The parents of a south Georgia college student first learned from Facebook that their daughter had been found dead in a dormitory study room shortly before Thanksgiving. Now, they hope that Facebook and other social media sites can help solve the death of 17-year-old Jasmine Benjamin, which police are investigating as a homicide.
The Valdosta State University freshman was found unresponsive on a study room couch on Nov. 18. A family friend forwarded the Facebook post about the teen's death to her parents before they were officially notified by authorities, said A. Thomas Stubbs, an attorney for the victim's mother, Judith Brogdon, and her stepfather, James Jackson. But many questions remain unanswered about how she died.
The family has hired a private investigator, and a new Facebook site has been set up in hopes that students and others might share tips.
While some Facebook comments have already been turned over to law enforcement officers, the family hopes friends, classmates or others who noticed suspicious comments will also alert authorities. "Anything that reveals a little more information than what's publicly known about her death, those are the kind of comments police are looking for as someone who might warrant a closer examination," Stubbs said.
Also of interest are "unusual comments or unusually timed comments about her death," he said. Police detectives have canvassed dormitories and interviewed several students on the campus, located about 250 miles south of the family's home in Gwinnett County, outside Atlanta.
Benjamin wanted to follow the career path of her mother and become a nurse. Police say they're treating the case as a homicide, though autopsy results are not complete and they can't say for certain whether she was killed. There were no obvious signs of a crime when her body was found, but an autopsy raised questions, authorities have said.
"We're providing what resources are necessary to assist Valdosta State University police in solving this crime," Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead said. "The crime lab is expediting evidence from this incident."
Shortly after Benjamin's parents learned of her death from Facebook, Lawrenceville police officers knocked on the doors of the family home to inform them officially that their daughter was dead, Stubbs said. "As frustrating as that may be for the family to learn that way, they understand it's a different world," Stubbs said.
The family has yet to learn the possible timeframe of when their daughter died, and police have not shared any theories about how she was killed, Stubbs said. "We know that they have looked at the phone records, video records that they can find in the school," he said. Beyond that, they've been going through legal procedures that are required to obtain records from Facebook Inc.
The family hired Martinelli Investigations Inc. of Lawrenceville to assist in the investigation. Private investigator Robin Martinelli said Wednesday that any video near the scene, even if may seem insignificant, could prove helpful in the investigation. "It wouldn't matter if it was two weeks before, two hours before or 20 minutes before," she said.
Officials at the university say the wiring for a surveillance system in the dormitory where Benjamin died was already installed. Theresa Boyd, director of communications at the school, said the cameras were on backorder and had not yet arrived when Benjamin died.
The cameras are now being installed in residence hall elevators, Boyd said. Martinelli said she's confident that police are working diligently to follow up on leads, but private investigators can often provide valuable assistance, she said. "On any homicide, they're going to work around the clock aggressively every minute, and they're doing that," she said.
She said Jasmine Benjamin was a strong student who showed great potential. "Her favorite color was purple, her nickname was Jazzy," she said. "She wanted to help people, plain and simple," her stepfather, James Jackson, told WSB-TV. "That was her goal in life. That's all she talked about since she was young — 'I want to be able to help people.'"
Valdosta State campus police, city police and the GBI were working together to conduct interviews and collect evidence, the university said in a statement Tuesday. University officials said they couldn't release any further information.
Martinelli hopes students away at college keep in touch with their parents — and give them the passwords to social networking sites and their cell phones in case anything happens. "If you have passcodes to your computer, your phone, please tell your parents," she said. "Don't tell everybody in the world, but tell your parents your passcodes."
She said some of the best advice parents can give students is this: "They should listen to their gut," she said. "If they walk into a situation and it's not feeling right, leave."