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Gravitas Ventures’ Finding Kendrick Johnson, which premieres on Starz on Dec. 27 following an Oscar-qualifying theatrical run, reopens the investigation into the mysterious death of African American teenager Kendrick Johnson, who was found in a vertically rolled-up gym mat at his high school in 2013. To this day, the crime remains unsolved. The preliminary autopsy ruled his death accidental, but the family, doubting it was an accident due to the state in which his body was found and because surveillance footage went missing, ordered a private, second autopsy that concluded death by blunt force trauma.
Director Jason Pollock spent four years uncovering new evidence and working with the family to shed light on the case that he says was allegedly covered up by school officials, law enforcement and two schoolmates of Johnson’s named Brian and Branden Bell. He speaks to THR alongside a former investigator in the case, Mitch Credle, about this new evidence that Credle never saw while working on the case, what they think happened that day and why law enforcement must be held accountable.
What drew you to make a film about this case?
JASON POLLOCK The decision came in 2017, after [my film] Stranger Fruit [about the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown] came out. At the time, we were trying to think about which family to help next with this type of thing. It is like deciding where to go to college because it’s a four-year commitment — I didn’t do anything else the last four years. In December 2017, I got the permission [from the family] and I’ve been working on it ever since with them … All the evidence I found, I found sitting here, researching. It was all online, sadly, which is also such an indictment of the media. There wasn’t anything that I found that was in a shady or nefarious way. It was all just googling publicly available documents that the media never read or reported correctly. I knew that we may not find the truth because of my initial research into the case and how much was basically destroyed the day of and covered up. They ruled [the death] accidental so quickly so they didn’t have to investigate. They threw away everything in the gym that day, and the videotapes were gone. Finding the answer is not as important as elevating KJ’s legacy into the culture and making sure that this wasn’t just a regional Georgia story, but an international story.
Mitch, talk to me about your involvement in the case.
MITCH CREDLE I got involved at the end of 2014. I was contacted by one of the attorneys I worked with at the U.S. attorney’s office here in D.C. Once she brought it to my attention, I started doing some research on it to learn more about it. That January, we got involved, and it was just shocking. At the time, I had spent 27 out of 29 years in law enforcement, 23 in homicide. And I was just disturbed … You want to give the family and the victim 1,000 percent, regardless of their color. It wouldn’t matter if KJ was a white victim and the suspects were Black. You want to give the same amount of justice and service to that family, to that victim.
Did you get any response from the community or the law enforcement officials you confront in the documentary?
CREDLE I haven’t heard from anyone. My job as law enforcement, even as former law enforcement, is to be honest. We should never have a reason to hide anything … Just the way today’s culture is with so many negative things going on through the media, as far as just how a lot of African Americans are being shot by police in general, you would think that law enforcement would be more transparent and more open to communicate things. For me to speak my truth in reference to everything that I know about this investigation … I’m used to people saying negative things about me, but I’m not worried about somebody coming toward me because I know I haven’t done anything wrong.
POLLOCK No, and honestly, I don’t expect to at this point — the movie’s been out for four months. All we did was put out the paperwork, basically, and we were very clear about not accusing anyone. In fact, I think that when they saw [the doc], they thought this is old news that comes to no conclusion and has no impact on our lives. They just moved on with their day.
What goes through your mind when you’re uncovering all this evidence?
POLLOCK Once I did the Mike Brown film and I found the video of him not robbing the store that no one had seen, I lost a lot of faith in the media. When I went into this project, I didn’t think I was going to find anything as big as that, but sadly, I did. It’s just a metaphor for how much everybody lets these families down. I’m not proud of my investigatory work in any way. I did not go to journalism school. I’m an artist who makes documentaries. The difference between the work that I’m doing and the mass amount of true-crime [docs] is that the vast majority is white death — the vast majority of the Netflix true crime is all white death. Gabby Petito gets headlines, while I have an FBI report out about KJ, and we can’t get [anyone] to talk about it. The importance of this work is that this is a true-crime doc, but it’s helping the Black Lives Matter movement. And frankly, as a white filmmaker, I don’t see anybody competing with me. When I first met with the [Johnson family] in 2017, nobody was thinking about KJ. When I met with the Brown family in 2015 and pitched them the same idea, nobody had pitched them that idea. I go into these situations with an empathetic view of the situation, trying to show what it looked like from the family’s angle and the facts of the case that the media ignored. And then the context of the situation, to show that this KJ thing didn’t happen in a bubble. Valdosta, Georgia, has a deep, deep history of this. And then the FBI, maybe doing something shady with Black lives is not at all a one-off.
