investigation?
CREDLE: We were only down there three to four days a month. Anyone we interviewed didn’t see us for a whole month after that. I think an outside agency should investigate everything that occurred and, this time, the investigators should stay down there every day until it’s done.
POLLOCK: And I feel that was by design. They gave them an impossible task and made it impossible for him to do his job. Why would you have the investigators work like that unless you really don’t care? That’s not the way a proper investigation goes. Everyone should be treated the same, whether it’s a rich white kid or a kid like Kendrick.
It’s all about equal justice under the law which clearly this case was not. And I feel that this is emblematic of what the government does when they get too close to the truth of a case like this: they just back down.
TCR: What role does the media and entertainment industry have in the abandonment of cases like this?
POLLOCK: A vast majority of true crime documentaries are white cases, and white women especially. The entertainment industry loves to do documentaries on white death, but when there’s a case like Kendrick’s, that is difficult to look at and difficult to think about, they avoid it. Hollywood is directly responsible for this kind of programming. If you look at how Black people have been represented in Hollywood for the last 20 years and up to today you see how difficult it is to just be Black and have these white programmers care about your story.
Isidoro Rodriguez is editor of TCR’s Justice Digest and a contributing staff writer for The Crime Report.