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Questions Remain in Gym Mat Death of Georgia Teen; California Nursing Home Abandons Residents

Aired October 31, 2013 - 11:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN HOST: A high school athlete found dead inside a rolled-up gym mat. We just got a hold of new surveillance video and it could offer some brand new clues in the Kendrick Johnson case.

Also this hour, an assisted living facility shut down by the state. The owners banned from the property. Most of the caregivers fled -- left behind, helpless men and women to fend for themselves. How on earth could this happen?

Hello, everyone. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. It is Thursday, October 31st. Welcome to LEGAL VIEW. It's good to have you with us.

We're following two developments in a death investigation unlike any that you've seen before. Kendrick Johnson walked into his high school gym in Valdosta, Georgia, back in January. The next thing anyone knew, this strong and healthy 17-year-old, a three-sport athlete, was dead.

He was wedged, somehow, into a rolled-up gym mat, and the sheriff called it an accident. Kendrick's parents say that is crazy, and yesterday, they, along with CNN, persuaded a judge to release surveillance video and photographs and police files related to their son's alleged suffocation.

That is one big development.

The second comes two hours from now. That's when the top prosecutor in the region is going to hold a news conference where he may announce -- and I repeat, he may announce -- that the feds will launch their own investigation into what happened in that gym.

My colleague Victor Blackwell has uncovered one incredible detail after another in this case, and he's going to join me live in a moment.

But first I want to get you up to speed on his latest reporting.


VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Months of protests, sit-ins, and marches have shaken the small Georgia city of Valdosta. Demonstrators say they want answers in the death of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson, and soon a U.S. attorney will announce whether or not he wants answers, too.

In January Kendrick was found dead at school. Investigators with the office says he squeezed his 19-inch shoulders into the 14-and-one- half-inch center of this rolled gym mat.

They say he got stuck upside down while reaching for this shoe. After an autopsy a medical examiner with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation agreed, the official cause of Kendrick's death, accidental positional asphyxia. Kendrick was suffocated by his own body weight.

LIEUTENANT STRYDE JONES, LOWNDES COUNTY, GEORGIA, SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT: We examined all the alternatives that were presented to us, and the only one that fit the physical evidence and the forensic evidence and the testimonial evidence that we received was this was an accident.

KENNETH JOHNSON, KENDRICK JOHNSON'S FATHER: An accident, we just didn't believe.

BLACKWELL: Kendrick's parents, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, believe the story about the shoe is a cover-up.

JOHNSON: When I went and viewed his body that Sunday, you can see something happened. You can tell he was big.

BLACKWELL: The Johnsons want the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a federal investigation.

JOHNSON: If they don't come in, they're only sending a message to the world. You can kill as long as you can get away with it.

BLACKWELL: In June, the Johnsons exhumed Kendrick's body, and hired Dr. Bill Anderson to conduct an independent autopsy.

Anderson says he found evidence of bleeding under the skin near Johnson's right jaw.

DR. BILL ANDERSON, PATHOLOGIST: We were able to diagnose the fact that there was, indeed, blunt force trauma to that area.

BLACKWELL: So he took blows to the neck.

ANDERSON: He took at least one blow to the neck.

BLACKWELL: Just to be clear, you've used the word several times, but in your view, this is a homicide.


BLACKWELL: Also, Dr. Anderson says Kendrick's organs were missing. Instead he was stuffed with newspaper. The Georgia secretary of state's office has launched an investigation into that.

Questions about the sheriff's office investigation have made the Johnsons more suspicious, including why these shoes found yards from Kendrick's body were not collected as evidence, and how did someone's blood end up on this wall in the gym?

CNN laid out these facts for former FBI Special Agent Harold Copus.

HAROLD COPUS, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: I don't believe this was an accident. I think this young man met with foul play.

BLACKWELL: In September, a DOJ spokesperson said we do not see sufficient indication of a civil rights violation to authorize a civil rights investigation.

However, behind this door, U.S. Attorney Michael Moore has continued to review the case and will soon announce his decision whether or not there will be a federal criminal investigation.

In a statement to CNN in early October, Moore said, "This is about getting to the facts and the truth, and we want the Johnson family and the community of Valdosta to have confidence in the process."

After nine months, the Johnsons say they will not stop until they get an answer, no matter what the U.S. attorney decides.

How long are you willing to fight?

JOHNSON: Till I die. If it take me till I die, I will fight till I die.


BANFIELD: Victor Blackwell joins me live now.

