Well as you know, everyone thinks they know what happened to Kenneka Jenkins.
More than 4 million people across the world have watched a Facebook video purportedly shot in a Rosemont hotel room where Jenkins was partying Friday night. Though the audio is often garbled and the visuals unclear, many are convinced the video shows something nefarious.
In response, a Missouri activist has posted videos condemning what he considers to be a slipshod response from authorities. A Virginia college student has launched a petition urging criminal charges against Jenkins’ friends. And an audio engineer from the Southwest has posted an analysis of a Facebook video that he says suggests Jenkins met with foul play.
The online buzz has mounted as authorities have kept quiet about the case, releasing few officially confirmed facts. Within that information vacuum, many are convinced that Jenkins, 19, was the victim of a crime at Rosemont’s Crowne Plaza Chicago O’Hare hotel, and that hotel staff and local police did not respond appropriately to her mother’s pleas for help.
Experts say the impassioned online response to Jenkins’ mysterious death highlights several trends in the age of social media: the rapid spread of alternate theories when facts are few; the immense power of video; and the irresistible lure of amateur detective work.
“Social media are the psychics of our era,” said John DeCarlo, a criminal justice professor at the University of New Haven in Connecticut and a former police chief. “We used to get people coming forward at a crime scene saying, ‘I’m a psychic; I can tell you what happened.’ This is basically the same thing in 2017.”
Authorities say Jenkins was found dead early Sunday in a walk-in freezer at the Crowne Plaza, nearly 24 hours after her family last heard from her. Rosemont spokesman Gary Mack said late Tuesday that police are not treating it as a homicide.
A spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office sent two emails to journalists Tuesday reiterating that the cause and manner of death have not been determined and that it will likely take several weeks before those things are known.
When asked why the reminders were sent, the spokeswoman replied: “There has been inaccurate information circulating.”
With authorities releasing few details about the case, most of the narrative has come from Jenkins’ mother, Tereasa Martin.
She says Jenkins’ friends called her at 4 a.m. Saturday saying Jenkins had gone missing after partying in a hotel room. When Martin arrived at the Crowne Plaza an hour later, the staff told her she needed a missing persons report before they could start looking.
When she obtained one that afternoon, the hotel staff searched public areas and the floor where Jenkins was last seen, finding nothing. A second search didn’t come until police spotted Jenkins on security video, Martin said.
Hours later, Jenkins’ body was finally found in a freezer. She was pronounced dead just before 1 a.m. Sunday.
With official information lacking, public attention has fixed on the 6-minute Facebook video allegedly shot inside the room. Jenkins is not clearly visible, though some believe they can see her in the reflection of another person’s sunglasses.
The audio, too, seems inconclusive, with several people talking over each other and loud music sometimes playing in the background. But many commenters have said they hear Jenkins’ friends planning to do her harm.
An audio engineer who lives in the Southwest, challenged by a friend to find intelligibility in the chatter, ran the audio through an equalizer and eliminated certain frequencies. Though the result is not crystal clear, he says it sounds like people in the room are discussing a sexual assault; a video in which he dissects the track has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
“I don’t know for sure what happened,” the man told the Tribune, asking that his name and home state not be used for fear of getting entangled in the case. “But just based off the audio that was given to me, somebody in that room knew (something bad) was going on, and nobody was doing anything.”
A Facebook spokeswoman said the company reviewed the video after it went viral and determined it wasn’t “celebrating crime,” thereby rendering it permissible under company policy. Facebook isn’t proactively blocking comments, even those that are threatening, because only users can report abusive comments, she said.
Mack said police are examining social media as part of their investigation. Steve Jones, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that’s a standard part of modern police work, though it does complicate the job.
“If they’re searching social media for clues, they now have a much larger haystack than they did before, and how do they manage that?” Jones said. “It’s one thing to round up the surveillance video that’s out there; it’s another thing to try to get video from the phones of everybody that was there.”
Jasmine Gibson, 18, a student at Old Dominion University in Virginia, has seen enough to be convinced. After watching the video and concluding that it showed Jenkins’ friends plotting against her, Gibson created an online petition calling on authorities to criminally charge the friends. As of Tuesday evening, it had attracted almost 18,000 supporters.
Like others, Gibson believes the initial police response was inadequate, a fate she said often befalls black crime victims. But her interest in the case was also fortified by Jenkins’ age and the thought of a young woman possibly betrayed by her friends.
“That’s where it hit a lot of people,” she said. “You can’t necessarily trust the people who are with you. This could have happened to anybody.”