Kendrick Johnson: Unsolved Crime or Tragic Accident?

Kendrick Johnson, photo from Medium.com

Kendrick Johnson was a sports-loving, ball-playing high school student in Valdosta, Georgia until January 11, 2013, when he was found dead in his school’s gymnasium.

Thing is, he wasn’t just found dead. He was found dead in a rolled up wresting mat. The mat was vertical. Police—and eventually the state’s attorney—said he went headfirst into the mat to get a sneaker at the bottom, and that he died from positional asphyxia when he couldn’t get out.

Now, positional asphyxia is a legitimate cause of death. Essential, you asphyxiate (either by suffocation or lack of oxygen) due to the position of your body—a position in which you can’t get yourself out. Given the slender opening in the gym mat, this is certainly plausible, even though Kendrick was exceptionally physically fit. But…

There are some strange pieces to this case. First, no one heard him? The police took videotape from the school and could see him entering the gym, but they haven’t released video that shows anything else. Not a big deal, perhaps, except…

Another student had an issue with Kendrick and had threatened him several times over a girlfriend. Allegedly they were in an altercation on a school bus prior to Kendrick’s death. Listen, I’m a high school teacher. These issues don’t mean that someone will kill someone else, however…

That student’s father is a retired FBI agent. I would be suspicious too, if I were Kendrick’s parents, that there may be some kind of cover up occurring because, let’s face it, who has ever heard of someone dying in a rolled up gym mat? And potentially missing videotape? Furthermore, a second autopsy showed non-accidental blunt force trauma to the back of the neck. And, allegedly the FBI agent’s son told at least two people that he hit Kendrick on the back of the neck with a 45 pound weight.

The state’s attorney has said that anyone who objectively looks at the case details can only come to one conclusion: this was an accidental death. But you have to wonder…

For a brilliantly done docuseries on Kendrick Johnson, watch Ashes to Ash’s vlogcast! They do an excellent job digging in to places and topics that authorities seem to avoid, not just in this case but in the others they’ve explored as well, like the case of Robert Bee that I wrote about here. For the sake of his family, I hope that the case of Kendrick Johnson can be closed in a way that provides closure.

Ashes to Ashes

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Here’s the latest in my short stories collection that re-imagines the childhood of Dr. H.H. Holmes–Chicago’s (allegedly) first serial killer. If you enjoy it, you may like the others! Click here to read them.

Henry Webster sat at the top of the steps, just outside his attic bedroom. He was supposed to be getting ready for bed, but he learned much from his nightly eavesdropping. The New York Tribune, filched from the kitchen table after breakfast, lay neatly folded next to him. The headline for September 30, 1874, screamed from the page: “Little Charley Ross still missing!”

“I agree, it is quite disturbing and unsettling for a small child to go missing.” The voice of Henry’s father floated up the stairs. Henry heard the familiar clink of a tea cup being set down.

“It is more than unsettling, Levi. It’s more than disturbing. Between this poor four year old–” That was his mother, before his father interrupted her.

“Charley Ross went missing from Philadelphia, Theodora. That’s quite different from our little Gilmanton.”

A tea cup–Henry presumed it was his mother’s, given the force with which it was put down–clattered against a saucer. “Our little Gilmanton doesn’t know who bludgeoned Nancy Robertson, and I don’t think Ellen should go to work any longer.”

“Mother,” Henry’s sister, Ellen, began. “I understand your concern, but that was months ago, and Nancy was only twelve. Nothing has happened since then. Besides, her body was found past the woods near the creek. I walk the main road from our home to Dr. White’s office. No one is going to crack me over the head–”

“Ellen, do not speak so flippantly of that poor girl’s demise,” her mother interjected with a tone familiar to all of the Webster children.

“No one is going to murder me–”

“Ellen,” her father said. “I think that’s enough talk of murder. Your mother and I will discuss this further.”

A chair scraped against the wood floor. Henry could picture Ellen standing up and placing a hand on their father’s shoulder. She always did when she wanted her way.

“Father, Mother, please just remember that working for Dr. White is the only way I’ll be able to go to Oberlin. I’m saving all of my money–all of it–to pay for my schooling.”

