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Kenneka Jenkins | [Facebook]

When young Black girls are presumed missing or kidnapped in the U.S, broadcast news and mainstream publications rarely pick the stories up. But if by chance they do, the care put into the reporting is questionable, if not completely careless and without nuance. 

An incident in the Bronx just last month showed that for a missing Black girl to go “viral,” a hoax or some other type of addendum has to be involved. In Chicago, the circumstances of Kenneka Jenkins’ death in 2017 was enough to grab the attention of the nation, with a strong response online. MTV’s next iteration of “True Life” — “True Life Crime” — takes a deeper look at the case.

After 19-year-old Jenkins was found dead inside an industrial freezer in suburban Rosemont’s Crowne Plaza Hotel in September 2017, people on social media—from Twitter to YouTube— theorized a range of conspiracies to make sense of her passing. Jenkins went missing at the hotel party for her friend Irene. Nearly a day later, when authorities found the teen inside the freezer, loved ones and the masses immediately suspected foul play. An autopsy eventually ruled her death an accident and Rosemont police closed the case. 

Show host and Chicago native Dometi Pongo took to the streets of Chicago to dig deeper. The first stop in Pongo’s investigative journey was to meet “internet sleuth” Nikki Luciano. Luciano is one of the many theorists who believe there to be more to Jenkins’ passing than what catches the eye on a smartphone or computer screen. She shows Pongo an active Facebook group that holds case discussions on Jenkins’ passing, even saying that, “As humans we’ve evolved to just tell everyone our business. You can head on Facebook and start diving into these people’s personal lives and start conducting your own investigations. There was just timelines of events that made [Jenkins’ passing] a real-life Lifetime movie.”

A still image of Pongo interviewing “internet sleuth” Nikki Luciano on True Life Crime | Photo courtesy of MTV

It’s hard to not be skeptical when a docuseries centering the death of a real person, with real friends and family, begins with a conspiracy fanatic likening a deep tragedy like Jenkins’ death to a network drama; but Luciano’s bit was merely a jumping point. From there, forensic specialists, audio-visual technicians, Rosemont police, the deceased teen’s family, friends and local media personalities such as ZackTV1, who has since passed away, took to the screen to share their perspectives on how they felt law enforcement handled — or mishandled — the news of Jenkins being missing, the plausibility of evidence and if ultimately they thought her death was really an accident or murder. 

It was a relief to see Pongo remain on the straight and narrow while connecting more dots in the teen’s death for the small screen instead of jumping to dramatic conclusions for shock value. MTV called on someone with relevance to Black communities in Chicago, unlike many national media outlets who send in outside journalists to cover sensitive topics in our city. 

On the other hand, though, there are a few things missing in this “True Life Crime” episode — titled “Tragic Accident or Calculated Murder?”  that would have better summed up what the case meant for the Black Chicago community. For instance, it would have been beneficial to see how other activists used the teen’s story to strategize, empower and protect Black women in Chicago.  

More lacking was the input of Black women beyond those grieving. Ignoring Black women was a pattern in the events surrounding Jenkins’ death—from security not assisting her best friend Bre Bre in looking for Jenkins to law enforcement delaying her mom’s initial request to file a missing person report. Including Black women to speak on the forensics of the case or discuss the history and impact of folks disregarding women’s voices, could have added an impactful element and necessary perspective to the onslaught of information in the episode.

Pongo walking through the streets of Chicago on MTV's True Life Crime | Photo courtesy of MTV

On Monday, Pongo hosted a private screening of the episode at The ICan Collective in the South Loop. Family, friends, Chicago media peers and others in the creative community came out to support Pongo, who previously worked as a reporter and host for WGN Radio and news director of WVON 1690AM. The aura of the screening was a mix of city pride for homegrown Pongo, but distanced grief for the young girl who reminds us of our own sisters, cousins and best friends. The episode left Sandra Ellis, a native of Chicago, empathizing with Jenkins’ mom. 

“When your child walks out the door, you never think they’re not going to come back. For her to not come back and her mom to not have answers as to what really happened…” was unfathomable to Ellis. Brittany Williams, an old college mate of Pongo’s from their days at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, exuded intense energy, citing Pongo’s advice to file a missing person’s police report immediately as something that will always stick with her. 

Chicago transplant Johnathan Hill also expressed frustration but said he was relieved that the “right person” finally had the microphone. 

“I think they did a phenomenal job telling the story,” Hill said about Pongo and MTV. “I just don’t want people to think that when the thirty minutes is over, the story is over. We can’t stop there.”

“True Life Crime: Tragic Accident or Calculated Murder?” is scheduled to premiere at 8 p.m. Wednesday on MTV. Warning: the episode contains graphic content, including images of Jenkins’ death and the Chicago police dashcam footage of Laquan McDonald’s death.