On Nov. 17, 2006, Jan and Steve Jenkins sat down with a Hennepin County medical examiner and two officers from the homicide unit of the Minneapolis Police Department.

"Your son was a victim of homicide," Sgt. Pete Jackson told them.

Strangely, those were the words the Jenkinses had been waiting to hear for years.

The case of the death of their son, Chris, was one of the strangest in recent memory. Now Jan Jenkins has published a book that reveals not only the excruciating pain their family suffered, but also some shocking details of how police handled, or mishandled, the death.

It is a convoluted tale where hard-to-believe conspiracy theories mix with believable missteps and mistreatment by investigators. You can't help but be pulled in by the searing grief as Chris' family mounted an army of volunteers and experts to first find their son, then his killer. But their quest also included psychics and pseudo-scientists who no doubt irked those on the case.

Chris Jenkins disappeared on Halloween night, 2002. After spending time at a downtown bar, he was apparently escorted out for unknown reasons. Police initially ignored the Jenkinses' pleas to find him, telling family he'd probably gone off to "sow his oats." Later, Jan Jenkins said, police became convinced Chris likely jumped from a bridge into the Mississippi over a spat with a girlfriend.

Chris' body was found four months later in the river, the cause of death "unknown." Case closed.

The Jenkins family, however, would not give up. They hired private investigators and hydrology experts, employed bloodhounds and followed advice of psychics, convinced Chris would not take his own life. They outlasted several detectives and two police chiefs. Their behavior did not exactly endear them to police, but Jan didn't care.

"They weren't doing anything," Jan said in an interview. "So if they weren't willing to put their butts in gear, then get out of the way. We lost faith in every system we believed in."

Investigators from the various agencies that eventually got involved in the Jenkins case ranged from indifferent to sloppy to incompetent, Jan says in the book, "Footprints of Courage." At one point, she writes, one cop suggested maybe Chris jumped in the river "trying to save a duck."

Among the more eyebrow-raising anecdotes is Jan's speculation that an off-duty police officer, whom she names, had Chris removed from the bar so he could hook up with Chris' girlfriend. She also said initial investigators failed to interview people with Chris that night and didn't treat his discovered body as a crime scene.

When police reclassified the death as a homicide in 2006, it was some solace, Jan said.

The Jenkinses, however, don't believe Chris was thrown from the bridge, as speculated, because he still had on his slip-on shoes, and his shirt was tucked in. When they found him near a bank, his arms were crossed. Jan hints in the book that Satanic rituals may have been involved. She thinks one or more of the killers is still out there.

Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan says the Jenkinses' anger is justified. "Sometimes when officers make assumptions, it can bite you in the rear end. [The Jenkinses] strongly believed in Chris and showed energy and stamina" to push police, he said.

Jan credits Dolan for "manning up" and admitting police made mistakes. "There were wonderful men and women who did their best to solve this," she said.

Some of the officers involved in the case declined to comment on the record. But they've seen families like this fall for bizarre theories while grasping at straws to explain a death. None I spoke to believes Chris' death is linked to disappearances or deaths of other young men, as has been suggested.

Cops often see "outside experts" as interlopers out to exploit grieving families by proving cops wrong, and so are prone to distrust them, one officer explained. "Families are psychologically prone to believe a loved one is the victim of foul play rather than an accident," said one officer who worked on the case. "It seems more meaningful than thinking that bad things just happen sometimes."

"Do you now think Chris was murdered?" I asked the officer, who replied: "I just don't know."

Jan said she didn't write the book to condemn investigators but in the hope that authorities would take the disappearances of young men as seriously as they do young women.

She also wants to honor Chris and his infectious personality, something no one disputes. "I want to show the remarkable life he led," Jan said. "He loved life more than anybody I know."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702


Jan Jenkins will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Marsh, 15000 Minnetonka Blvd., Minnetonka. Space is limited; register in advance by calling 952-935-2202.