Cynthia and Karen Jenkins weren't just sisters, they were best friends.
The two talked several times a day, every day.
And Cynthia Jenkins knew where Karen was every day — even when her well-educated, doctorate-holding little sister traveled to Haiti or Nigeria.
Then came Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010. The date that changed everything. The date that is front-and-center in this week's first-degree murder trial of Monique Lee in connection with Jenkins' death.
Cynthia Jenkins — one of a few family members and friends who took the stand in the second day of Lee's trial — said she and her sister spoke by phone that morning. Cynthia gushed about her grandson, about how the two were eating breakfast.
Cynthia Jenkins said she was “babbling on” when Karen cut her off.
“Hey, I gotta go,” Karen Jenkins, 48, said. “I've got to go show an apartment.”
It was the last time the sisters would speak, and prosecutors say it was a telling conversation.
Using a ruse that her brother was interested in renting an apartment, prosecutors allege, Monique Lee lured Jenkins to the apartment building that Jenkins owned near 40th Street and Ames Avenue.
Lee and her brother ambushed Jenkins, choked her with a vacuum cleaner cord and then hid her body, prosecutors say.
About two hours earlier that day, older brother Kenneth Jenkins had stopped by Karen's house near 43rd and Lake Streets. As he rummaged through her garage for some tools, they talked a bit, laughed a bit.
Kenneth fetched what he needed and made plans to meet Karen the next morning. But Karen never showed Monday. Nor did she answer her home phone or cellphones.
The family's frantic search was on.
By Monday night, Cynthia Jenkins was more than worried.
Karen's car was parked outside Hank's Place, the bar the Jenkins family was renovating. But she was nowhere to be found.
Cynthia Jenkins called Omaha police Monday evening. Initially, police told them they couldn't do much. Karen, a college instructor and businesswoman, was an adult, police noted. Maybe she met a guy, maybe she went on a trip.
“I said, ‘That is NOT my sister,'” Cynthia Jenkins said.
The search became both frantic and frustrating, family members said.
Cynthia would wake up in the middle of the night, agonizing over her sister's whereabouts. “I didn't check the cooler,” she thought, referring to the walk-in cooler at Hank's Place.
So at 5 a.m., she went over there with a friend — only to find the cooler empty.
There were other empty searches. Fearing the worst, the family decided to check the grounds and buildings at Carter Lake. Nothing. They then went out to search Hummel Park, a remote park on the city's northern edge. Still nothing.
Cynthia Jenkins said the family would frequently gather at Hank's Place to brainstorm. They called the press, friends, anyone they thought could help them.
Cynthia Jenkins even talked a few times to Monique Lee, the defendant in the case.
The first time, on the Monday after Jenkins was killed, Cynthia was in the hallway of the apartments. She heard Lee call out, “Is Ms. Cynthia here?”
Cynthia said she knew Lee fairly well. After Lee moved into an apartment in June 2010, Cynthia Jenkins testified, Karen Jenkins made arrangements for Lee to work off the rent she owed.
She asked Cynthia to hire Lee for cleaning jobs. That way, Lee could pay down on her rent.
Cynthia Jenkins said she knew Lee as a witty young woman — far from being a woman so mentally ill that she had no idea what she was doing the morning Jenkins was killed. Lee's attorney, Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley, said his client was insane at the time of Jenkins' disappearance.
Cynthia Jenkins said she knew only that Lee said she had Graves' disease, a thyroid disorder. Monique Lee was “bright and witty” — and Cynthia Jenkins urged her to go to college.
“I wouldn't tell someone who was low-functioning that they should go to college,” said Cynthia Jenkins, who is a licensed mental health therapist.
The Monday following the Sunday disappearance, Cynthia Jenkins said, Lee told her she had seen Karen's car but not Karen.
On Tuesday, Monique Lee came outside to meet the Jenkins family in the parking lot of the apartments.
“She was very worried about where Karen was,” Cynthia Jenkins said. “She was very concerned about getting (another tenant) to come downstairs to tell us if he knew where Karen was.”
Prosecutor Brenda Beadle handed Cynthia Jenkins a photo of Karen, with her certain smile and bright eyes.
“That's Karen,” Cynthia said, her voice breaking a bit.
Then Beadle handed her another picture — of a dilapidated house across the street where authorities found Jenkins' body six days after her disappearance.
Cynthia Jenkins' voice broke even more.
“That's the house they found her under,” she said.
Jenkins' family wasn't the only one who was frantic.
Lee was crying and panicked on Oct. 22, 2010 — the day before Karen Jenkins' body was found, said Lee's friend, Veotis Givens.
She started “crying out” about how she didn't want to lose her children, Givens said. She then scrawled a note that, she said, would assign her two children to Givens if Lee went to prison.
Givens said he signed the note, too, but didn't read it. Instead, he put it in his Bible and later gave it to police.
In the note, dated about 16 hours before Karen Jenkins' body was found, Lee scribbled:
“I Monique DeNean Lee gives (sic) Veotis Charles Givens Jr. full custody of my (6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son) in the case of my death or imprisoned for life. If something was to happen to me, please do not release my children to no one (else)... and do not let them get put in the system.”
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