And, Victor, I just want to get back to that newly released materiel that you and that family have really fought long and hard to see.

What does it tell us, if anything, about any potential foul play?

BLACKWELL: Well, Ashleigh, we've been covered this story for six months, filed 20 open-records requests, and only after this lawsuit filed by the Johnsons joined by CNN as part of our open-records request, did we get the surveillance video.

I want to show you the first clip, if we can play the one with Kendrick in the hall. We blurred out the other students, but we see here that Kendrick is walking in the gym behind another student.

Now there's no time stamp on this. There's no date stamp, but it appears he's wearing the same clothing that he was wearing inside the mat.

Now let's look at this video inside the gym. This video matches those seven still we were given several months ago that show Kendrick running along the right bottom front of the screen.

Now you see in the foreground, there are three students playing basketball. This is time-stamped 1:09 p.m., which is just minutes before, according to the sheriff's office, Kendrick climbed into the mat.

So we know that, just minutes before, there were students who appear to be casually playing basketball.

Let's also talk about the file very quickly, Ashleigh. We now know every person who was interviewed, every lead they followed, and we know that the sheriff's office focused in on just a couple of students, pulling their attendance records, pulling their class schedules, not doing that for the other students.

And also they focused on other teenager who was not a student at Lowndes High School, so at least we know they were focusing on their investigation there.

So there's still a lot more, hundreds of pages and maybe 2,000 hours of surveillance, 48 hours around the death of Kendrick Johnson from 40 cameras in and around the gym.

Interestingly enough, one more thing, his attorneys, the attorneys do not expect that the moment Kendrick climbs in, with all these cameras and all the hours, the moment he goes in, that, they do not expect, will be on the surveillance.

BANFIELD: Which is, of course, what would answer so many of these questions.

But those kids playing basketball, do we even know if some of those records that were pulled pertain to the images that we just say, that there's some connection between the kids that were in the gym at least on this new video to Kendrick Johnson?

BLACKWELL: We know that the sheriff's office investigated students who were aware of where Kendrick was before he disappeared and those who found him, but specifically going after those three who were playing basketball, that, yet, we have not found.

But it's quite possible they talked to them. But, again, we've got 400 pages we're going through. We're still kind of sorting out what this new information offers.

BANFIELD: And then, also, just quickly if you could, Victor, and I know things are developing really moment by moment, but if the U.S. attorney this afternoon announces that there's not going to be a federal case, there's not going to be a further federal investigation, does this new evidence that you're looking at today and the pressure that's been put on those locals, does that mean the sheriff where you are may reconsider and reopen this case and look at it with a different lens?

BLACKWELL: I think it could be reopened, but not because of the pressure put on the sheriff, but the pressure placed on the coroner.

The Johnsons filed a lawsuit to get the -- to use the Latin term, mandamus nisi, but it's "we order unless." They want the court to order the coroner to open an inquest unless he can prove why they shouldn't, to get a panel of people there in the community to decide whether this was an homicide or an accident.

Right now his death certificate says accident. If this jury of six after listening to testimony, looking at evidence, determines that Kendrick Johnson's death was indeed a homicide, it changes the death certificate, which is then forwarded to the district attorney, and that will then possibly launch another investigation.

So more about the pressure on the coroner. He said this morning to our producer in Valdosta that he's going to make a decision about that inquest in the next day or so with the emphasis on "or so." So maybe over the weekend or maybe by Monday.

BANFIELD: And, you know, it's astounding that it took, you know, the family and you and your producer 20 open-records requests to try to get to some of this very detailed information.

But excellent work, Victor. Just terrific work. You keep us posted on what you find out as we await that 1:00 announcement.

I want to bring in two very, very smart attorneys when it comes to cases like this. Danny Cevallos and Mark O'Mara are defense attorneys and also CNN legal analysts.

Mark, if I could begin with you, what difference would it make if the feds actually agree to do a criminal investigation? How would it be different than what the sheriff and those deputies have done?

MARK O'MARA, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Hopefully, it's going to be much more complete, because the reality is that whatever happened to that investigation was not complete, and it certainly wasn't transparent, should never have taken six months and a lawsuit to get the information available, at least to the family.

The family had an absolute right to know what happened to their son. and I really think that Mr. Moore -- I'm hoping that he's going to reopen the investigation, because at this point, with all of the focus on it, we're only going to be satisfied, the nation, is if we have a full, complete and very transparent investigation. And Mr. Moore is in the best position to do that.