More tea cup clinking. A squeaking floorboard indicated Ellen was in front of her bedroom door. The door shut.

His parents resumed their conversation.

“She’s right, Theodora,” Henry’s father said. “We’ve had several bad years in a row on the farm now. Not that I thought my daughter would want to go to college and my youngest son would want to be a doctor. Thank the Lord Arthur wanted to follow in my footsteps.”

“Levi, a young girl was just…just murdered in our town. I don’t want Ellen anywhere alone. It’s not safe.”

“Thea.” 

Henry recognized the change of his father’s voice. The tone, coupled with his father using her name’s diminutive, meant Levi Mudgett was about to use his skills of persuasion. 

“Dr. White said that he would be willing to close up shop and take her with him if he were called out. That way she would never be alone.” Henry imagined his father taking a well-timed sip of tea. Clink. Henry smiled. He was right. “Our daughter is bright. And times are changing. If you’d had the opportunity to further your schooling…”

There it is, Henry thought, smirking. The last nail in the conversational coffin. His father was nothing if not persuasive, and appealing to his mother’s wistfulness about school, well, there was a reason Ellen and Henry usually got their way–at least outside of the house. Their father was a master of manipulation, and he taught them well.

Some people didn’t like the Websters because of that family trait. They thought them untrustworthy. Henry saw it differently: he felt most people in Gilmanton were easily led.

His sister was just as intelligent, but she was honest to a fault. She didn’t believe in convincing people cunningly; she just wanted to put it all out there and let people make their own decisions. Of course, if it meant getting a new hair ribbon or going to Philadelphia with her friend, Elizabeth Dean, when her family went there for a whole week, Ellen was not above using manipulation.

Henry thought that letting people make their own decisions was stupid. That was fine at the Webster dinner table. They were all smart, and for as long as Henry could remember, his parents engaged their children in philosophical debates daily. But not everyone was smart. School showed him that. And those people needed to be led to the right conclusions, not left to their own free will. 

Henry stood slowly and entered his room, carefully shutting the door behind him. The missing boy and dead girl didn’t cross his mind. Instead, his thoughts turned to college. He, too, would have to find a way to pay for it. He knew that once Ellen left for Oberlin, he’d be able to take her place at Dr. White’s office, but that was still a year away. He smiled at the thought. He was already at the physician’s office on a near-daily basis, gleaning whatever bits of information he could from the doctor. To get paid for something he enjoyed so much seemed too good to be true. But it was true. And Dr. White said he’d write him a reference for any medical school he wanted to go to. The challenge would be affording it.

Henry’s parents were comfortable, but not well off. Raising four children was not a cheap endeavor, and though Levi Webster inherited his farm and house from his own father, Henry noticed the pursestrings had closed tighter the past few years. Many nights he overheard his parents discussing the failed crops, the sale of more land, and the question of going to the bank. Inheriting the farmstead meant they lived in a large home, but not the largest home in Gilmanton. They had nice clothes, but not the nicest. They had one servant, but not four like the Dean family. They certainly didn’t take week-long trips to big cities.

Henry vowed his life would be different. He’d have the biggest home, the nicest clothes, and as many servants as he wanted. He’d remind Gilmanton who the Websters really were: one of the founding families of the town. Over time, they’d lost their power and clout to others, but Henry would get it back. Being a doctor was just the beginning of his plan to restore his family’s legacy. 

#

“That’s terrible about Marshall Oberhund.” Henry’s mother was serving oatmeal from the glowing wood-burning stove. 

“Miss Oberhund’s brother?” Henry asked. He took a seat next to his father, across from the window where the sun created its own stained glass in the mornings. Ellen was primping in her bedroom. Their brother Arthur was already in the field.

“Yes,” his father said. “He broke his back and won’t be able to help James Collins with his stove business.”

Henry’s eyes crinkled. 

His mother put a plate of warm bread on the table. “That’s going to put him in a bad spot.” 

“I imagine so. He does a fair turn of business here, but he also travels all the way up to Lake Winnipesaukee.”

“And with winter coming up,” Henry’s mother said, sitting down at the table with a sigh. 

Henry took a slice of the steaming bread. 

