FIRST OF A 3-PART SERIES
Today: The Levering family has struggled through generations of poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, child neglect and crime.
Monday: 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.
Nikko Jenkins is charged with killing four people in Omaha this year, but criminal activity in his family began decades ago. An investigation into the family's history revealed patterns of violence, child neglect and drug and alcohol abuse. The behavior has escalated from generation to generation, making the Leverings one of the city's most notorious crime families.
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Levi Levering was the respected face of his family a century ago, when he earned an impressive reputation as an Omaha tribal leader and advocate.
His influence extended from Macy, Neb., to Washington, D.C., where he successfully lobbied Congress in 1920 to protect tribal members' rights to their land.
Now the face of the family is Levi's great-great-grandson: Nikko Jenkins.
Jenkins stands accused of a 10-day killing spree in Omaha last August that left four people dead.
And five other relatives — two of Nikko Jenkins' sisters, his mother, a cousin and an uncle — have also been charged in connection with the killings.
A World-Herald examination of the Levering history shows that 38 descendants of Levi Levering have been convicted of 633 crimes in Omaha since 1979.
Those cases have cost taxpayers at least $2.8 million in prison and jail costs, not counting the price tag of law enforcement, juvenile cases, prosecution or public defense.
Family members have been involved in at least 150 other cases during that period that ended in acquittals, mistrials and dropped charges.
“That family is notorious,” said William Gallup, a defense attorney who has represented some of Nikko Jenkins' relatives.
This is one of a handful of families that Omaha police recognize as habitual lawbreakers, said John Wells, president of the Omaha police union.
“What sets (the Leverings) apart is a few very, very high-profile incidents,” he said.
Public records and interviews with the family, acquaintances, law enforcement officials and academic experts paint the portrait of a family that has deteriorated through escalating violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse and child neglect. Authorities have removed at least 20 children from various Levering family homes.
Many families struggle with poverty without resorting to criminal activity. The Leverings are an extreme example of how poverty, combined with substance abuse and bad choices, can create problems for the whole community.
Both of Nikko Jenkins' parents, Lori Jenkins and David Magee, were convicted of felonies during his childhood, and he grew up watching them fight.
“Me and Nikko's dad, we had a lot of violence in our relationship,” said Lori Jenkins.
It's not surprising that someone like Nikko Jenkins would come from that kind of situation, said Ryan Spohn, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
The Leverings' situation “really is a perfect scenario for producing criminals,” Spohn said. “So I would ask, 'What would you expect to happen?' ”
Some Leverings interviewed said their family is misunderstood.
“Nikko doing this is making our family name look bad,” said Ida Levering, a cousin of Nikko's mother.
Bonita Martinez, another cousin from that generation who lives in Denver, said her family is a close, loving group.
“They've got beautiful hearts,” Martinez said. “I think the downfall is drinking and drugs.”
A few Leverings have avoided crime altogether, but they say it has been difficult.
One of Nikko's cousins, Alicia Levering Watkins, runs an ambulance business in Texas. She moved there to get away from the Levering name, which she called “tainted.”
“All we ever saw growing up was stealing and drinking,” she said. “I don't know how much of a chance the kids in my family have, unless someone gives those children a loving home and shows them a different way.”
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A quarter-century after Levi Levering lobbied his senator, one of his five children became the first Levering to be arrested by Omaha police.
Lincoln Levering punched a man whose friend had made a racist comment. The man died the next day. Lincoln was charged with manslaughter, but he eventually was acquitted.
In 1956, he was accused of causing a second-story fall that broke his wife's back. He died a few months later in a hit-and-run accident.
His wife died three months after that, of complications from the fall. Between them, they left 11 children behind.
Some of Lincoln's children went on to succeed. The oldest, Nelson Levering, was already a well-known boxer by the time his father died. Nelson stayed in Macy, and after a long boxing career, he worked at the Omaha Tribe's education department.
His nine sisters grew up living in mission schools for Native American children. Many struggled there, Martinez said, and moved to Omaha as soon as they were able.
By the late 1960s, a cadre of Levering sisters lived in north Omaha with their husbands, raising children together.
They loved and took care of each other, but they also struggled together.
One of the biggest challenges for the family has been widespread alcoholism and drug abuse.
“My side of the family is nothing but alcoholics, crackheads, drunks,” Nikko's mother, Lori Jenkins, said recently. “It's sad.”
Family members have committed 78 alcohol-related crimes and an additional 34 drug crimes since 1979.
Just about every adult in the family has attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, Martinez said. She has seen family members wake up at 5 a.m. and crack open a beer.
“I'm like, 'You're not even brushing your teeth. What are you doing?' ” she said.
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Lori Jenkins and her cousins, including Martinez and Ida Levering, grew up together mostly in the '70s and '80s, some of them so close, they were like siblings.
“We have a big family. Everybody loves everybody,” Martinez said. “If they need something, we'd give them the shirt off our back, pretty much.”