BANFIELD: And, Danny, it's not like this just happened. There have been months that have passed since the initial incident, the evidence, the collection, the processing, and now further questioning.

What can the feds possibly do sing since they're going be relying on everything?

DANNY CEVALLOS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It sounds already like they may have more evidence available to them, but remember, also, the feds have a higher burden to meet.

And it's interesting because we have Mark O'Mara with us, and that issue came up during the Zimmerman trial. The federal government can't simply say, hey, we think there's maybe a murder case.

If they want to bring a civil rights case, they must additionally believe not only that foul play occurred, but further, that it was motivated by a racial animus, by somebody who wanted to deprive this person of their civil rights based on their race.

So that is a steeper hill to climb. So it will be interesting to see what the Department of Justice wants to do with this. They have a higher burden than, say, the local law enforcement does in simply bringing a murder case or even a homicide case.

BANFIELD: So, Mark, jump in there if you would, because lot of times these terms are thrown out, and for the average person out there, it's a little difficult to parse what it means, a civil rights case, a federal criminal case.

What does this mean for the feds looking into this? What are their avenues?

O'MARA: If the feds say, yes, they're going to look into it, that's because they're looking and saying whatever happened to Kendrick happened in a way that violated his federal civil rights.

What's interesting to me is, if they in fact take a look at the case and say, we're going to do an investigation, they're sort of presuming that at least the way the investigation was handled may well have violated Kendrick's civil rights.

So we have it may have happened in how he was killed or how it happened that he passed, or it may have been in the way the investigation was or wasn't looked into properly.

I agree with Danny, what's he's talking about. I'm just hoping that with the focus that we have on the case that we take the opportunity to let the feds come in, take a look at it, and tell everyone, once and for all, what truly happened that day.

BANFIELD: And I hope along with everyone that at least we can get to that level of mystery-solving.

Mark O'Mara, great to have you here, particularly on this kind of a day.

And, Danny, stick around, if you would please. I've got a couple of other things I'd like you to weigh in on.

I want to tell you about this other story we're working on, more than a dozen elderly men and women abandoned, just abandoned, by the very people who were supposed to be taking care of them.

It happened at an assisted-living facility in California. Find out how they ultimately were rescued, and why this happened in the first place.


BANFIELD: Welcome back. It's a necessary and sometimes dreaded task that more and more people are facing, placing an aging parent in an assisted living facility, not an easy decision. But once it's done, at the very least you expect that your loved one is going to receive the best of care, right? Not the case, at least in one assisted living facility in California. Not only were the residents allegedly not being cared for, they were outright abandoned. Stephanie Elam now with details of this astounding story. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STAPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was nothing less than chaos. Medics racing to rescue more than a dozen elderly residents after they were abandoned by the majority of the caregivers at Valley Springs Manor home.

J.D. NELSON, ALAMEDE CO. SHERIFF'S DEPT." How do you do that? We're talking about human beings. How do you just abandon them? It's a bad situation.

ELAM: It's exactly what the state of California said was happening for years, according to this complaint from the Department of Social Services which was in the process of shutting the place down.

Last Thursday the state suspended Valley Spring's license citing a long list of violations including insufficient employee training, failure to provide necessary medication to patients, not properly treating or reporting patient injuries, and poor maintenance and cleanliness.

Once the government stepped in, the owners were not allowed near the facility. End of story, right? Wrong. Some patients were still there.

By the close of business on Friday, anyone with any authority was gone, nowhere to be found. The residents were left in the hands of two caregivers and a cook who says they didn't have the proper training to do all that they were doing for the residents, but they felt compelled to stay.

This man, Maurice Roland (ph) a cook, says he and the others took other and trained took over, trying to do anything they could to look after the residents who needed round the clock care.

Did you feel overwhelmed with all you had to do for these residents?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was already overwhelmed by day two.

ELAM: Overwhelmed because they needed to help with everything from using the bathroom, to preparing their meals, and even taking medication, which no one was authorized to provide.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I definitely wasn't the one that was supposed to be giving them their meds.

ELAM: Why did you stay?

MAURICE ROLAND, COOK: In my eyes I had to stay. I couldn't leave the residents. If so, no telling what would have happened.

ELAM: Roland says so many needed urgent care that he kept calling 911 for different patients.

