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She died in a hotel's walk-in freezer. Her family will receive more than $6 million

Kenneka Jenkins was found dead in 2017 in a kitchen freezer at a Crowne Plaza hotel outside of Chicago. Her family has now reached a settlement of a lawsuit filed in 2018.
Google Maps/Screenshot by NPR
Kenneka Jenkins was found dead in 2017 in a kitchen freezer at a Crowne Plaza hotel outside of Chicago. Her family has now reached a settlement of a lawsuit filed in 2018.

The family of Kenneka Jenkins, who was found dead at age 19 in a Chicago-area hotel's walk-in freezer, has reached a settlement reportedly worth $6 million. Jenkins' death attracted wide attention, including from conspiracy theorists.

Jenkins' mother, Tereasa Martin, will receive a large share of the money, with two other relatives each receiving more than $1 million, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Word of a settlement had recently emerged, but the details didn't come out until the case was set to go to trial.

The resolution comes more than six years after Jenkins died at the Crowne Plaza Chicago-O'Hare hotel in Rosemont, Ill. She went to the hotel in September of 2017 to attend a late-night party on the ninth floor. But she never came home — and after nearly 24 hours of uncertainty, her body was found in a freezer in a commercial kitchen space. The cause of death was determined to be hypothermia.

The now-settled lawsuit was filed in late 2018 by Jenkins' mother against the hotel, its security provider and others, seeking $50 million. She accused staff of negligence and failing to do enough to find her daughter before she died.

Jenkins' family lost touch with her

Martin says she grew worried and then desperate after the family lost contact with her daughter in the early hours of Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. Martin was unable to get in touch with Jenkins after around 1 a.m., when she arrived at Room 926 for the party. By around 2:30 a.m., Jenkins' family said, they and her friends were telling hotel staff that Jenkins was missing.

"By this time, Jenkins had wandered out into the hotel and left her cell phone upstairs," Martin's attorneys said in a statement. "Hotel surveillance videos reveal that she had walked downstairs in an obviously disoriented state and was seen by multiple staff members as she was walking toward the freezer, though no one stopped her."

Martin said hotel and security staff didn't review video footage from in-house cameras quickly enough to help find her daughter, who wound up in an unused freezer in what her legal team described as an under-construction kitchen. She also said staff failed to intervene in the party on the ninth floor, which had sparked numerous complaints from hotel visitors.

"My life will never be the same," Martin said when she filed the lawsuit in 2018, adding that if the hotel had done things differently, her daughter might still be alive.

"It hurts," Martin said, shaking her head. "It's a pain that I can't even explain. I don't even understand."

A hotel staffer who walked into the freezer around 10:30 p.m. Saturday night somehow didn't see Jenkins inside, according to Martin's attorneys, citing video footage. The young woman's body wasn't found until some two hours later.

The Cook County medical examiner's office ruled Jenkins' death an accident, adding that intoxication from alcohol and topiramate, a drug used to treat epilepsy and migraine headaches, "were significant contributing factors in her death."

The autopsy report noted that the freezer door had a mechanism to open the door from the inside; it did not offer an explanation for why the young woman would not have been able to get out of the deadly cold. Martin's legal team has said they believe someone outside of the freezer secured the door — which, they say, should have been locked in the first place — without knowing Jenkins was inside.

The 19-year-old's tragic death drew wide interest

Rosemont police agreed with the accidental death finding. But the case has lingered in the public mind, and Change.org petitions calling for reopening the case have attracted hundreds of thousands of signatures.

Those discussing possible explanations for Jenkins' death included online journalist Zack Stoner, a Chicago-based YouTuber. Stoner, who often reported on the intersecting worlds of gangsters and rappers, was shot and killed in May of 2018.

Jenkins' case also set off wide interest from people who viewed her disappearance and death as signs of a wider problem: the disproportionate rate at which Black people, and young Black girls and women in particular, go missing in the U.S. each year.

In California, the state government recently adopted a special "Ebony Alert" system aimed at finding missing Black persons.

"When you only make up 13% of the population but almost 40% of those individuals who come up missing on a regular basis, but you rarely see any kind of media attention on that or any type of law enforcement resources committed to that, it required this measure," the system's sponsor, state Sen. Steven Bradford, told NPR.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.