“Father, do you think I could help Mr. Collins? You’ve taught me all about our stove.” 

“I thought you were going to work for Dr. White, Henry?” his mother asked.

“I will take Ellen’s place, but that’s still a ways off.” Henry carefully let his spoon rest against his oatmeal bowl. “I think I need to start now to save for school.”

The unfamiliar spread of a smile crossed his father’s face. 

“I can’t say I’ve ever seen someone so young with such big plans for himself, Henry.” He sat back in his chair, looking over his youngest son. “On one condition. You’ll come back here to be the town’s doctor–and use that brain of yours to help your brother run this farm.”

Henry proudly returned the smile. “Yes, sir!”

“I’ll speak with Mr. Collins today, after I walk your sister to town.” 

#

Within three months, James Collins allowed Henry to answer calls on his own. He had an uncanny ability to remember facts and figures, so his knowledge of proper ash disposal and the various ignition temperatures of wood paralleled that of his employer. It was a dirty job, different from the type of dirty Henry got when dissecting or helping Dr. White put more samples in jars. But he was making nice deposits into his savings account each week, even now that school had started.

One day, Henry had a call to go to the Lintons’ house. The Lintons were becoming a near-weekly occurrence. Mrs. Linton didn’t want to have to empty ash and still, in spite of Henry’s attempts to educate her, had no concept of what the flue and dampers were for. As a result, there was often smoke billowing into her kitchen. 

Henry knocked on the door. 

“Oh, Henry. I’m so glad to see you. I just don’t know what the problem could be this time.” Mrs. Linton rubbed her hands on her blackened apron. Henry dutifully lugged in the ash bin and his brushes. A baby squalled from the upstairs. Mrs. Linton’s face pained.

“Little Malachi is awake. I’ll leave you to this, Henry, if you don’t mind I tend to the baby?”

“Of course, Mrs. Linton.” He smiled.

The kitchen was indeed smoky, and soot had settled on every still surface. Henry opened up the stove’s door. His eyes widened in disbelief. Shoving more fuel in is not going to make a fire, Mrs. Linton. He shook his head and put on the thick gloves Mr. Collins had given him. Placing the ash bin below the door, he pulled out pieces of wood. Then he turned his attention to the massive amount of ash. 

After a thorough cleaning, Henry added some small pieces of wood–chips, really–for tinder, and then added small logs on top of those. He lit it, waiting for it to catch. Staring into the dancing flames, Henry’s eyes snapped open. He looked down into the ash bin, recalling a conversation he’d had recently with Dr. White.

Fire destroys everything. It all turns to ash. Nothing left behind. An otherworldly smile crept onto Henry’s face. 

“Mrs. Linton,” he called out. “I’m all finished here.”

“Thank you, Henry. I don’t know where I’d be without you.” She tried to smile, but her eyes were rimmed with darkness, and not just from the soot that settled in the crevices of her face. “Here you are.”

Henry wrote her a receipt for the two dollars, thanked her, and left.

#

A gust of cold air ran its icy fingers through Henry’s hair. He crossed the yard of dormant grass and followed the creek to his father’s barn. As he poked past a mound of hay, his heart skipped a beat. He saw exactly what he’d hoped for: a dead mouse lying in the trap. 

Time to test his theory. 

It was unusual for Henry to have the house to himself, but today his parents were in town for a church meeting, and Ellen was working at Dr. White’s. He brought his barn-find into the kitchen and stoked the stove’s fire. Waiting until the flames licked the top of the stove’s firebox, Henry stared at the dead mouse. 

The fire burning at a rate sufficient to Henry, he quickly yet gently put the mouse on the grate and closed the small door. Fifteen minutes passed before he opened it again. The mouse was gone. He scooped the ash to be sure, sifting it side to side. Part of a minute skull, charred and misshapen, remained.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

#

A week later, Henry sat in his usual chair in Dr. White’s private office, inspecting the articulated skeleton. Ellen was compounding the doctor’s “Soothing Syrup for Babies and Toddlers” at the apothecary counter.

The doctor’s voice shook Henry from his thoughts. “Hello, Henry. Interesting news from Philadelphia today.” 

