Amateur sleuths are no longer posting videotaped conspiracy theories about how the 19-year-old’s body ended up in a freezer in a deserted area of the Crowne Plaza O’Hare Hotel. Strangers are no longer blaming Kenneka’s girlfriends for “selling” her for $200 during a party in a room on the ninth floor. The real culprit that has now been revealed — underage drinking.
Kenneka was at a party at the hotel where liquor was available. She was too young to purchase liquor herself. And she was too young to legally consume it. Someone broke the law by providing it to her. At this point, it serves no purpose to blame the victim. In another time and place, almost any teenager could have met the same fate. Alcohol led to Kenneka’s death, as it does with some 5,000 other young people each year.
According to the National Institutes of Health, alcohol is the most widely used substance of abuse among America’s youth. Of the deaths attributed to alcohol, about 1,900 are from motor vehicle crashes, 1,600 as a result of homicides, 300 from suicide, as well as hundreds from other injuries such as falls, burns and drowning, the NIH said.
Though the numbers have declined since 2002, the statistics remain startling. In 2015, 7.7 million people in the 12–20 age group reported that they drank alcohol beyond “just a few sips” in the past month, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Documents released last week by Rosemont police show that Kenneka had drunk heavily at the party before she wandered away from a hallway and ended up in an unused kitchen on another floor. Her friends told police they saw Kenneka drink cognac. The Cook County medical examiner’s office said her blood-alcohol content was 0.112, above the legal limit for driving.
Authorities said no illegal drugs were found in her system, though toxicology tests revealed a drug used for treating epilepsy and migraines, which contributed significantly to her death. Surveillance camera video that shows Kenneka getting off an elevator, staggering alone down a hallway and then stumbling into a deserted kitchen is troubling to watch. It was easier to believe that someone had accosted her in the kitchen and tossed her into the freezer.
We did not want to accept that a beautiful young woman, with so much life yet ahead of her, could have stumbled into a cooler and opened the door to the walk-in freezer herself. It seemed inconceivable that the freezer door would then slam shut on its own and that Kenneka was so impaired that she could not push the white, circular handle inside to release the latch.
If there is a spark of hope in this tragedy, it is that Kenneka’s friends apparently realized that she was too drunk to drive home that night. They had left her in the hallway for about 15 minutes while they returned to the hotel room to retrieve her phone and keys. It seems clear that they had no intentions of allowing Kenneka behind the wheel of the car she had borrowed from her mother.
Some would argue that Kenneka was a young adult, able to make her own decisions. Parents might wonder how is it possible to control the actions of a 19-year-old. Indeed, it is not easy, but according to the NIH, there are several ways parents can intervene to make sure young people don’t drink before they reach 21.
Talking openly with teenagers about drinking is first and foremost. Conversations should begin much earlier and take place often. Even as they grow older, it is still imperative to know who their friends are. If there is a party, parents must make it a point to know if it will be supervised and whether alcohol will be available.
There were people at the hotel — employees and guests — who likely saw Kenneka in an impaired state that night. At 3:20 a.m. Saturday, she is seen on surveillance video “staggering” drunk near the front desk. Yet no one notified the police.