Though authorities ruled Kenneka Jenkins' 2017 death a tragic accident, amateur sleuths have long suspected foul play in the case.
The night of September 8, 2017, was supposed to be fun. Young people descended on the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Rosemont, Illinois, where they danced, listened to music, and took funny videos of each other. But those same videos would soon be the subject of scrutiny — both for the police and amateur sleuths online — because of what happened next.
That night, a 19-year-old partygoer named Kenneka Jenkins disappeared.
The search for Jenkins was heartbreaking but brief. Just two days later, her body was found in a walk-in freezer at the hotel. Investigators soon determined that her death was an accident and that she’d died of hypothermia after consuming alcohol and epilepsy/migraine medication.
But not everyone believes that that’s what happened.
The Disappearance Of Kenneka Jenkins
Kenneka Jenkins had plenty to celebrate when she left home on Sept. 8, 2017. The 19-year-old had just gotten a new job at a nursing home, according to WGNTV, and headed out to meet friends at the Crowne Plaza Hotel.
Videos from the hotel show young people hanging out, drinking, and dancing. Jenkins made sporadic appearances. One video appeared to show her leaving the hotel room. Another appeared to show her reflection in someone’s sunglasses. Then, Kenneka Jenkins stopped showing up at all.
As WGNTV reports, her friends realized around four in the morning that they couldn’t find her. They alerted her mother, Teresa Martin, and explained that they’d left Jenkins in the hotel hallway to retrieve her phone and car keys from the room. When they returned to the hallway, Jenkins was gone.
Martin rushed to the hotel to search for her daughter. But she would find the staff at the Crowne Plaza Hotel less than cooperative.
The Heartbreaking End To A Mother’s Search
When Teresa Martin arrived at the Crown Plaza Hotel around five a.m., she immediately demanded that the staff help locate her daughter. The staff informed her that she could only view surveillance footage once she had filed a police report. But when Martin went to the police, she was told she needed to wait before filing a report in case Kenneka Jenkins turned up.
“We were begging for help, and no one was helping,” Martin told WGNTV.
According to The Chicago Tribune, the family waited a few hours and filed a missing persons report that morning. Police then reached out to the hotel and spent the afternoon searching public areas and the ninth floor, where Jenkins had last been seen. Around three or four p.m., they viewed hotel surveillance footage but did not see any sign of the missing girl.
At six p.m., Kenneka Jenkins’ frustrated family began to knock on hotel room doors. The hotel accused them of disturbing the peace and called 911, but the police who arrived on the scene agreed to take a second look at the hotel’s surveillance footage. A few hours later, they spotted footage of Jenkins from 3:20 a.m. that morning “staggering” drunk near the front desk.
Sadly, this hopeful clue led only to tragedy. Around one a.m. on Sunday morning, police discovered Kenneka Jenkins’ body in a walk-in freezer.
The 19-year-old was dead. But the story of her disappearance quickly began to take on a life of its own.
What Happened To Kenneka Jenkins?
Though police suspected early on that Kenneka Jenkins had died by accident after walking into the freezer, her family wasn’t so sure.
“The freezer door is heavy. So there’s no way,” Jenkins’ sister, Leonore Harris, told WGNTV after the discovery of Jenkins’ body. “If they’re saying she’s drunk, she don’t have no strength. If she had enough strength to open that freezer door, she would have had enough strength to walk straight.”
Martin agreed. She said that police had told her that Jenkins was so drunk that she couldn’t even hold herself up and had to lean on the wall for support. What’s more, the freezer was located in a vacant part of the hotel, an area under construction where most hotel guests wouldn’t normally go.
So if Kenneka Jenkins hadn’t wandered into the freezer by accident, then what happened?
“I believe someone in this hotel killed my child,” Martin told WGNTV.
As news of Kenneka Jenkins’ death began to spread online, amateur sleuths began to agree that something sinister had happened to the 19-year-old. As The New York Times reported, people online pored over video footage of Jenkins’ final party. They identified her in the background of a number of shots and even claimed to find her reflection in the sunglasses of another woman. Some insisted that — amidst the babble of party conversation — they could even pick out people talking about rape and murder.
Theories online ranged from organ harvesting to a $200 hit made by Jenkins’ friends. Others, though perhaps unconvinced of murder, argued that the police and the hotel staff had failed to prioritize the search for Kenneka Jenkins because she was Black.
“[N]ot trying to turn this into anything,” one wrote on Twitter, “but to be honest, had Kenneka Jenkins been white, it would have been breaking news.”
Kenneka Jenkins’ mother’s own statements echoed that.
“If they had taken me seriously and checked right away, they could have found my daughter much sooner and she might have been alive,” she told the Chicago Tribune.
As CBS News reports, Jenkins’ autopsy soon found that the teenager had died of hypothermia. She had alcohol and topiramate (an epilepsy/migraine medication for which Jenkins did not have a prescription) in her system which would have caused “dizziness, impaired memory, impaired concentration, poor coordination, confusion and impaired judgment.”
The police ruled Kenneka Jenkins’ death accidental and closed the case. That hasn’t stopped some from poring over what happened to her, however, and Jenkins was even featured in an MTV true crime series in 2020.
But Teresa Martin believes she knows who is responsible for her daughter’s death. It wasn’t her friends or some sinister serial killer but the hotel staff and the police.
“To me, I feel like they helped kill my child,” she said, “the police department and this hotel.”
After reading about the strange death of Kenneka Jenkins, learn about the death of Elisa Lam, who was discovered in a water tank above the notorious Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles after surveillance footage caught her acting erratically. Or, delve into the mysterious case of Phoebe Handsjuk, the 24-year-old found dead at the bottom of a trash chute.