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Crime News Accident, Suicide, or Murder

"Highly Unusual" Death of a Vivacious Florida College Student Becomes a Years-Long Mystery

Jennifer Kairis’ bruised body was found in her dorm room after a night of partying at her boyfriend’s fraternity.

By Grace Jidoun

Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, is a tiny liberal arts school designed to appear like a sanctuary. “We used to call it the country club because it’s on a lake, and it’s just beautiful,” remembered former student Shannon O’Grady on Accident, Suicide, or Murder, in Episode 4 of Season 5. The serenity was shattered when a popular, beautiful co-ed, Jennifer Kairis, was found dead in her dorm room.

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Kairis was pursuing a major in theatre and dating a new boyfriend, Paul, who belonged to the school’s Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity.

When she missed her morning classes on March 31, 1998, her best friend Shannon instantly knew something was up. “It wasn’t like her to skip a class,” she said.

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The Crime Scene

Jennifer Kairis featured on Accident Suicide or Murder Episode 504

After asking friends all day about her whereabouts and calling Kairis' parents (who were also desperately trying to reach her), Shannon took matters into her own hands and requested the student R.A. (resident assistant) use his master key to unlock her door. It was 9:30 pm.

The R.A. Carlos Barcia recalled that terrible night on Accident, Suicide, or Murder. “I knew immediately there was something wrong. I felt it,” he said in tears.

Kairis’ body was on the floor, already stiff, with one leg unnaturally propped up on her bed. “I was sort of spinning,” he said.

First responder John Flinn with the Winter Park Police Department described the chaotic scene. “She was face down, and there appeared to be some fluid coming out of her mouth. I think it was blood. There was bruising on her legs. The skirt was hiked up from the front, and the underwear was pushed to the side,” he recalled.

Crime scene photos depict a room in disarray, with clothing piled in corners and pill bottles on the dresser. Jenn had been prescribed the anti-depressant Wellbutrin. However, by all accounts, the 19-year-old was not a messy person. “That made me feel like there was foul play there,” said her mother, Barbara.

Police immediately suspected an attempted rape and the possibility she was abusing pills, but the scene was so odd they treated the case as a homicide from the get-go. There was a lot to do: administer a rape kit, pull hairs for DNA testing, and comb through the chaos for clues.

While her body was sent for an autopsy, the detectives hit the ground running at Rollins College, interviewing everyone in her circle. They soon discovered she spent the night partying with friends and ended up at her boyfriend Paul’s fraternity, where she got into a heated argument with him. He claimed she was so drunk she could barely walk and tasked one of his junior pledges, Tim, with escorting her to her dorm room around 3 a.m. After Tim placed the nearly unconscious student on her bed, he noticed “foam or bubbles” coming from her mouth, but according to Detective Flinn, he took off and left the dorm room unlocked.

“Everyone’s memory seems fuzzy, but they all said she seemed more out of it than they’d ever seen her. She was not the kind of girl that got wasted… something was wrong,” said Shannon. 

The Mysterious 18-Hour Window

Kairis was dropped off at her dorm room at 3 a.m. but wasn’t found until 9:30 p.m. that night, leaving an 18-hour window where anything could have happened, especially if her dorm room door was unlocked. Questions were swirling: was it date rape? Was she roofied or slipped a drug? Did she take something willingly? Detectives were hopeful the autopsy and toxicology report would provide answers, but instead, it sent them spiraling down into a rabbit hole.

By the end of the investigation in 2004, there would be three different reports with three distinct causes of death. Ultimately, her boyfriend, Paul, and the frat pledge, Tim, were ruled out as suspects.

The Manner of Death

Accident, Suicide, or Murder caught up with the original medical examiner who worked on the case. Dr. William Anderson found multiple contusions on her body, including a significant amount of hemorrhaging in her neck area. The toxicology report held more surprises: she was not drunk that night. Instead, toxicology showed trace amounts of several pain meds and prescription drugs and a strangely high level of the heart medication propranolol. The rape kit results were negative, but as Detective Flinn astutely pointed out to show producers, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t an attempted rape.

“Putting two and two together, it looks like her heart was sensitized by the drugs, and she had a neck compression, which led to a lack of oxygen for a period of time, which caused the [fatal] cardiac arrhythmia,” concluded Dr. Anderson.

On September 1, 1998, the case was publicly announced as an unsolved homicide. But her friend Shannon pointed out, “It seemed like someone didn’t want the outcome to be a homicide.”

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Three Different Reports with 3 Different Outcomes

Jennifer Kairis featured on Accident Suicide or Murder Episode 504

Shortly after her death was ruled an unsolved homicide, the Winter Park Police Department requested a full review of the autopsy by their chief medical examiner, Dr. Gore, who disagreed with the previous findings — in particular, a crucial detail to the homicide determination. In the autopsy, the neck trauma was amended from substantial hemorrhage to “minimal hemorrhage.” Her cause of death was now officially an accidental overdose, and the case was closed in 1999.

“If it was an overdose, where did the marks on her neck come from?” her mother Barbara asked show producers.

Her father, John, added that the “bruising on her legs was never fully explained.”

“It was highly unusual and probably not good practice to be overruled without even going through serious conversation with… the two pathologists on the original autopsy,” Dr. Anderson said. He and the other pathologist had taken multiple photos of the neck area to back up their findings, only to discover that all but one of the photos had disappeared from the file.

“The major thing in this case is that she had unexplained neck trauma, and that’s why those photos inexplicably disappearing are really a major problem,” said Dr. Anderson.

Six years later, in January 2004, a reporter from the Orlando Sentinel newspaper took an interest in the case and published a report that pointed to a gross mishandling. The lead investigator held the rape kit — with many perishable swabs — for ten weeks. A hair found in Kairis’s mouth was never tested. What’s more, the lead investigator had never worked a homicide before and was later fired from the police force.

Unfortunately, all the case files and evidence had been trashed in 2002 after Kairis’ death was ruled an accidental overdose. After the story broke, Dr. Gore was criticized for errors in autopsies unrelated to the case, and he quickly retired.

From unsolved homicide to accidental overdose to suicide?

“It was clear to all of us this needed to be re-examined,” said Shannon. In the wake of the newspaper report, the state attorney of Florida reopened the case and pulled in toxicologist Dr. Bruce Goldberger, who reviewed the findings without the neck injury photos and determined that she committed suicide by intentional overdose, positing that she woke up, took the pills, and then locked the door.

Dr. Goldberger proposed that convulsions caused the bruises on her body, but Kairis’s mom still isn’t buying it. “Where are you going to hit yourself that you’re going to make these deep marks in your neck area?” she asked show producers.

The parents took the case to the office of then-governor Jeb Bush in 2004, who allowed a final review of all three findings. The Chief Medical Officer of Miami agreed with Dr. Goldberger’s assessment of suicide.

“I think a lot of us as young women in the arts and dance and theatre were a little too hypercritical of how we looked or how we measured up, and Jenn was definitely one of those people,” Shannon said. “To the rest of the world, she might have seemed like a total extrovert, but she had that other part of herself that would sometimes get sad, and she didn’t let everyone see that.”

But Shannon added one crucial caveat: she still doesn’t think Jennifer Kairis committed suicide.

Watch new episodes of Accident, Suicide, or Murder airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen. 

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