Their oldest aunt, Adeline Valentine, would invite the whole family over for game night for the children. They'd play bingo and other games to win trinkets.
Valentine and her sisters — including Ida's mother, Delphine — pitched in to take care of the children.
“My mother, she was just a beautiful person,” Ida said. “She'd give you the last penny.”
But family members didn't always get along.
Watkins, the woman who moved to Texas, recalls that her uncles' basketball games would be friendly — until the alcohol started to flow.
“They would drink, play basketball, and then they would physically fight each other,” Watkins said. “They usually didn't even know what they were fighting about.”
In 1996 one of Lori Jenkins' cousins, Connie, was accused of stabbing a sister in the neck, although charges were later dropped.
Despite their fights, the family protected its members against outsiders, and they continued to care for one another.
As teens, Lori, Ida and their cousins began having their own children. Some of them were too young for such responsibility, and their mothers or older sisters would pick up the slack.
Although a handful attended community college, many others didn't graduate even from high school.
Many got into trouble, and some amassed long rap sheets, from minor crimes such as marijuana possession to felonies including robbery.
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Like their mothers, Lori's generation of cousins stayed close as they raised their children.
Martinez, 41, revived her aunt's tradition, inviting her nieces and nephews over for talent shows, game nights and karaoke.
The family did normal activities together, she said. They celebrated birthdays, watched TV, cooked.
But alcohol and drug use created significant problems.
At least three of Lori's cousins had children taken away — 14 children altogether — mostly because the mothers used drugs and drank while pregnant.
Ida lost custody of seven children after she drank and used cocaine while pregnant.
“At that time, I was having a lot of struggles,” Ida said.
After being adopted or growing up in foster care, some of her children fared well; one son is attending the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Others didn't fare well. Another son is in jail, awaiting trial on nine felony charges connected with shooting at police officers.
The oldest daughter, now 25, never found a permanent placement. She ended up being cared for by an unrelated man 39 years her senior.
She had three children by age 20, and the court soon became involved because of allegations of violence, child neglect and drug use.
She told court officials the older man was her uncle. But she later amended that: He was actually her boyfriend, who got her pregnant when she was 17.
As in her mother's case, her children were taken away permanently.
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Overall, members of the Levering family have been convicted in Omaha of 35 assaults, 10 gun-related charges and three robberies since 1979. That doesn't include juvenile cases.
Violence snowballed in Nikko Jenkins' generation.
Before this year the most notorious Levering was named Jimmy.
He was known in the gang community by the age of 17, when he was charged with first-degree murder. Charges were dropped after witnesses backed out of testifying.
Four years later, after Jimmy finished a federal prison term on an ammunitions charge, family members say he was trying to leave gang life behind.
But he didn't escape. He died in a gang shooting in 2011, about a month before his 22nd birthday.
That night, his whole family gathered at the hospital to say goodbye, and a rumor spread that a police officer had shot Jimmy.
Many police officers also arrived and tried to clear the emergency room crowd. One cousin, Robert Wagner, resisted and punched an officer in the head.
Fifteen officers swarmed Wagner, deploying a Taser, striking him with a baton and kicking him. The controversial arrest is the subject of a pending federal lawsuit.
The incident, which was captured on camera, damaged the Police Department's reputation with the community, and police officials say the fallout has jeopardized officers' lives.
The rumor later proved to be false. It was not a police gun that killed Jimmy Levering.
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The toll that the Leverings take on Omaha continues to rise.
Earlier generations bounced in and out of prison, sometimes for violent crimes. But they were never charged with murder in Omaha — until Jimmy.
Now Nikko Jenkins and two other relatives are facing murder charges connected to four Omaha deaths in August.
In all, six Levering family members are charged with 30 crimes in connection with that killing spree:
» Nikko Jenkins faces four counts of first-degree murder; a sister and an uncle face one count each in the same deaths.
» Six counts of using a gun to commit a felony.
» Eight counts of weapon possession by a felon.
» Four counts of conspiracy to commit robbery.
» Four counts of being an accessory to murder.
» Two counts of being a felon in possession of ammunition.
The increased violence comes in the generation that grew up in the 1990s, as gangs took hold in Omaha.
“The people around you, that's where you learn your values and who you should choose as your role models,” said Spohn, the UNO criminologist.
In the past five years, dozens of programs have been developed in Omaha that are aimed at addressing poverty, violence, education, gangs and other problems there.
“That can help future generations, but we can't go back in that way and help Nikko's parents or Nikko's grandparents,” Spohn said.
Now the great-great-great-grandchildren of Levi Levering are growing up, many the offspring of parents who are repeating the cycle of violence and neglect. Some children have already been taken away from their parents.
At least two more are on the way: Nikko's future nieces or nephews, who might be born while their mothers are behind bars.
World-Herald staff writers Maggie O'Brien, Cody Winchester, Matt Wynn, Emily Nohr, Anna Gronewold, Katherine Leszczynski and Jeanne Hauser contributed to this report.