The Innocents (1964)
by Edward D. Radin

Excerpt from Chapter 11 on

Lonnie Jenkins

As part of the growing-up process, every teen-aged girl has the right to daydream about her future Prince Charming; quite often her reveries will revolve about some public idol of the moment, shifting from personality to personality as tastes change. Occasionally her choice will be someone closer at hand, and the well-described furies of a woman scorned know no age boundaries.

In 1931 the small world of Lonnie Jenkins, a Detroit streetcar conductor, was centered largely around his wife, Edith, and their ten-year-old daughter, Helen. The couple had two worries: Mrs. Jenkins was not in robust health and she continued to work, which meant that their daughter frequently was alone all day. Jenkins' tour of duty rotated, so there were occasions when he could prepare a hot lunch for his daughter, but otherwise she had to shift for herself. And keeping a household running in addition to holding down a job was a burden for an ill woman.

What seemed to be an ideal solution presented itself when a neighbor, who had remarried, found that her daughter, Betty, was in constant conflict with her step­father. The girl began to stay away from school and finally was brought into court and threatened with being placed in an institution. At this point Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins suggested that Betty could live with them; she would provide companionship for their daughter, and she could assist Mrs. Jenkins with household chores, easing that burden for an ill woman. Both Betty and her mother readily agreed, and court approval was granted.

In order to give the girl a fresh start, the couple thoughtfully rented an apartment in another neighborhood. Jenkins at that time was twenty-nine years old, and Betty was entering her sixteenth year. The presence in the household of a girl whose figure was swelling into young womanhood provided neighbors with an opportunity to gossip, particularly when Betty gave every indication that she was in love with the conductor. Neighbors soon had more to talk about. Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins were overheard quarreling, and many assumed that it was because of the girl.

Betty resumed her habit of cutting classes, and finally Mrs. Jenkins ordered her to leave and reported her truancy to the court. The girl was sentenced to thirteen months in the House of the Good Shepherd but was placed on probation, and the court directed her to stay away from the Jenkins' home.

In late September Mrs. Jenkins attempted to kill herself. Neighbors smelled gas, traced it to her apartment, and notified the building superintendent. Mrs. Jenkins was found unconscious on the kitchen floor with all gas jets open on the stove. A suicide note was on a table. After she was revived she asked the building employees not to mention the incident to her husband, but when Jenkins returned from work that day the superintendent reported it to him.

It was several weeks later, shortly after noon on October 15, 1931, when Jenkins reported that his wife had shot herself. To save time in getting medical help, he dashed to the home of a doctor a block away and returned immediately with him. There was a contact bullet wound in Mrs. Jenkins' head; she died on the way to the hospital.

Jenkins told police that he had been dressing in the bedroom when he heard the shot; he was on the afternoon shift that week and because it was payday had planned to go in a little earlier. He ran into the living room, where he found his wife on the floor, a pool of blood spreading under her head. He told detectives that she was lying flat on her back, stretched out at full length, the automatic pistol resting on her chest. As he came up, her hand slid off the weapon, leaving it undisturbed.

A uniformed officer, who had been the first policeman at the scene, found a note on a table against the living-room wall. Written in pencil on a small piece of ruled stationery, it read:

"Goodbye Daddy and Baby. I can't go on any longer. Be a good girl and a good Daddy. Your Mamma."

Jenkins said that Baby was the pet name he and his wife used for their daughter. He identified the pistol as his; he occasionally worked on the pay car and had bought it as, protection in case of a holdup. He said he had noticed that the gun was missing from its regular place in the bureau, and although he had mentioned the fact to the building superintendent, he had not discussed it with his wife because of her previous suicide attempt; he did not want to stir her up. Mrs. Jenkins had been sent home from work just two days earlier when a supervisor noticed her resting her head on a desk and suggested that she take the week off with pay.

Detectives were puzzled by Jenkins' description of his wife's position right after the shot. While they had seen many suicides by guns, in all these cases, as far as they could recall, the victims always had fallen forward on their faces and not on their backs. Adding to their uneasiness was the gossip they had picked up from neighbors about a possible love affair between the conductor and Betty. One of the neighbors who had overheard the couple quarreling said he had heard Mrs. Jenkins shout, "I won't do it. I won't do it."

Jenkins dismissed the quarrels as ordinary husband-wife squabbles that had quickly blown over; he had been urging Mrs. Jenkins to quit her job because of her health. While he admitted that Betty had developed what he termed a "foolish infatuation" for him while she had been living with them, he insisted that there had been nothing between himself and the girl, that his attitude toward her had been that of a father or a big brother; he had loved only his wife. He said Betty had told him she had carved his initials on her thighs with a razor blade. He had seen her just once since she left their apartment when he received a letter from her saying that she was in Ecorse, Michigan. Since this was a violation of her probation, he had gone there and urged her to give herself up, serve out her term, and straighten herself out. She had asked him for money to go to Indiana, where she wanted to stay with relatives, and he had refused. The girl later had been picked up in Indiana and was at present at a detention home.

