SECOND OF A 3-PART SERIES: NIKKO JENKINS' FAMILY
About the series
Sunday: The Levering family has struggled through generations of poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, child neglect and crime.
Today: Two Levering success stories — a young man who perseveres despite overwhelming odds, and a woman who is finding success in life far from her Omaha family.
Coming later this week: The Leverings' criminal activity creates problems for the entire community.
* * *
His first name is Cornelius. His last name is complicated.
He sits in a quiet corner of a crowded student center on the campus of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, looking like an ordinary second-year student: solid T-shirt and plaid shorts, black socks and light-brown boat shoes, a camouflage Yankees cap turned backward.
He has the bright eyes, goofy smile and slight frame of a 20-year-old who could pass for 16. Asked how he spends his spare time, he says playing Xbox and hanging out with friends.
“I like to talk to pretty girls,” he says with the goofy smile.
For most of his 20 years, he's gone by Cornelius Kincaid.
He took the name from the woman who became his foster parent when he was 6.
His memories before then are hazy but stark. He remembers fighting, and flashing red and blue lights. He has a scar on his chest, over his heart, though he doesn't know how he got it.
“I had my nipple burned off at a very young age,” he says.
Court records provide details that he doesn't recall. Pan out to his extended family, and a larger portrait of neglect emerges: adults given over to alcohol and drugs; their sons, daughters and grandchildren exposed to things no child should have to experience.
In his case, Cornelius was 2 months old when his father threatened his mother with a knife. He was 5 when his mom gave birth to a baby girl who had cocaine in her system.
A social worker investigated and found a home with a history of substance abuse and violence. After that, a sheriff came to take him and his siblings.
He and his older brother were placed in one foster home, two of his sisters in another, the baby girl in a third. He remembers that.
A few years later, when he was 10, Cornelius and his brother, Tyrone, were adopted by their foster mother. Cornelius always looked up to Tyrone even as their lives started to fork, with one avoiding the trouble that the other found too easily.
Memories of his adoptive mother are mixed. He questions whether she ever saw him as a son, even though he so badly wanted to see her as a mom.
He credits her with instilling in him the importance of getting an education — even though she abandoned him days before he started high school.
“This is how it's going to work,” he recalls her saying, before she left him homeless and destitute. She dropped him off with his biological aunt, promised to deposit money into an account — which never materialized — and left town for Texas.
In the weeks and months that followed, he reconnected with birth relatives, staying wherever he could. Concrete floors, a roach-infested apartment, a vacant house. Music blaring all night. Alcohol and fighting.
He remembers standing afraid on the front terrace of Omaha North High School one day, uncertain of where this life would lead.
“A freshman in high school,” he says. “I don't think a kid should worry. But I don't think I saw myself making it this far.”
He carried the Kincaid name through high school. He enrolled at UNO with it. He's still known by it in some respects.
But last year, after he had aged out of the foster care system, Cornelius had his name legally changed back. Given an undesirable option, he chose distant wounds over fresh ones, only to learn that the past continues. The family name has become one of the most notorious in Omaha.
Asked his last name, he gives it with qualification, the way you might if you were piecing together a life that began in shreds.
“I was born with the name Levering.”
* * *
Shawn Medrano saw the name and worried.
She was a social worker who took an interest in Cornelius. Like everyone else, she read the name Levering a few months back in connection with the four charges of murder against tattoo-faced Nikko Jenkins. There were also various allegations against his mother, two of his sisters, an uncle and a cousin.
The charges were the latest and most gruesome in a criminal history spanning several generations of Leverings in Omaha.
More to Medrano's concern, all those accused in the latest crime wave were second cousins to the Levering she cared about: Cornelius.
Medrano read the stories online and saw the comments.
“What a horrible family,” someone posted.
“An entire family that is totally wacko,” wrote another.
She felt an urge to comment herself, to say, “If you only knew this kid I know.” But she was wise enough to realize that it wouldn't make a difference. So she stopped reading the comments.
She's just 47, but the gravity of her life's work weighs heavy in her eyes. During her 26 years in human services, Medrano has worked with hundreds of kids, teenagers mostly. She never met one like Cornelius.
