The Mourning After
Last spring Nebraska soccer star Jenna Cooper was shot to death. As the murder trial nears, Cooper's teammates have vowed to keep her memory alive
By John Walters and Jaime Lowe
A barbecue to celebrate the final day of the spring exhibition soccer season ended with a Husker player fighting for her life in a Lincoln hospital. Jenna Cooper, 21, was shot in the throat after an altercation between two men about 2 a.m. Sunday. The [junior] defender from Louisville, Ky., underwent surgery and was listed in critical condition Sunday. -- OMAHA WORLD-HERALD, APRIL 26, 2004
Maybe you remember glancing at the sports briefs of your campus paper in April and reading about the Nebraska women's soccer player who had been shot. Maybe the story gave you a moment's pause. But unless you live in Lincoln, Neb., you probably had forgotten about it by the next day. Forgotten that Nebraska women's soccer player who had been shot at an off-campus party. It was, after all, the last week of April, and you had other things on your mind. Finals. Your fall semester housing situation. Summer school. An internship.
Her teammates, however, remember. "You hear it all the time, but your life can change in a split second," says Lindsey Ingram, Jenna Cooper's classmate and housemate. "Those words don't sink in until your life actually does change in a split second."
Nearly five months have passed since Cooper was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the wounds have yet to heal.
"You know, people who met her once didn't forget her," says senior midfielder Brooke Bredenberg, one of Cooper's closest friends. "Jenna had an effect on each person on and off the field."
"She was a great leader, a great soccer player," adds Ingram, sitting in the partial shade of a tree during a Cornhuskers team retreat last month. "The strength of the team is the team, not the individuals. She was somebody we looked toward to make things happen. And her personality was even stronger than her soccer ability."
As a sophomore in the fall of 2002, Cooper scored the game-winning goal in the Big 12 tournament championship game against Texas A&M. She led the Cornhuskers in assists in '02 and '03, serving as a co-captain and earning team MVP honors in the latter season. Those were no small accomplishments in a program that in coach John Walker's 10-plus seasons has won more than 78% of its games and qualified for the NCAA tournament eight times.
Cooper's final weekend was typical for a Division I athlete. On Friday evening, in an exhibition against the Canadian national team, she had an assist in a 1-1 tie. Cooper -- or "Coop," as she was better known -- was playing in front of her mother, Ellen, who had flown in from Louisville earlier that week to help her only daughter look for off-campus housing for her senior year. The most popular Husker among young fans, Cooper stayed late as usual to sign autographs.
The following night Cooper and Ingram hosted a season-ending barbecue at the house they rented on South 35th Street. The brown, ranch-style home is located in a residential neighborhood about three miles south of campus. Dozens of people showed, mostly Nebraska students, and about 20 lingered after midnight, which is when the trouble began.
At about 12:45 a.m. Lucky Iromuanya and Aroun Phaisan, two college-age Lincoln residents who were not Nebraska students, arrived at the house. Iromuanya, a 23-year-old father of two, had recently studied criminal justice at a Lincoln business school and was a volunteer with AmeriCorps, a community-service organization that runs programs for violent youths. There he worked with Phaisan, whom he had known since middle school. Neither man had a criminal record. Police would later say that an unidentified guest at the party had invited Phaisan.
The two had been at the party for less than half an hour when a woman stormed into the kitchen and said that her shot glasses were missing. Nobody was leaving, she added, until they were recovered. "I started to become uncomfortable, and we decided to leave," Phaisan would later tell the Lincoln Journal Star. "We were ready to have them search us if they wanted to." Outside, however, Nolan Jenkins, Ingram's fiancé, confronted Iromuanya and accused him of swiping the glasses. According to Lincoln police chief Tom Casady, Jenkins and Iromuanya were "nose-to-nose and toes-to-toes, and they were exchanging words." Phaisan told the Journal Star that Jenkins had Iromuanya in an armlock as a crowd formed around his friend.
Jenkins calmed down briefly, but within a few minutes he again went after Iromuanya, who would later tell police that he felt threatened. At 2:04 a.m., Iromuanya reached into his jeans pocket, pulled out a .32-caliber derringer pistol and fired once. The bullet grazed Jenkins on the left side of his head. It then struck Cooper, who was standing about 20 feet away, in the lower part of her throat, severely damaging her carotid artery before becoming lodged in her lung.