Dr. White’s outstretched hand held the Philadelphia Inquirer. A small headline read, “Sir Henry Thompson and British Cremation Society Cremate First Body.” Henry’s eyes widened. He snatched the newspaper. 

“Sir Henry Thompson, backed by the British Cremation Society and Queen Victoria herself, cremated the first body in England on December 6. Citing cremation as a more hygienic and efficient option for dealing with remains than burial, the Cremation Society still has a large number of adversaries against this questionable treatment of the human body.”

Henry sat back. Silence permeated the small room. 

“Dr. White,” Henry began. “What is the ignition temperature of the human body?” 

Such a conversation was forbidden at home. The Methodists, which included Henry’s parents, still saw cremation as desecration of the human body, and thought it to be against God’s will. But Henry knew that he could talk about these things with Dr. White. The two of them understood that decaying, diseased bodies at funerals could cause illness for the mourners. British research also questioned what happened to the water supply when human remains were buried near streams, rivers, and lakes. 

“Roughly 700 degrees for ignition. Sir Thompson’s crematory registered over 1,000 degrees on his thermometer during the cremation.” 

Henry cocked his head, his brain calculating. “Depending on the type, it takes between 300 and 700 degrees for wood to burn completely.” 

“The crematory is specially built for the increased heat–and to maintain it within.”

Henry looked back at the newspaper and read.

“All that remains is ash and bits of bone.”

“Isn’t science incredible, Henry?” The doctor sat down at his desk. “I told you we were on the cusp of a new world.”

#

Henry didn’t eavesdrop from the top of the stairs that night. Instead, he shut himself in his room, continuing to marvel over Sir Thomas’ crematory. Pulling the small box from beneath his bed, he opened it and touched the marble and button. He stroked the white leather glove, the strip of leather from a toy, and the butter-yellow thread. Then, he caught sight of the mouse’s skull. Henry’s eyes narrowed. His mouth formed a sneer. Another piece of his plan fell in place.

An H. H. Holmes Haunting?

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Though we don’t have H. H. Holmes’ “murder castle” to check out anymore (it sat where today’s Englewood post office sits), there are other locations that Holmes is connected to. Some are simply connections by way of the 1893 World’s Fair, like Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, but some are more, well, gruesome. One of those locations is a house in Irvington, Indiana, featured on this season’s first episode of Ghost Hunters. For you paranormal lovers, you can watch that here!

On October 5, 1894, Holmes rented the cute little cottage from J.C. Wands. He was seen on the premises with Howard Pitezel, the son of his right-hand man, Benjamin–whom he had already killed. Eventually, once Holmes’ number was up, Detective Frank Geyer investigated the Irvington house and discovered bones belonging to Howard Pitezel. Howard was just a child, and Howard seems to be one of the spirits haunting the house.

Read a first-hand (and beautifully-written) account of what living in the house is like by former resident Pepper Partin. Here’s an excerpt: “When America’s first serial killer, Dr. H.H. Holmes, turned the key to the rental house nestled on the outskirts of a beautiful little town six miles east of Indianapolis, did the threshold buckle with the weight of what would happen here? The trees, it seems, aren’t talking. But the lingering spirits share evocative vignettes.”

What do you think? Does little Howard Pitezel pine for a transition to the other side? Or is he destined to haunt his last home?

Sign up for my email list today! I have the H. H. Holmes Handbook coming out soon, and my subscribers will not only get a first look but get it for free!

 

The Case of Robert Bee

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As part of a mini-series of unsolved crime blogs, I wrote about Robert Bee, a 13 year old who went missing from very near where I live and work. Too near. Later on, his remains were discovered scattered mere miles from his home. Most of us here feel his case has not received the attention it–or he–deserved.

Enter Ashes To Ash TV. According to their Facebook page, they are “an episodic true crime series” in the form of a documentary and podcast. They chose the Robert Bee case as their first. Episode 5 was just released.

If you are a true crime/unsolved mystery kind of person, this is a must watch. Check them out on their Facebook page or on Youtube. Let me know what you think after you watch!

And if you are indeed a true crime/unsolved mystery kind of person, sign up for my email list. There will be special freebies along the way, like snippets of The Devil Inside Me, backstory on characters, and explorations of the serial killing mind.

