Brian Bell is a linebacker without a team, just the latest twist in a complicated tale in which race and class intersect with a mysterious death that authorities call accidental but that an aggrieved and grieving family allege was murder.
Florida State University withdrew a football scholarship offer to Bell in January, one year after FSU had offered it — and two years after the death of Kendrick Johnson, Bell’s former teammate at Lowndes High School who was found dead in a rolled-up gym mat at their school in January 2013.
Law enforcement officials theorize that Johnson, 17, went into the upright mat to retrieve athletic shoes he’d put inside, got stuck and died of accidental asphyxiation. Johnson’s family does not believe the official version. They allege he was killed by blunt-force trauma and put into the mat.
The family filed a $100 million wrongful death suit that names 39 defendants, including Bell and his brother and father, as well as law enforcement and state officials who the family says are covering up a crime. The suit alleges Bell, who is white, held a grudge against Johnson, who was black, after a fight on a team bus in 2011.
Rev. Floyd Rose, who is black, is president of a local civil rights organization and originally backed the Johnson family. “You won’t find a person of any reputation in this town who says that boy was murdered,” he tells USA TODAY Sports. “Are there other injustices around here? You bet there are. But this is not one of them, and I’m not going to be bossed around by whites or blacks.”
Brian and his younger brother, Branden, appear to have solid alibis for the time when Johnson was seen on school surveillance footage entering the gym on the afternoon of Jan. 10, 2013. Brian was in class and Branden was out of town for a wrestling tournament, law enforcement officials say.
But Michael Moore, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, announced a civil rights inquiry in late 2013, and 15 months later the case is still being heard by a grand jury. The length of the investigation has raised the emotional temperature in this town less than 20 miles north of the Georgia-Florida state line. All Moore has said about the case is that it “has proven more complicated.”
And so Bell finds himself in limbo. The 6-2, 215-pound three-star recruit chose Florida State more than a year ago over other suitors, including Cincinnati, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Louisville, but today has no takers.
“There are schools that want to offer him,” Lowndes coach Randy McPherson says, “but they’re waiting because of what happened with FSU.”
Florida State President John Thrasher pulled Bell’s scholarship offer one week before last month’s national signing day. Days later, nine community members from the Valdosta area — among them McPherson, a school superintendent and lawyers — made impassioned pleas on Bell’s behalf as they sat around a large oval conference table in Thrasher’s office.
“We thought we were making progress,” says Leigh Touchton, a former president of the Valdosta-Lowndes NAACP. “There was a lot of head-nodding, people were asking questions, the facts were going to win. And then their chief counsel poured a bucket of cold water on us.”
Touchton says FSU general counsel Carolyn Egan told the group of Bell supporters that “Florida State football players can’t spit on the sidewalk” without inviting media scrutiny.
Florida State has been accused in recent years of allowing its football program to act as a sort of private fiefdom. Quarterback Jameis Winston was allowed to play football — and win a national championship, plus a Heisman Trophy — while accused, but never charged, of sexual assault. He has been disciplined for stealing crab legs and crawfish from a local supermarket and shouting vulgarities in the student union. News media reports have described how athletics department “fixers” and local police smoothed over past cases of theft, destruction of private property and late-night vehicle accidents by other players.
Touchton says Egan made the point that intense pressure on the school related to Winston’s transgressions would mean immense scrutiny on Bell.
Benjamin Crump, a co-counsel to the Johnsons and a noted civil rights attorney, has an office in Tallahassee and is frequently on the Florida State campus. Touchton says Egan mentioned Crump at the meeting. Karl Hicks, FSU’s deputy athletics director for external affairs, clarified her position.
“What Carolyn was saying is that certainly Ben Crump is in this community and he does work on our campus and that it would be an uncomfortable situation for the young man,” Hicks says. “It was looking out for the young man. She didn’t suggest at all that Ben Crump had anything to do with any decision at Florida State. She was emphatic that was not the case.”
Crump did not return phone messages seeking comment.
Whatever the case, FSU coach Jimbo Fisher called McPherson the morning after the meeting with bad news.
“Jimbo was upset about it,” McPherson says. “He said it was the president’s decision and there was nothing he could do.”
Touchton was baffled by that decision.
“Why is Florida State willing to fight to the end of time for Jameis Winston,” she asks, “and not Brian Bell?”
The answer to that might be as simple as this: Winston is potentially the No.1 overall pick of the NFL draft, while Bell, according to Rivals.com, is the nation’s 47th-best linebacker in his class.
EVIDENCE INDICATES ACCIDENT
The Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office completed its report on Johnson almost four months after his death and called it accidental. The coroner ruled positional asphyxia as the cause of death. Investigators think Johnson got stuck after he went headfirst down into the center of the standing mat to retrieve a shoe.