After firing the shot, Iromuanya and Phaisan hopped into Phaisan's black SUV, and the two left the scene. At Phaisan's house Iromuanya picked up his own car and drove home. In his statement to police less than an hour later, Phaisan recalled Iromuanya saying, "I think I hit someone." Officers then proceeded to 1925 North 29th Street, where they arrested Iromuanya, who was still carrying his pistol, at 2:51 a.m. Iromuanya waived his Miranda rights 90 minutes later, and in his interview he told police that he had meant to fire a "warning shot" to scare Jenkins.
Around that time Coach Walker phoned Nebraska athletic director Steve Pederson to tell him what had happened. "When you get a call at that time of the night," says Pederson, a father of three, "it's never good news."
Dozens of teammates, school officials and friends of Cooper's immediately descended upon the BryanLGH Medical Center West to keep a vigil. As late as Sunday afternoon, when Walker pulled aside team members to apprise them of Cooper's status, the mood was hopeful. "Everybody thought she'd come out of it," Bredenberg says. "Coop's just so strong."
Cooper, however, was pronounced dead that night at 7:21 p.m. Her death is one of only four homicides in Lincoln this year.
Two days after Cooper's death, nearly 1,000 people showed up for a service in her honor on campus. The school's baseball and softball squads -- both of which had games later that afternoon -- were in attendance. Instead of requesting a minute of silence, however, Walker asked the congregation to "raise the roof" for a minute of raucous applause in celebration of Cooper's life.
Three days later, in Cooper's hometown of Louisville, the entire Cornhuskers squad, dressed in their game jerseys, lined the aisle of the Cathedral of the Assumption for the funeral. The following day, a Saturday, was the Kentucky Derby. Cooper had often told Bredenberg, a Minnesota native, that she wanted to take her to the race to show off her hometown. And so Bredenberg and Christy Harms, the Huskers' other co-captain, went on their own.
Neither girl knew much about horse racing. "We put some money on the number 15 horse [Cooper's high school number at Sacred Heart Academy] and the number 3 horse [Cooper's number at Nebraska]," Bredenberg recalls. "We were standing right at the rail. When the horses came down the homestretch, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The 15 horse [Smarty Jones] won and the 3 horse [Lion Heart] finished second."
The winning time? 2:04.
"People came up to me randomly and gave me hugs," Ingram says of the outpouring of support from the community after Cooper's death. "The support has continued -- people who ordinarily wouldn't say anything come up to us and just hug us."
For the Cornhuskers players, however, the aftermath of Cooper's death remains an ongoing struggle. The local media ran lead stories for weeks after the shooting. Several players who were at the party will have to relive the tragic night when they testify at Iromuanya's trial, which is scheduled to begin on Dec. 6.
Then there is the National Alliance. Just days after Cooper's death the West Virginia-based white supremacist group started distributing door-to-door in Lincoln flyers that featured a 2002 photograph of Nebraska governor Mike Johanns posing with a group of AmeriCorps volunteers, including Iromuanya, the son of Nigerian immigrants. The flyer called the shooting "a wake-up call to the deadly consequences of a multiracial society."
The Cornhuskers were appalled. "They won't get attention from us," Ingram says. "No one even remotely reIated to Jenna is part of their cause. I knew this would happen, since [Iromuanya] is a black male. It has nothing to do with the truth of the situation."
The truth of the situation is that the Cornhuskers are anxious to move forward. "Jenna would have wanted us to go on with our lives," Ingram says. And yet Cooper's memory remains palpable. A scholarship fund for the program has been set up in Cooper's name. Four members of the team, including Bredenberg and Ingram, have gotten tattoos to commemorate their ex-teammate. Bredenberg's is on her left foot, "because Coop was left-footed." It reads true friend #3.
In August the Huskers returned to Cooper's hometown for an exhibition against Louisville. Bredenberg, who sleeps with an old club jersey of Cooper's and has made a scrapbook of their friendship (with never forget on its cover), scored the first goal in a 4-0 Nebraska win. "It's difficult to play soccer, but it's a way for us to get back in the swing of things," Ingram says. "Although it's a reminder of Jenna, it's the thing we have to wake up to every day. Soccer is my distraction."
A week after the Louisville exhibition Nebraska retired Coop's number 3 jersey before an alumni game. In each corner of the field at the Abbott Sports Complex a small 3 is painted to honor Cooper. Before each game the Huskers line up in numerical order for the playing of the national anthem; in the place where Coop would be, number 2 Aly Scace and number 4 Kari Hogan stand an extra space apart.
"I'm waiting for it to get easier," Ingram says, tears in her eyes. "I don't think it ever will."
Issue date: September 27, 2004