How Did Jennifer Kesse Disappear From the Face of the Earth?

How Did Jennifer Kesse Disappear From the Face of the Earth?

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Jennifer Kesse was a beautiful, hard-working, 24-year-old woman in 2006. She was already so successful that she had recently purchased a condominium ? no small feat for someone in their early twenties. Jennifer?s new home was in a rough part of Orlando, Florida, but the area was being revitalized.

Jennifer?s parents, Drew and Joyce Kesse, were uneasy about their daughter living in such a sketchy area, but they had taught Jennifer to be hypervigilant and to always take safety precautions. Yet, despite taking safety seriously, Jennifer disappeared and almost 14 years later, her whereabouts and what happened to her remain a mystery.

Safety First

Most parents give their kids safety tips. Don?t talk to strangers. Don?t get into the car of someone you don?t know. Lock your doors when you get in the car. Keep your doors and windows locked when you?re home alone.

However, Drew and Joyce Kesse took things a step further in advising their two children, daughter Jennifer and son Logan, and for good reason. The couple had been robbed at gunpoint years earlier when they still lived in New Jersey.

Image for post(L to R) Jennifer, Logan, Joyce, and Drew Kesse

So, Jennifer had gotten into the habit of taking extra precautions to protect herself, such as carrying her keys so that they protruded from between her fingers in case she needed to stab a would-be attacker. She phoned home frequently and always ? always ? answered the phone when her mom or dad called. She checked in with family and friends every night before going to bed.

The new condominium complex where Jennifer lived was unfinished, so it was common for construction workers to be milling about. They often had to come in and out of Jennifer?s condo, which made her more than a little bit nervous. She left her door unlocked during the day while she was at work. When she came home on her lunch break, she would keep the front door open while she made a phone call, so someone could always hear what was going on in the background.

Image for postDrew and Joyce Kesse at the entrance of their daughter?s Orlando condo.

When nighttime came, Jennifer Kesse always made sure she was on the phone with someone as she walked to her car after work. Then, when she got home, she made sure she was on the phone with someone as she walked from the parking lot to her condo.

It was an enormous shock to the Kesse family when their safety-conscious daughter disappeared in late January 2006, somewhere on or around the 24th.

Parents can only insulate their children from so much danger. The sad reality is, it only takes a split second for evil to enter our individual worlds.

Reason for Alarm

Jennifer Kesse?s family knew immediately that something was wrong when they received a call on January 24, 2006, informing them that Jennifer hadn?t shown up for work that day.

Jennifer wasn?t the type to miss work, and she certainly wasn?t the type to miss work without telling someone why she wouldn?t be there.

The day before her disappearance was a normal one. She arrived at work on time and left around 6:30 p.m. As always, Jennifer called her friends to chat. She also spoke with her boyfriend, Rob Allen, around 10 p.m. Rob doesn?t recall anything unusual about the conversation. Jennifer was tired but otherwise fine.

Image for postJennifer and her boyfriend, Rob Allen.

The next day, when Jennifer didn?t show up for work, friends and family became concerned about her. She was so predictable and so dependable. Calls to the young woman?s cellphone went unanswered, and later attempts by the police to ping the phone were unsuccessful. Jennifer ? or someone else ? must have removed the battery from the phone. That was the only explanation for it not pinging.

At first, the police didn?t believe Jennifer was missing. This seems to be a theme in missing person cases. Rob Allen admitted to police that he?d had a disagreement with Jennifer the night before her disappearance. Rob and Jennifer had just returned from a vacation in St. Croix. According to Rob, the police told Jennifer?s parents that their daughter probably left in a huff after the argument and just needed some space, and to expect her to return within 48 hours.

An adult can?t be registered as a missing person for at least 24 hours, and this obviously slows the investigation and search for the individual.

By evening, the Kesses were already handing out flyers, determined to do what law enforcement couldn?t.

Inside Jennifer?s condo, all signs pointed to a normal morning. There were puddles near the shower and makeup on the bathroom counter. Her car and a favorite pair of pumps were missing, suggesting she at least made it out the door of her own volition that morning.