Maryanne Gaffney-Kraft, regional medical examiner for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said findings from the crime scene, investigator reports, forensic testing, witness statements, scene photographs and coroner’s findings all pointed to accidental death.
The Johnsons hired William Anderson, former deputy chief of the Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner’s Office in Florida, to conduct an independent autopsy. Anderson told USA TODAY Sports that Johnson suffered a single blow or pressure to the head or neck and that he did not find the typical signs of positional asphyxia, including fluid accumulating in the lungs, in his autopsy.
“There is no evidence he was beaten,” Anderson said. “It was probably just a single pressure application.”
The lawsuit also alleges that the Bell brothers acted on a “command” from their father, who is an FBI agent, and that law enforcement made a “deliberate and malicious effort” to withhold evidence of their son’s death from the family. The sheriff’s department and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and its pathologist are among the law enforcement entities named in the suit.
Brice Ladson, the Bell family’s attorney, did not respond to requests to speak to them. James Elliott, an attorney representing 18 sheriff’s office employees, said in court papers that the Johnsons and their attorney “cannot reasonably believe a court will accept these asserted claims,” which he called frivolous and groundless.
Chevene B. King Jr., an attorney in Albany, Ga., who filed the suit, said by phone that the Johnsons were not available to comment. When asked for the primary evidence linking Bell to the death of Johnson, King referred to a “video” but declined to be more specific.
Touchton says she thinks King is referring to school surveillance footage that the Johnson family alleges was altered.
Nora Eakin, the parent of a student at Lowndes High School and a teacher’s assistant, said she has talked to other parents about the tone and atmosphere of the grand jury proceedings and they described the questioning by G.F. “Pete” Peterman III, assistant U.S. Attorney, as aggressive and accusatorial.
Touchton said the gym mat where Johnson’s body was found was picked up by the Department of Justice 14 months after Moore started his inquiry.
‘HE WAS A GREAT KID’
Rose, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Council for Valdosta-Lowndes, originally helped raise money for the Johnsons. He was part of a march of 1,600 people through the streets of Valdosta to support them. When some family members were arrested at the Lowndes courthouse for obstructing business there, Rose says he put his house up as collateral to meet their bail.
But Rose, 76, no longer thinks Kendrick Johnson was murdered. That upsets King, a Johnson family attorney, who says, “It is a mystery to me, his conduct.”
Rose says it is not easy for him to be aligned against an African-American family that is challenging white authorities in south Georgia. He says Valdosta is 51% black but that the politics are unfairly controlled by whites. He says decisions on education are controlled by whites even though black students are the majority. Rose cites an unemployment rate in Valdosta of 17.6% among blacks compared with 6.5% for whites.
Rose rejects theories of murder in this case partly because to believe them would mean a conspiracy existed among multiple law enforcement and state agencies. He blames Moore, the U.S. attorney, for allowing the case to drag on and says several black leaders in the community have backed away from support of the Johnsons.
“I do not want to minimize the grief this family has been through,” Rose says, “but you cannot make a murder out of an accident.”
Long before Rose came to that conclusion, his SCLC hired Touchton, who was president of the local NAACP four times, and gave her the title of investigator. Touchton, who is white, reviewed case files and conducted interviews with students and medical personnel and law enforcement to look for evidence of murder and a cover-up. She says she could find none.
She was secretary of the Valdosta NAACP at the time of the incident and originally was assigned by the state NAACP to aid the Johnsons and their attorney in investigating the case. Touchton says the state NAACP would not budge in its belief that Johnson was murdered despite evidence the death was an accident. She resigned from the local NAACP.
Acrimony has spilled onto the Internet and social media. Rose says the Bell family sold its home and moved to a gated community. They filed a lawsuit seeking $5 million in damages against Ebony magazine, which published a report that the Bells were guilty of murder — the story used pseudonyms “Chris and Clark Martin” for the Bell brothers.
McPherson, whose Valdosta teams have won multiple state championships, says Bell is among the best to play for him. “I have players who have gone on to Division I and play in the NFL, and Brian is right there with the others as far as talent,” McPherson says. “This is a great player with nowhere to go.”
Johnson’s death did not create a racial division on his team, McPherson says. “The kids didn’t talk about it,” he says.
Johnson played football as a freshman at Lowndes in 2011. He was a safety. He didn’t play in 2012 as a sophomore but came to McPherson after that season and said he wanted to play again.
“The week he died was the week he was going to start weight training and get back into it,” McPherson says. “I wanted him back in the program. He was a great kid; he really was.”
Source: USA Today | Ray Glier and Erik Brady