Unsolved Crime: Robert Bee

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When kids run away from home, they often return shortly after: they realize that it’s not as fun on their own. However, when a child has a great deal of freedom, few rules, and a questionable home life, returning may not be a huge deal.

Such was the case with 13 year old Robert Bee.

One warm November day in 2016, Bee ran away from home–allegedly to avoid a truancy officer. Running away was not unusual for him (nor was avoiding the truancy officer), but this time, Bee did not return home.

In fact, he didn’t return home a week later or a month later. Instead, his remains were found eight months later, already decomposed after a long winter, already disturbed by animals in the rural area his bones were found.

So what happened to Robert Bee? We still don’t know.

Bee, from the small town of Pekin in central Illinois, had some behavioral issues. His mom readily admitted that she may have been too lax with him, allowing him too much freedom for his age. Others in the community said that while he was high energy, he was a kind-hearted boy.

When he went missing, multiple stories cropped up. Did he spend the night at a friend’s house? If so, why didn’t he take his bike? Why didn’t he take his cell phone? Both were left at home, and it didn’t appear he took any clothing to run away for an extended amount of time, either.

Of course, the first place the police must look is within the home, and that’s where the case became muddied. Lisa Bee, Robert’s mother, was not exactly mother of the year. Her social media alone made that clear. She was also involved with a man who was violent–and against whom she took out an order of protection a month before Bee’s disappearance. Then, not even a month after her son went missing, she moved out of her home and to a town about an hour south.

While Bee’s extended family was prominent in the search for the boy, his mother was noticeably absent. Multiple state agencies searched for him as well as a missing-persons search group, but no one had any luck.

About eight months after Bee went missing, his remains were found two miles from his home. By remains, I mean just that. The elements had helped decomposition along as well as animals roaming the wooded area where he was found.

The remains elicited no further leads on the case, aside from this: the property on which his remains were found belonged to a woman who lives nearby. She is related to someone “who is involved in the investigation,” according to Pekin police detective Seth Ranney.

Over two years later, the case remains unsolved and no one has been charged with any crime.

H. H. Holmes Hits the Headlines

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Imagine my surprise when I saw a link pop up in my Facebook feed with this headline: River North hotel invites guests to spend a killer night in H.H. Holmes pop-up suite

Yep. You read that correctly.

If you’ve followed by blog for any length of time, you know that my novel is based on the murders of H.H. Holmes. He’s received some cult-level popularity via Erik Larsen’s book, The Devil in the White City, the recent History channel American Ripper docuseries, and even American Horror Story. And now, for a limited time, the Acme Hotel Company in River North is converting a hotel suite into a Holmes-lover’s dream. Or is that nightmare?

Decor included in your scare stay: old newspaper clippings, surgical tools, and Holmes’ mug staring at you. All. Night. Long.

Acme Hotel, this Holmes fanatic thinks you’ve landed on a spectacular idea.

Attached in the same Tribune article? A link to an interactive “walking tour” of the 1893 World’s Fair. Incredibly cool, and not just for a writer’s research either! 

Good Book Alert!

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Good book alert! I recently finished Fiona Cummins’ book Rattle (The Bone Collector #1). I have been relatively lost in the world of H.H. Holmes, reading everything I can that’s within a certain time-frame to his life. I go to sleep dreaming about The Gangs of New York and wake up thinking about Alex Grecian’s The Yard. During the day, my mind wonders how Caleb Carr’s brain works. (Side note: If you haven’t read or watched The Alienist, what are you waiting for??)

I needed a break. Not from crime and mystery and the horrors of humanity, mind you, but from the 19th century. Enter Rattle. Set in modern-day England, it traces the story of missing children from various viewpoints–including the kidnapper, who is much more than a kidnapper. I didn’t read it in one sitting because I’m a teacher and need to be with-it during the day, but I did get it read in two nights. If you’re fascinated by the psychology behind why we do what we do, clear your schedule and pick up Rattle.

Here are two reviews that give a few more details…one from The Suspense is Thrilling Me (I gave them some props in February), and one from The Book Review Cafe.