It happened by chance. She was picking up another kid to give him a tour of Boys Town. Cornelius asked if he could go along. She didn't notice right away that he wore slippers for shoes. It took her longer to learn that he was living on his own, skipping from house to house, and yet still making it to school.
“This is a kid who never felt sorry for himself,” she says. “He never gave up. He just kept going. He never used his situation as a barrier. He could've. He could have said, 'I don't have a place to live; I'm not going to school.' He never did. He's got spirit. He's got a spark.”
At one point Cornelius was staying with a cousin's former girlfriend. She picked him up one day with his few possessions packed up and told him she couldn't keep him anymore. She folded up his clothes and gave him some food, “just in case.”
He decided then that he wanted to go back into foster care. Medrano helped him navigate back into the system.
It wasn't easy. He had no parent or guardian, no birth certificate or Social Security card. Eventually he was placed in a new home and had a roof over his head.
Through it all, he kept going to school; and there, a teacher — Katharine Anderson — was looking out for him.
Anderson first met Cornelius in her art class at Nathan Hale Middle School. He was the curious kid, always asking questions. His curiosity about his part-Native American roots so inspired her that she wrote a children's book starring a kid named Cornelius.
She also knew what he came from. She understood that the traits that kept him out of trouble — his positive nature, emotional maturity and genuine inquisitiveness — represented a thin front against the challenges he faced. So when he moved on to high school, she requested a transfer to North.
“I wanted to be there in case anything happened,” she says.
The week Cornelius moved onto the UNO campus, he called Anderson and Medrano, worried because he didn't have any of the things that college freshmen take with them to the dorms. New clothes. School supplies. An alarm clock.
They pitched in what they could, determined to make sure this kid, who has overcome more than most students, could have new sheets for his bed.
“He gets up every day, and he continues to survive,” Medrano says. “He's truly my hero. If he can get up and look in the mirror and smile, I can continue to get up and work with people.”
Anderson considers it “miraculous” that Cornelius escaped the life that ensnared so many around him. But he is human. Like any 20-year-old, he makes mistakes. He doesn't always listen to reason, such as when he bought a car last year despite her warning he'd regret it. (He does.)
Sometimes Anderson looks at him and still sees “a little boy lost on his way.”
“But he saw the light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.
* * *
His name is Cornelius Levering, and part of him wants to own it. He wants to prove the name is capable of good.
He also knows it's a lot to bear and not his responsibility to bear it. Sometimes he considers a new name altogether: Umonhon, for the Omaha Tribe that's also part of his identity.
He stays in touch with his birth mother, Ida Levering, more than a decade after her parental rights were taken away. But he struggles to characterize the relationship.
“It can be hard to forgive,” he says.
Ida Levering says she's proud of her son but otherwise declined to comment for this story.
On campus, Cornelius still uses the name Kincaid. In his heart, he holds on to the adoptive mother who let him go.
He remembers dreaming about what he wanted to do as he crossed the stage at his high school graduation, how he would drop to his knees, clasp his hands over his head and say, “I did it,” directing the words to her with love. “I did it, Mama.”
He invited her to his graduation. Others told him she didn't deserve to enjoy his success, but he did it anyway. She didn't attend.
He says he doesn't write to her anymore, though he would have much to update. New triumphs, like earning a scholarship that covers his tuition, and completing his first year of college.
New struggles, too. He might tell her about Tyrone Wells Jr., the older brother he looked up to, her other adopted son. He might tell her about the charges against Tyrone, that he fired at police officers late one night from the front steps of an elementary school before surrendering. The last time he saw Tyrone was from the opposite side of a jail partition. He wonders if he'll ever see him again.
He might tell her about the extreme anxiety he started to experience last year, how he's seeing a therapist, how he reaches out to Medrano and Anderson for help.
“I thank God for good people,” he says.
He tries to keep his mind on the future, telling himself he must prevail. He pictures himself in 10 years, at 30, and sees a career in business. He envisions himself bringing change to a failing foster care industry.
He imagines starting a family of his own. He thinks about taking them on vacation. In this dream, he watches with pride as his kids grow up.
In this life, he realizes a last name isn't just a marker of where you began, but what you leave behind.