Kayli Jefferson-Henkel, a 21-year-old senior airman stationed at Travis Air Force Base, was declared dead as the result of a suicide, despite her family disputing the findings based on physical evidence of what they described as defensive bruises, Fox-40 reported.
In her obituary, Jefferson-Henkel was survived by her parents, Greg and Kim (Jefferson) Henkel; siblings, Kevin and Shauna Henkel; nephew Kenzo Henkel; grandmother Bobbie Jefferson; grandparents Darrell and Chris Henkel; and multiple aunts, uncles and cousins.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Jefferson-Henkel Was An Athlete
According to her obituary, Jefferson-Henkel was born December 3, 1997, in the San Franciscan Bay Area city of Vallejo, but she grew up an hour’s drive northeast, in the metropolitan state capital of Sacramento.
She attended Center High School in Antelope, California, where she played several sports, including softball, basketball, volleyball, soccer and golf. According to stats from Max Preps, Jefferson-Henkel played varsity basketball during her junior and senior years, playing 37 games. Jefferson-Henkel’s scoring was also above the national average during her senior year of 2015.
During her time stationed in San Antonio, Texas and Japan, Jefferson-Henkel coached softball. In addition to her athletic pursuits, she was described in the obituary as a young woman with an “infectious smile’ and an “offbeat sense of humor.”
2. Jefferson-Henkel Was A Service Airman
Jefferson-Henkel joined the U.S. Air Force in March of 2016, completing boot camp while in San Antonio and going on to Japan. When she returned, she was stationed at the Travis Air Force Base, with the 921st Contingency Response Squadron.
Members of that squadron are part of the 621st Contingency Response Wing at Travis A.F.B. The 921st, according to one site, are known as “The Dragons.”
Jefferson-Henkel held the rank of service airmen, which the Air Force describes as the nearest rank to recruiter:
Senior airmen should be technically effective at their skill or be close to proficient. More experienced senior airmen may also be supervising younger airmen. Most senior airmen are expected to begin developing leadership abilities in preparation for becoming a non-commissioned officer (NCO). Some senior airmen may also be selected to be a recruiter or a military training instructor at basic training.
3. Jefferson-Henkel’s Death Was Originally Ruled A Suicide
Jefferson-Henkel was found dead July 11, 2019, in her home in Vacaville, according to Fox-40.
According to what Fox-40 reported, Lt. Mark Donaldson of the Vacaville Police Department said that units had responded to Jefferson-Henkel’s home after she called them. Donaldson said the evidence that Jefferson-Henkel died by suicide is overwhelming, including that she called a suicide hotline before dying.
“And while she was on the hotline she made some statements that she was considering ending her life while she was on the hotline with the call taker,” he said. “The call taker noted that she heard gasping for breath and that Kayli no longer responding to her comments.”
The family, however, has said that they received very few answers from the military and have heard of injuries contrary to a ruling of suicide.
4. Family And Protesters Are Now Demanding Answers
Kim Jefferson, Jefferson-Henkel’s mother has said that she needs more information and believes that her daughter was killed.
“She had a black eye, a broken neck, bruises on the outside of her knuckle, that tells me that she was fighting,” she told Fox-40. “My allegiance is to my daughter Kayli. I want answers … I don’t want to be that parent that 10 years from now is fighting still [for] my daughter’s rights.”
Jalynn Welch, a friend who was happy that Jefferson-Henkel had returned to the U.S., had no idea her friend would be dead eight months later. “Kayli was one of our best friends. We’ve known her for 8 years. Went to high school with her, played softball was one of the most caring people that ever lived honestly,” said Jalynn Welch told Sacramento CBS-affiliate, CBS-13.
Other interested parties have taken up the fight for Jefferson-Henkel, including the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, which held a gathering demanding justice for Vanessa and Kayli on July 11 of this year.
Desiree Rojas, President of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement told CBS-13 that parents don’t realize the danger servicemen and women can be in while in the U.S. “… Families send their kids to the military thinking they’re going to be safe on base or off base and these things are happening,” She said.
5. A Congressman Has Joined Multiple Efforts To Protect Women in the Military
I’m calling for an independent investigation into Senior Airman Kayli Jefferson-Henkel’s death, who was stationed in our district. I am hopeful that an independent investigation will provide Kayli’s family with the answers and closure they seek. pic.twitter.com/yC6f0EKMfR
— John Garamendi (@RepGaramendi) July 11, 2020
Scrutiny into Jefferson-Henkel’s death comes after the high-profile disappearance and eventual discovery of Vanessa Guillen’s remains near an army base. Guillen was brutally murdered with a hammer by a fellow soldier, according to a press release from the Justice Department. That soldier killed himself, but not before he asked his girlfriend to help him dispose of Guillen’s body. She now faces 20 years in federal prison.
He posted a screenshot of the letter that he sent on Twitter, which read, in part:
The U.S. military has a responsibility to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the young women and men that take an oath to defend our country. While her death has been deemed a suicide, in speaking with Kayli’s family, there appear to be many unanswered questions that remain and they are unable to find closure in this unimaginable tragedy.
The New York Times wrote a long piece examining how the recent cases of Guillen resulted in the #MeToo movement coming to the military and several female veterans who have suffered in silence.
Members of Congress, including California Representative Jackie Speier, have tried passing legislation that would give military prosecutors the prosecutorial discretion to determine which sexual assaults can be tried in the military. Two other members of Congress gave testimony during a House Armed Services Committee to create a pilot Office of the Chief Prosecutor for those types of incidents and it passed committee.