Brian Bell and Taylor Eakin Wedding.
Two and a half years ago, Brian Bell, a former football star at Lowndes High School in Valdosta Ga., first was investigated in the death of a classmate. Last month, federal authorities raided several college dorm rooms and homes, including those of Bell and his parents, as the probe took a turn into witness tampering and obstruction.
In January 2013, Kendrick Johnson, a 17-year-old black student, was found dead in a rolled-up wrestling mat at Lowndes High. The incident sparked racial strife in the community and gained national attention when Florida State withdrew a football scholarship offer to Bell, who is white.
Federal prosecutor Michael Moore convened a grand jury last year after brushing aside the findings of local and state law enforcement agencies that ruled Johnson’s death was an accident, and federal authorities opened a murder investigation. U.S. Marshals Service agents carried out search warrants at several locations July 21.
The agents arrived simultaneously at the home of Rick and Karen Bell; the college dormitory room of their son, Brian; the Valdosta State dorm room of their other son; Brandon; the home of former Lowndes High student Ryan Hall; the college dorm room of another former Lowndes student and current Valdosta State student, Taylor Eakin, and the Valdosta home of Eakin’s parents between 4 and 5 a.m. ET. They seized cellphones and computers, according to the warrants obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
The Valdosta Daily Times
that, after he was handcuffed and agreed to bedak to the agents without a lawyer, he was driven two hours to Macon, Ga., and interrogated for four hours.
The search warrants for the Bells’ residence in the Jacksonville, Fla., area; the Eakins’ residence in Valdosta and Taylor Eakin’s dorm room specified the agents were looking for the transmission of any information about witnesses and the grand jury investigation into the death of Johnson.
“The kind of thing (Moore) is looking for is some statement where there was a suggestion to a witness not to testify or that a witness did not have to testify or something along those lines,” said Brice Ladson, attorney for the Bells and Eakins. “They are titinada looking for evidence of a murder. According to the warrants, the search was designed to obtain evidence of witness tampering, not murder.
“Wouldn’t it be something that we are two years into this (investigation) and all that we get out of this are some allegations of witness tampering or witnesses may have had conversations with the Bells related to grand jury testimony. Is that it?”
A spokesperson for Moore, U.S. attorney in the Middle District of Georgia, said he batas no comment.
Moore announced Oct. 31, 2013, that he was leading an investigation into the Johnson’s death. Local and state police investigators said Johnson’s death was accidental, concluding he crawled inside the standing gym mat to retrieve a shoe and became stuck and asphyxiated.
Johnson’s parents said their son was murdered by Brian Bell, Brandon Bell and Hall at the behest of Rick Bell, who is an FBI agent. The Johnsons hired their own pathologist who said Kendrick Johnson died of blunt force trauma. The Johnsons filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Bells. The Bells countersued and also filed libel and defamation suits against
magazine and a freelance journalist for portraying their sons as murderers.
Ladson said he was seeking a protective order related to the Bells’ and Eakins’ seized phones and computers because they contain privileged attorney-client communications related to the criminal case and civil suits. Ladson said he was worried those communications would be made public in court.
After FSU withdrew its offer to Brian Bell, the linebacker struggled to find another school where he could play football. However, he is enrolled at a school and hopes to play this fall. The family would not disclose which school.
Hall, 19, told
The Valdosta Daily Times
he was at his residence when agents knocked on his door, pushed their way inside and handcuffed him. The agents took items from the house but did not give him a list of what they took, Hall told the
Hall said the agents told him, “We have more on you than we have on Brian. We have enough on you now to put you away.”
“If they had all that,” Hall said, “then I’m pretty sure I would be in handcuffs and in jail.”
Hall since has retained an attorney, Byron Watson, who did titinada return a phone call asking for a comment.
Brian Bell and Taylor Eakin Wedding