Yale imposter stands trial for attempted murder
By Rochelle Steinhaus
(Court TV) -- Tonica Jenkins once walked the New Haven campus of Yale University as a graduate student.
But the 27-year-old quickly went from the Ivy League to prison after a string of offenses that ranged from fabricating her transcripts to gain admission to the prestigious university to a federal drug rap.
Now serving a 24-year federal prison sentence, Jenkins is facing trial again, this time for attempted murder. Ohio prosecutors say the young woman and her cousin, Kyle Martin, grabbed a stranger off the street who resembled Jenkins and planned to murder her, burn her body and have Jenkins assume her identity just before she was slated to be sentenced on drug charges.
But the plan to make authorities believe she was dead -- while Jenkins embarked on a new life -- went awry when the victim, Melissa Latham, now 29, escaped.
Jury selection began Monday in the attempted aggravated murder case in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, before Judge Lillian Green.
Ivy League days
When Yale received an application from Tonica Tonise Jenkins for its biological and biomedical sciences graduate program for the fall 1998 semester, the school not only accepted her, but gave her $15,739 in stipends.
Her stellar academic record appeared to include a perfect 4.0 grade point average from Ohio's Cuyahoga Community College and Central State University as well as glowing letters of recommendation.
But when Jenkins skipped numerous exams, school officials grew suspicious and investigated her credentials.
They learned that Jenkins not only forged the transcripts and letters, but didn't hold a bachelor's degree. Although she had attended Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, she never completed her studies.
Jenkins was arrested December 8, 1997, and charged by New Haven, Connecticut, prosecutors with second-degree fraud and first-degree larceny, stemming from the scholarship money she received. She was also charged with attempting to escape custody after allegedly trying to flee from a police car following her arrest.
After being set free on $10,000 bail, Jenkins continued fabricating stories, according to one judge. When she missed a court appearance in 1999, she later explained to the judge that while on her way to court, a man abducted and raped her, then locked her in the trunk of his car.
Superior Court Judge Richard Damiani not only didn't believe Jenkins, but ordered that she be held behind bars.
Jenkins spent three weeks in jail, during which she allegedly assaulted an officer and attacked two prison guards. She was released on a $150,000 bond.
Jenkins' lawyer at the time, Norman Pattis, claimed he received photos in the mail of Jenkins bound and gagged, as well as an anonymous letter that appeared to be written on Yale letterhead.
Pattis charged that school officials abused his client and that she was the victim of "outright racial hatred." No credence was ever given to those claims.
Facing 36 years in prison if convicted of all charges, Jenkins cut a deal with prosecutors April 7, 2000, that allowed her to avoid prison time. In exchange for pleading guilty to larceny, forgery and biting a prison guard who tried to fingerprint her, she received two years' probation.
As a condition of the deal, she was also required to repay the nearly $16,000 grant money she received.
But that brush with the law was hardly her last. Only months later Jenkins found herself in much deeper trouble.
A botched drug deal and murder plot
Jenkins and her mother, Tonica Clement Jenkins, were arrested July 10, 2000, in Tampa, Florida, for attempting to purchase cocaine. The pair allegedly tried to buy 22 pounds of the drug for $70,000 in cash. What they didn't realize was that the apparent drug dealers were undercover agents.
At the time U.S. customs agents arrested Jenkins and her 52-year-old mother, the young woman told authorities she was being paid by the FBI to be an informant, a claim later discredited.
Jenkins once again made bail, was released and returned to her home in Ohio.
Just before she and her mother were scheduled to stand federal trial on the drug charges, prosecutors say, Jenkins hatched a scheme to avoid the charges.
According to prosecutors, Jenkins enlisted the help of her 30-year-old cousin, ex-convict Kyle Martin of Springfield, Ohio. In Jenkins' hometown of East Cleveland, Ohio, where she returned after her arrest, the pair grabbed a woman resembling Jenkins off the street.
For two days, the pair allegedly plied Melissa Latham with crack, marijuana and insulin to keep her sugar levels low. They even took her to the dentist under Tonica Jenkins' name, allegedly to establish a dental record.
Prosecutors say Jenkins planned to murder Latham, burn her body and dump it in an abandoned building. She would then assume her identity, while authorities would determine the dead woman was Jenkins based on her recent dental record.
The alleged plot failed, however, when Latham escaped on April 21, 2001, after two days of captivity. According to Latham, Jenkins and Martin were beating her with a brick but stopped once she pretended to be dead. Latham later said that she heard the two discussing how they were going to burn her body when she made a break for it and ran to a nearby KFC restaurant.
Latham, who suffered severe injuries to the back of her head and forehead, passed out in the restaurant in a pool of blood. She was rushed to the hospital in serious condition and received more than two dozen stitches. Medical personnel called it a miracle that Latham, now 29, survived.
East Cleveland police arrested Martin, who not only confessed but said he was solely responsible. While he was being held on $1 million bail, Jenkins -- still free on bail for the drug arrest and not charged in Latham's attempted murder -- returned to Tampa to stand trial on the drug charges.
But soon after Martin pointed the finger at Jenkins. While on trial, Jenkins was surrounded outside the federal courthouse in Tampa by marshals, her bail revoked.
Jenkins and her mother were found guilty of conspiracy and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute on April 27, 2001.
On August 8, 2001, Jenkins was handed a 24-year prison term for the drug convictions. Her mother received a 16-year sentence.
Tonica Clement Jenkins will also stand trial in connection with the attempted murder plot. She is charged with obstructing justice for allegedly cleaning up Latham's blood after the escape.
Martin, who is slated to testify against Jenkins, already stood trial separately and is serving a 10-year sentence. Though the jury acquitted him of attempting to murder Latham, they found him guilty of kidnapping. Latham is also scheduled to testify against Jenkins.
Though not scheduled for release until 2022, Jenkins now faces up to 36 more years behind bars if convicted of aggravated attempted murder.