A Double Slaying in Rural Minnesota Spotlights the Distress of America's Debt-Ridden Farmers
The shootings immediately set off a six-state manhunt for the farm's former owner, James Jenkins, 46, and his 18-year-old son, Steven. The elder Jenkins' white 1978 Chevrolet pickup truck had been seen fleeing the scene. Three days later Steven Jenkins turned himself in to police in Paducah, Texas, claiming that his father "was talking about killing himself." He then led lawmen to a dirt road four miles away, where James Jenkins lay dead from an apparently self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head.
The bankers' murders, the area's first in at least 32 years, had devastating impact in the rural county of 8,000 people, where bank balances—and emotions—have become increasingly strained by deteriorating economic conditions (see box, page 133). Some have painted Jenkins as an inevitable product of hard times: a hardworking farmer driven to desperate revenge by creditors. "Take a man who has spent a lifetime earning a living from the soil, and suddenly tell him he has to get off," says Eric DeRycke, Jenkins' onetime lawyer and a volunteer for COACT, a Minnesota farm and urban coalition. "How is he going to react?"
But Minnesota neighbors paint a different, darker portrait of the alleged killer—that of a born failure inept in money matters and plagued by a violent temper. "Hell, he wasn't no farmer," says one grizzled local. "Unless you want to say raising a few cows for a couple of years makes you one."
Jenkins grew up not far from Ruthton, a quiet loner remembered for his love of animals and the land and a knack for fixing machinery. But those who knew him say he underwent a major personality change in 1960, when he suffered severe head injuries in a car accident that killed a woman in the other vehicle. "He would fly into these frightening rages," recalls DeRycke. "There was no way to calm him down."
In 1961 Jenkins had married Darlene Abraham, with whom he had two children, Steven and Michelle (now 20). In 1977, after years of working on other people's farms, he scraped together a down payment on the Ruthton place. But the venture was ill-planned: His pasture was too small to support his 40 dairy cows, so Jenkins had to purchase his hay and grain, a prohibitively expensive arrangement. His cows became malnourished, his income dropped, and creditors slapped liens on his machinery. His bad temper grew meaner. "Once Steve accidentally let one of the calves out of the barn," recalls ex-wife Darlene. "His father took a pickup truck and ran over the calf and killed it." In 1980 Darlene left him, and later that year he lost his farm. The embittered Jenkins moved to Texas, settling in Brownwood, where he lived in a trailer and worked nearly round the clock as a $3.90-an-hour janitor and security guard.
Meanwhile, son Steve was having problems of his own. A high school dropout, he dreamed of joining the Marines but was rejected in 1981, reportedly because of a spleen ruptured in a bike accident. He began wearing fatigues, shaved his hair boot-camp style, set up an obstacle course on his grandparents' farm and spent hours firing a .30-caliber rifle at a tree stump he clothed in a denim shirt and pants.
Then his father returned to Minnesota from Texas. After leasing new farmland, he found his efforts to obtain credit stymied by his old nemesis—the Buffalo Ridge State Bank. Apparently enraged, Jenkins went to the scene of the ambush with his son. "Steve had this compulsion to try to protect his father," explains Darlene. "He just couldn't abandon him." A cousin who talked with him in jail says that Steven claims his father planned only to "scare the hell out of" the bankers, but things went horrifically awry. Others speculate that son Steve, the marksman, actually pulled the trigger. He is being held in the nearby Lyon County jail on second-degree murder charges in lieu of $250,000 bail. "He could get hopelessly, helplessly drug in by his father," says mother Darlene. "His father had an unusual hold on him. Now the hold is gone." At the thought, she starts to cry.