NELSON: We kept finding people there with nobody there to care for. Paramedics and ambulance company got them all transported to the hospitals. ELAM: What's more, the families of the people abandoned at the home didn't even know it had been shut down. Jean Pong (ph) paid the facility $3,000 a month to care for her sister, but she arrived to find she wasn't cares for at all.

JEAN PONG, SISTER: They should be held accountable. You can't just vacate and leave your residents without proper care. This is what we pay for.

ELAM: There were no answers at the facility when we came looking for the owner, Hilda Manuel. We also looked for her at her home. Nobody answered. So why did the Department of Social Services which wanted to close the facility just leave without making sure the patients were taken care of?

MICHAEL WESTON, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Staff at the facility said they could provide care of the residents through the weekend. That should not have occurred.

ELAM: They say there's no doubt they dropped the ball.

The owners failed these residents. I think there's no one who's going to doubt that part. Do you believe that the state also failed these residents?

WESTON: Again, like I said, we had procedures that should have been followed and they weren't and we're going to figure out why that happened, and we're going to ensure it doesn't happen again.

ELAM: I spoke to lawyer for the owner of this property and he says that authorities jumped the gun by removing all of the residents out of the property. He said they were working to fix some of the violations that had come up with the government. He also said the owner was not abandoning these people here but was working to find new homes for them in an orderly fashion.

Stephanie Elam, CNN, Castro Valley California.


BANFIELD: All right, Stephanie Elam, thank you for that.

Imagine being in labor for six hours without any doctors or midwives anywhere around and it just so happens your home is surrounded by that. Raging floodwaters. Coming up, how did the rescue teams get to that woman behind the wall of water in Texas?

Also, these two people are accused of some very disturbing child abuse. They allegedly put a shock collar used for dogs on their child. Find out why and what happened to them straight ahead.


BANFIELD: That is not a sound you want to hear. Hail falling in Wichita, Kansas. It is dangerous weather and certainly on a day like today when you're getting your kids ready to trick or treat, you do not want to send your kids out in that.

Here's the problem. It is a reality for a lot of people right now. Severe storms are happening this Halloween all along the nation's midsection. Rain, wind gusts, and, sorry to report, possibly tornadoes are on tap from the Gulf coast to the Ohio valley. And, again, did I mention? It's Halloween, the night to trick or treat?

Heavy rain in Texas caused flash flooding overnight and as you look at that water raging, imagine the crews on one side trying to decide how to get across to reach the woman on the other side who was in labor for six hours. They did it. They launched a boat, and they had a medical helicopter on standby.

She is finally, we're happy to report, at a local hospital. But we don't know this yet. Did she give birth? We're going to watch that for you and let you know how it goes. Could be a Halloween baby.

Checking other top stories, it seemed incredibly fast but Syria has destroyed all of is declared equipment for producing chemical weapons. This is an announcement today and it came from the global watchdog, The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and it comes a day ahead of the deadlines. The group also says all chemical weapons at 21 of 23 inspected sites are all officially under seal.

In Moscow, the American some call a traitor, some call a hero is employed. He found a job. Edward Snowden is starting work tomorrow for one of Russia's largest websites. You will recall that Snowden was granted asylum in Russia in August. He faces espionage charges here in the United States for leaking NSA documents to the media. Note to Russia, protect your website. He has a habit of looking inside your work.

There is hope for airline passengers who want to stay plugged in. Less than an hour ago, the FAA did something we all hoped for, waited for, eased the restrictions on your electronic devices. The airlines are going to conduct some tests to prove that the devices do not interfere with the navigation equipment, but effectively what it means is you should be able to use your smartphone, your tablet, your iPad, and your laptop in flight gate to gate by the end of the year. I repeat, not your cellular part of your phone.

Another dead end for the parents of a missing autistic teenager in New York City. Police say a boy photographed riding the subway -- that's the picture on the right -- is not Avonte. The teen who took the picture told WCBS that when he was asked the boy if he was the missing boy, he didn't respond. That was one of the details about that missing child. He does not talk to strangers.

In another story, a Connecticut couple is accused of punishing a child with an electric shock collar that is meant for dogs. Police in Danbury, Connecticut, say a school official tipped them off to the alleged abuse. And now Eduardo Montenez (ph) and his wife Paula are behind bars on assault and cruelty charges.

Ted Cruz is joking about things that are coming back to, well, dare I say, on Halloween, haunt him. His latest joke was on Obamacare, and not everyone is laughing about it. In fact, a lot of people say it's downright not funny. We're going to tell you what it is and tell you how he's responding in a moment.


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