Rescue Dogs Rock

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When I started this blog, I assumed I would focus it entirely on writing and my own personal journey toward publication: all the bumps along the road, all the kind people I would meet, all the advice I can find. BUT–I would like to share a positive experience I had last week that has not a thing to do with writing.

I’ve been heavily involved in the animal rescue world for about eight years now. We currently have Baxter, a sixteen year old lab mix that I’ve had since he was found in a farmer’s field as a nine month old pup; Artie, aka Spartacus, a seven year old Doberman/German shepherd mix who is as good a mouser as any cat, but hates cats, and Scooby-Pedro, a twelve year old hospice foster Boxer/pittie mix.

Scooby-Pedro was supposed to be a short-term hospice foster when we took him in last June from the wonderful no-kill shelter I volunteer with. He was a mess. Emaciated. Missing fur. Upper respiratory everything. Heart murmur. Crack-a-lackin’ arthritic joints. We later found out he has kidney issues that required subcutaneous fluids twice a week for a month. He was a sweet boy, and this isn’t my first go-round at hospice fostering. I was prepared to give him the best for the month or two he might be around. 

What happened last week has my heart overflowing right now: Scooby fell very ill, but thanks to his sponsoring shelter, the local emergency vet, and our regular vet, he is enjoying life again. For however long or short that is, we will take it and be thankful for it. Here’s his story: “But Scooby Shouldn’t Be Alive.”

But Scooby shouldn’t be alive.

As of last spring, he lived in a home with a drug user. He was kicked and starved and often left to fend for himself. Why did he live? Good souls saw him and his emaciated body and called their local animal control.

But Scooby shouldn’t be alive.

A rural animal control (AC) has little by way of funds. A dog that old and that sick would be put down in other animal control facilities, but this AC wasn’t just any AC. This one is run by people who try their best to save the animals that come into their care. They don’t euthanize unless they absolutely have to, even though that means much, much more work for them. And they made sure Scooby was fed all he could eat and networked the heck out of him to try to give him a chance.

But Scooby shouldn’t be alive.

What rescue could afford the unknown costs of a sick dog with who-knows-what ailments? What rescue would want to spend money on a dog who wasn’t likely to live long anyway, just based upon his age–nevermind his atrocious body condition? A special no-kill shelter, that’s who. This shelter and this AC have a good working relationship, and their director made sure Scooby would get a chance.

But Scooby shouldn’t be alive.

He was malnourished, had serious respiratory issues, and failing kidneys. No one would have blamed the rescue if they said no to treatment upon discovery of these problems. But they didn’t. No one would have blamed the vet if he had said, “Are you sure you want to go this route?” But he didn’t. And Scooby lived. And thrived. And got fat and sassy and ate stuffed animals and a slipper sock and lived to tell the tale–for six months longer than we thought he would (and counting!).

But once again, Scooby shouldn’t be alive.

Last weekend, he got very sick and we rushed him to the emergency vet. If you’ve ever gone to one, you know they’re expensive. Scooby’s no-kill rescue is run solely on donations. Would they want to run tests and x-rays on an old dog that they’ve already invested so much money in? Would the emergency vet be willing to work with them? Yes and yes.

But Scooby shouldn’t be alive.

One of the vets even said we were lucky he was still with us. His pneumonia that he gets frequently (because of his respiratory issues) had worsened, as had his heart murmur. Scooby transferred Monday morning to his regular vet. More unknowns. More costs. Would they–? Yes and yes.

Because of all of those people caring, making hard decisions instead of what’s fastest, easiest, or cheapest, Scooby is alive.

And now he’s back in his foster home with us. We had forgotten his label of “hospice” foster because of his spunk and spirit; we had forgotten he was already on borrowed time. But he’s never been “just a dog.” He is a soul who has bettered everyone he’s come into contact with. His life matters. It mattered enough for people to call animal control instead of turning a blind eye, for AC to network him instead of euthanizing, for the rescue to want him to know what love and kindness are no matter how much or little time he has left. And in a world where it seems so much is disposable, I want to say thank you to those in the trenches who save animals just like Scooby. I think we save a tiny bit of our own souls when we do good for others, whether two-footed or four.