Mitch, you’ve been a detective for 27 years. How did this case stick with you?
CREDLE For years, I was seeing unbalanced investigations. And for some reason, when victims are white, it’s always a priority. It’s no secret. It’s just a temperature change of how some investigators are when we come to things like that. And I honestly believe just by looking into this case, the fact that KJ was an African American student, it just took a different route than it would have taken if the roles were reversed. There’s no doubt in my mind, if KJ was a suspect and one of the Bell boys were the victim, KJ probably would’ve been in prison right now … With this investigation, it rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning of how, first of all, the crime scene was treated. There’s no way that school should have been continuing operating. Every person inside that school should have been interviewed. That school should have been shut down.
POLLOCK The coroner, Bill Watson, says on the record that they moved the body, which they weren’t supposed to do. The Johnson family hasn’t had a successful court case, but if you want an easy court case, there’s malpractice right there.
CREDLE You do not move the body until the medical examiners are on the scene. If it’s apparent that the person has expired, we’re not going to move anything. Everything is going to stay the way it is. And that’s how we’re going to start our investigation. When you make mistakes on a crime scene, everything else behind it is poisonous. Nothing else matters because everything is going to be basically no good. And that’s what happened in this particular investigation.
What do you think happened to KJ?
CREDLE Looking at the photographs, looking at him inside that mat, looking at the position of how the shoes were, I believe a fight went on. I believe no one meant to kill KJ. I believe that when things went south, a cover-up was done to hide what happened. A lot of times, whenever you have incidents in schools, there are fights, no one means to kill anyone … Accidents can turn bad, but when you cover accidents up, was it really an accident?
POLLOCK I think Mitch said it all … All we know is they found him in the gym the next morning, and he disappeared at 1 p.m. the day before. Our investigation turned into this obstruction story. Mitch had enough evidence to bring to a judge to get a morning raid. I think the cover-up is always worse than the crime. That’s why this story is so much deeper than what happened in January 2013, because it’s still going on. I think part of the power of the film is that it just shows you what’s going on and you’re left with the same feeling that the Johnson family has today, which is this weird feeling of, “What the hell?”
CREDLE [We had] several search warrants, close to 20. We did all of that work to get all those search warrants, and all of a sudden, myself and my partner get taken off the case. Who made that decision? I don’t understand. I’ve never seen anything like that before in my career that you’re working hard on a case, you’re making progress and all of a sudden, you’re taken off.
POLLOCK Why did that happen right after he hit a home run with the raid? He proved to a judge that this was a valid situation. It just begs the question how many other things the FBI is handling like this.
CREDLE And as of today, no one has still explained to me why we were taken off that investigation … Four months later, I put my papers in to retire. That entire case just made me lose faith in law enforcement … I closed almost every case, but it was just disappointing to know that just as law enforcement in general, we let a family down. And for me that was the last straw.
POLLOCK One of the most powerful moments is the end of the scene after Mitch sees the new FBI report. And you just feel this man who worked so hard on this, and they never let him do his job. To me, it was very important to show him on camera so that everyone could see how he didn’t see everything. How on earth did he not see this report when he went down there? How on earth was he not given access to some reports? It was such a waste of time if you’re not going to actually show him all the evidence. And now, here he is in 2021, seeing evidence that some filmmaker found.
CREDLE It made me start to believe that we were just sent down there because we were Black, to please the family and the Black community down there. When I saw that [report], I was like, “I never saw this before.” And having that photograph during the time when we’re talking to people would have been useful … I don’t know why it wasn’t given to me. It really hurts that we weren’t given the opportunity to finish that investigation.
Jason, you decided to include very graphic images of KJ’s death. Where did you draw the line?
POLLOCK I felt like it was important for the nation to experience what the family actually went through. If you’re not going to show those, then you’re whitewashing the situation. And there was a line because there are some of his teeth and especially the worst ones are of his eyeballs, and just horrible things that as a mother or a father will be burned into your brain forever. If it’s burned into their brains, it should be burned into everybody’s brain. Why do they have to experience this trauma alone? A lot of people probably know what happened, but nobody’s really helping the family fight for them. They all have seen these images a million times. To me, it’s more [about] how can a town live like this, and everyone’s continually trying to push it under the rug and move on? As I say this to you, Netflix did not buy this film and passed on it, and I know why now, because they have this fake news puff piece called Titletown High, showing Valdosta as the wonderful place with this all-American football team that doesn’t tackle any of the issues of Valdosta … This is a city that has seen all of this stuff and has just moved on and tries to pretend he fell into the mat.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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