They were six years apart but siblings Lauren and Nick Jenkins spent a lot of time together, hanging out with friends and sharing an appreciation for organic foods and a talent for drawing.
Their lives were full of home-cooked meals and summer trips to visit their grandmother in Iowa, and also the responsibility of navigating Nick’s struggle with mental illness.
Their deaths, six weeks apart, were marked by a tragedy compounded by a tragedy.
Lauren Jenkins, 17, died after a March 17 car crash in North Raleigh. She left the scene of the accident, and her body was found in the woods nearby two days later. Investigators said they found alcohol in the car she was driving, but it’s unclear whether alcohol was a factor in the crash. Officials are still waiting to receive a toxicology report from the state medical examiner’s office.
Nick Jenkins, 23, died by suicide Saturday. His family says he fell apart after Lauren died, and he was scared he would be held legally responsible for his sister’s death because investigators suspected he provided the alcohol the night of the crash.
Now their family is grappling with unfathomable grief and planning a second funeral in less than two months. Services for Nick Jenkins are Thursday.
Kristina Harms, their mother, says she thinks the State Highway Patrol should have spent more time looking for her daughter the night of the wreck. She wants to push for a new state law that would require law enforcement agencies to continue to search for minors in hit-and-run accidents until they are found.
Harms is also criticizing the media for its coverage of Nick Jenkins, who was not charged with a crime. She hopes her family’s story will raise awareness about mental illness.
“My daughter left for dead, my son humiliated,” Harms said. “People need to wake up. They need to wake up and know that it’s OK to treat people with kindness and love. It’s OK to love one another and look out for each other.”
The family – Harms had four children – moved to Raleigh in 2002. They’ve spent the past seven years in a home off of Leesville Road, where there’s plenty of room for their dogs to roam.
Lauren Jenkins was a senior at Leesville Road High School, and her mother said she had hoped to attend the University of Miami to eventually become a homeopathic doctor.
“She was so funny walking through the hallways,” said Allison Garrell, 17, a senior at Leesville Road, adding that her friend was brutally honest and well-liked.
Nick Jenkins struggled with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder most of his life, his mother said, and he was on the autism spectrum. He didn’t finish high school and was an easy target for people who wanted to take advantage of him.
“Through all of his trials and tribulations, Nick always remained strong in his faith and kept a positive attitude with a huge, bright smile that touched the lives of so many,” his obituary says.
March 17 was a Friday. Lauren and Nick Jenkins went to a friend’s birthday celebration at a hotel in North Raleigh, their family said.
Lauren Jenkins was driving home in her red Chevrolet Cruze around 10:30 p.m. when she struck another vehicle at the intersection of Leesville and Oneal roads while attempting to turn into her neighborhood.
A 17-year-old girl who was in the front seat of Lauren Jenkins’ car suffered minor injuries and also left the scene, according to the Highway Patrol. A second passenger, a 19-year-old man who was in the back seat, suffered several broken ribs.
“Was she drinking?” Harms said of her daughter. “I don’t know.”
But, Harms said, Lauren Jenkins was alive when she left the crash. Harms, who is a nurse, later heard from a neighbor that Lauren was seen running by with a visible head wound. She suspects her daughter had suffered a concussion and was disoriented.
A Highway Patrol trooper knocked on the family’s door a couple of hours after the wreck, but Harms and her husband, Steve, didn’t hear it. They found out about the accident around 2 a.m. from one of Lauren Jenkins’ friends.
Hours later, Harms received a phone message from a trooper saying that Lauren would be charged with hit-and-run.
Kristina and Steve Harms, who set out looking for Lauren that night, say they came across a Raleigh police officer and a Wake County sheriff’s deputy who were helping the passenger who left the crash.
“They helped us search all night long,” Kristina Harms said.
At least two Highway Patrol troopers looked for Lauren Jenkins after the crash, said spokesman Sgt. Michael Baker.
“The investigative trooper searched a little over an hour for her that night,” he said.
The next day, family members and friends started going door-to-door in the neighborhood, asking people to check their backyards and anywhere else they could think of.
On Sunday, two days after the crash, more than 100 volunteers gathered to help search the neighborhood. The Wake County Sheriff’s Office brought search dogs. That morning, a neighbor found Lauren Jenkins’ body in the woods. She was barefoot, her family said.
‘We’re all going to paint rocks now’
Nick Jenkins helped look for his sister. He was devastated when he found out she was never coming home, his mother said.
Harms said Nick told her he didn’t buy alcohol for Lauren and other teens the night of the crash. But it bothered him when media reports circulated that investigators suspected him, and his anxiety led to fear.
“He literally wondered every second, wondering when the cops would be at that door taking him away,” said Heather Dorgan, a family friend.
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said she had decided last week not to file charges against Nick Jenkins. But he didn’t know that.
“I felt as if he certainly had lost enough,” Freeman said.
After Lauren’s death, Nick built a garden in the family’s backyard in her honor. He asked her friends to paint rocks for the garden, but they haven’t gotten around to it yet.
“He was so supportive through all of this,” said Garrell, Lauren Jenkins’ friend. “We’re all going to paint rocks now – for him and for her.”
A memorial near Leesville Road High School features photos of both Lauren and Nick Jenkins.
Dorgan and another family friend, Stephanie Hopkins, set up a campaign through the online fundraising site GoFundMe (http://bit.ly/2p5V8d2) to raise money to help pay for Nick Jenkins’ funeral and also to build a gazebo near the family’s home.
It will be a place where “friends and family may gather to reflect and remember,” the campaign says. By Wednesday morning, more than $5,600 had been raised.
“There is good in everybody, and this proves it,” Dorgan said.
If you need help
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential support 24 hours a day. The number is 1-800-273-8255.
In Spanish, the number is 1-888-628-9454.