In view of the previous suicide attempt, a coroner's jury returned with a verdict that Mrs. Jenkins had taken her own life. Jenkins left with his daughter to visit relatives in Wisconsin. Despite the verdict, detectives had not stopped working on the case. They showed the suicide note to the dead woman's supervisor, who said that, although it closely resembled Mrs. Jenkins' handwriting, it appeared to be somewhat different.

By now the detectives were fully suspicious. The case appeared to be a long-familiar story to them: an ailing wife, a radiant young girl, and Jenkins and Betty in love. The conversation overheard by the neighbor, in which Mrs. Jenkins said she wouldn't do it, indicated to them that the husband had sought a divorce and the wife had retaliated by turning the girl in to authorities. And so Jenkins had killed his wife, staging it as a suicide.

Convinced they were on the right course, they interviewed Betty at the detention home but made little headway. She was shown the note and admitted that it did not quite resemble Mrs. Jenkins' handwriting. Later she was brought to police headquarters for further sessions. And finally Betty began to talk, confirming what the detectives had thought.

She said that she was the one who actually had written the suicide note, that during the previous winter, while still living with Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins, the conductor had told her to practice his wife's handwriting and then had had her make about a dozen copies of "Goodbye Daddy and Baby" notes which he dictated to her. He simply told her that he "might need them some day."

The girl also told of a flaming romance with Jenkins whenever they could be alone in the apartment and said that he told her many times that he would "get rid" of his wife and marry her. She added that Jenkins had not told the complete story of his meeting with her at Ecorse. While he did tell her to return to Detroit, he also informed her that by the time she was released he would be free to marry her.

Jenkins still was in Wisconsin and detectives went there, expecting him to resist returning to Detroit. They were surprised when he voluntarily agreed to return with them, scoffing at the story told by Betty. He insisted there had been no romance between them, he had never told her he would marry her, and he never had dictated any suicide notes to her. During repeated interrogations he never varied his story that he had been in love with his wife and had told Betty to stop being foolish about imagining that she was in love with him.

Jenkins was arrested and charged with the murder of his wife.

During the trial the prosecution pounded home to the jury that it was impossible for Mrs. Jenkins to fall on her back if she had shot herself. Betty took the stand and repeated her story of passionate trysts with Jenkins. This was buttressed by school records showing that she had cut classes many days when the conductor worked on the afternoon and night shifts, with the inference drawn that they had spent the day together in the apartment. Jenkins took the stand in his own defense and denied every statement made by Betty. He was defended by Allen W. Kent, a former prosecuting attorney, who called the young girl a "jungle creature" and said her story was based on revenge because Jenkins had scorned her. Two days later a jury found Jenkins guilty of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Jenkins had convinced his lawyer of his innocence and Kent continued to work on the case, talking to every detective he knew about his theory that a suicide could fall on his back. He purchased a revolver and practiced placing it against his head with his feet in various stances and then slumping to the floor to see how he landed. Four months later, on April 13, 1932, he entered the office of Henry W. Piel, deputy chief of detectives, and discussed the Jenkins case with him. He pulled a pistol from his pocket and remarked, "Look, she placed the gun like this," and held it against his head. Piel hastily shouted a warning to be careful. Kent assured him he had removed the bullets, once again placed the gun against his head and pulled the trigger. There was an explosion and Kent slumped to the floor, dead. He had overlooked the bullet in the firing chamber. An insurance company refused to pay a $41,500 policy on his life on the grounds that he had either committed suicide or had been grossly negligent. Two years later a jury awarded his widow the full amount of the policy.

With the tragic death of Kent, Jenkins lost the only ardent champion of his claim of innocence, and the years began to pass for him in prison. And then a new supporter came forward; it was his daughter, Helen. As she grew up she learned the facts of the case and could not believe that her father had been in love with Betty; she had seen him rebuff the teenager repeatedly, and she had witnessed many instances of his devotion to her mother. She started at the same point as Lawyer Kent had, to disprove the contention that suicides always fall face forward, but this intelligent young woman tackled the problem from another angle. She consulted ballistics experts and learned from them that there were many authentic cases on record of suicides who had fallen on their backs.

She took this information to the current prosecutor, who became interested and began a new investigation of the case. Finally on December 23, 1940, nine years after Jenkins had been sent to jail, he was granted a new trial. It was an unusual one; only one witness appeared, the daughter, Helen. The prosecutor introduced affidavits from ballistics experts showing that the original claim of the prosecution had been in error. He then introduced through Helen a letter from J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in which he certified that FBI handwriting experts had examined samples of Mrs. Jenkins' handwriting, Betty's handwriting, and the suicide note and were certain that the note had been written by the dead woman. The slight differences were due to her emotional strain. The final bit of evidence was an admission from Betty that her entire story had been a complete invention, that her pride had been hurt because Jenkins had scoffed at her when she told him she was in love with him, and so when the detectives showed her the note and indicated the gossip that was going around, she had made up her story to fit the theory.

The prosecutor informed the court that his office had conducted a thorough investigation which proved that Betty had lied, that Mrs. Jenkins actually had committed suicide. After nine years' imprisonment for a murder that never happened, Jenkins was freed and left the court with his daughter, a victim of a teen-aged girl's romance that had existed only in her mind.