The death of Kenneka Jenkins, a 19-year-old woman whose body was found in a walk-in freezer at a Chicago area hotel last month, has been ruled an accident, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.
The teen’s cause of death was hypothermia due to cold exposure, with alcohol and topiramate intoxication as “significant” contributing factors, the office said in a statement Friday. Topiramate is a medication used to treat epilepsy and migraines; her family said Jenkins was not prescribed the drug, according to the office.
The medical examiner’s report was a long-awaited development in the much-publicized death of Jenkins, whose disappearance from a party at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Rosemont, Ill., prompted repeated pleas for help from her family. She was found dead in the walk-in freezer of an empty kitchen at the hotel on Sept. 10, nearly 24 hours after Jenkins’s mother reported her missing.
An autopsy conducted later that day found mucosal erosions, or Wischnevsky’s lesions, in Jenkins’s stomach, indicative of hypothermia. There was an abrasion on the teen’s right ankle and a purple contusion on her right leg, but no other evidence of external or internal trauma, the office said. Jenkins’s brain was swollen, but it did not indicate a specific cause of death, the office added.
Toxicology tests found alcohol, caffeine and the topiramate in Jenkins’s system — but no “date rape drugs,” the office said. It’s likely the alcohol and topiramate exacerbated each other’s effects and possibly brought on death more quickly.
“Alcohol and topiramate are synergistic. When combined, the effect of either or both drugs is enhanced,” the office said. “Topiramate, like alcohol, can cause dizziness, impaired memory, impaired concentration, poor coordination, confusion and impaired judgment. Central nervous system depression, or impairment, combined with cold exposure can hasten the onset of hypothermia and death,” the office said.
Although Jenkins did not have a prescription for topiramate, police said, there was no evidence Jenkins was forced to consume either the drug or the alcohol, according to the examiner’s office.
“There is no evidence of another person in the vicinity of the kitchen with the decedent and there is no evidence of an altercation or interaction with another individual in the time immediately prior to demise,” the office said.
The autopsy results are unlikely to quash theories that Jenkins’s death may have involved foul play. Surveillance video from the Crowne Plaza showed nearly all of Jenkins’s last-known moments: About 1:15 a.m. Sept. 9, a Saturday, she enters the hotel with three others to attend a party in one of the rooms. A little more than two hours later, shortly before 3:30 a.m., Jenkins can be seen stumbling through the empty halls of the hotel, apparently alone and disoriented, for several minutes. She finally walks into an unused kitchen before disappearing from the frame.
However, the surveillance video did not show how Jenkins entered the walk-in freezer where she was later found dead. The examiner’s office said Friday that Jenkins had been discovered lying facedown in the freezer, which was itself inside a walk-in cooler. Both the cooler and the freezer were operational, and the doors to both were closed when Jenkins was found.
The walk-in freezer was about 34 degrees Fahrenheit two hours after Jenkins was found, the office said.
“The cooler and freezer were both outfitted with external handles that must be pulled to open. The inside of the freezer door was equipped with a circular release mechanism,” the office said. “Rosemont police told Medical Examiner staff that the light inside of the freezer was not on when Ms. Jenkins was found. There is a light switch outside of the cooler door.”
Teresa Martin, Jenkins’s mother, has accused police and hotel staff of not responding quickly enough the morning she reported her daughter missing, saying they initially downplayed her disappearance as typical after a night of partying.
“What I would recommend is just go home, relax a little bit, give it some time,” a police dispatcher told Martin at first, according to the Chicago Tribune. “All we know, she very well still could be in the room. She could just be passed out. You know how it is. You’re drinking the night before, you get — you know what I mean.”
At an emotional news conference days after her daughter was discovered dead, Martin said she wanted more proof.
“I also want to know what happened,” she told reporters. “I want to see it all. I want to see her actually walking into this freezer and closing herself within this freezer and freezing to death.”
Neither attorneys for Jenkins’s family nor a spokesman for the Rosemont Police Department immediately responded to requests for comment Saturday morning.
Rosemont police said in a statement Friday they were continuing to investigate Jenkins’s death and are searching for two people who had checked into the Crowne Plaza, just east of O’Hare International Airport, for the same party.
Police said they have conducted dozens of interviews and are still looking for six of at least 36 people who were at the party that night, which was booked with a stolen credit card, according to the Chicago Tribune. One is Shaniqua Watkins, who is being sought on four arrest warrants, the newspaper reported.
Attorneys for Martin filed an emergency petition Friday asking the Crowne Plaza to preserve surveillance footage and provide a schedule of any employees and contractors inside the hotel from Sept. 8 through 10, among other requests, according to the Chicago Sun-Times:
Though no lawsuit has been filed, Martin’s attorneys contend that employees knew the party — which had 20 underage attendees and was funded with a stolen credit card, according to police — was going on. The motion also states that several of the hotel’s walk-in freezers are equipped with padlocks, but not the one Jenkins was found in.
Additionally, Martin’s attorneys say that though they’ve been provided most security footage they’ve requested, no video from two other cameras has been given to them. Specifically, one “near the upstairs abandoned kitchen, and another outside the lower level functioning kitchen.”
The hotel said it is cooperating with authorities.
“As we previously assured the family’s attorney, we will preserve all the evidence they requested, including video recordings and documents,” the hotel said in a statement, according to the newspaper. “In fact, we have already done so.”