When Jennifer didn?t come home after 48 hours, the police began investigating her whereabouts in earnest.

The Investigation

In February 2006, investigators found Jennifer Kesse?s black Chevrolet Malibu at a condominium complex just a mile from Jennifer?s subdivision. Surveillance photos showed an unidentified individual getting out of the abandoned vehicle.

Image for postJennifer Kesse?s abandoned car

If you?re familiar with this case, the surveillance footage is likely a big reason why.

The unidentified person of interest (POI) in the case got lucky. Beyond lucky. While surveillance cameras managed to capture the person?s image, the POI?s identity was obscured by a gate. It?s hard to make out any identifying details. Every step this individual took protected his or her face from view.

The only thing investigators were able to glean from the video was that the POI was between 5’3″ and 5’5″.

Image for postA nondescript image of the POI in the Jennifer Kesse disappearance from security cameras at the condominium complex where Jennifer?s abandoned car was found.Image for postA colorized version of the same surveillance photo.

It?s hard to tell from the images if the person in the photos is even male or female. It appears the person has their hair tied back and has a thin build, but it?s not enough to go on. It?s also possible he or she was wearing a hat, but it?s impossible to tell.

In December 2008, a couple found a container of pepper spray attached to a mail key belonging to Jennifer Kesse. Law enforcement was slow in accepting the discovery as a piece of evidence, but they finally acquiesced in January 2009.

Persons of Interest

Rob Allen

There is no single POI who has been named. Investigators initially looked at Rob Allen, but quickly ruled him out. Enough said.

Construction Workers

Investigators considered the possibility that one or more of the workers at Jennifer?s condo might have abducted her. Many of the condos were still empty at the time, so a number of the workers were staying in them. Jennifer was unsettled by the fact that there were so many workers, that they knew she lived alone, and that they frequently cat-called her. It was something she complained to her father about often.

It was difficult to investigate the workers because, for starters, there were so many of them, but also because many of them were undocumented workers from Mexico. Only about 100 of them were interviewed by the police.

The theory that she was taken from her complex by one of the workers is supported by the fact that bloodhounds tracked Jennifer?s scent from her car ? found a mile from her home ? to bushes just outside her building.

Robbery/Carjacking

The police don?t believe robbery was a motive in Jennifer Kesse?s disappearance, nor do they think she was carjacked. Several valuables were found in the abandoned car, including a DVD player.

The Ex-Boyfriend

Next in line to go under law enforcement?s microscope was an ex-boyfriend of Jennifer?s, a man named Matt. On the 23rd, the night before Jennifer?s disappearance, he was spotted drinking at a bar across the street from Jennifer?s subdivision.

During a police interview, Matt confessed that he was upset about breaking up with Jennifer, and even more upset that she had gone on a trip with her new boyfriend. Yet, when Matt offered to take a polygraph, the police didn?t think there was enough tying him to the disappearance to take him up on the offer. Jennifer?s brother, Logan, believes Matt is innocent and says the police investigated him, as well as his group of friends, thoroughly.

Johnny Campos

Image for postJohnny Campos? mugshot from an unrelated arrest ? Source: Florida Bookings

One of the unfortunate realities of being an attractive young woman is that you will likely have to endure the attention of a ?creeper? at one point or another.

The creeper in Jennifer Kesse?s life was a co-worker named Johnny Campos. Drew Kesse said his daughter complained to him about Johnny several times after he made multiple passes at her. She was constantly rejecting the man?s advances.

Johnny reportedly came to work late on the 24th acting overly nervous, pacing around the office. He blamed his tardiness on an unverified traffic ticket.

He could have easily gone to Jennifer?s condo and gotten away with it because as a supervisor, he was not required to keep a time card. Co-workers say he became especially panicked around noon, and if you look at the time stamp on the security photos of the obscured POI, you?ll see they were taken at 13:00 hours, which is 1 p.m. Some theorize the car was dropped off around noon, the same time Johnny allegedly went into panic mode.

Johnny looked good for the crime for a list of reasons:

  • He was married but continued to pursue a relationship with Jennifer, even though she repeatedly rejected him and was unwilling to date co-workers as a matter of policy.
  • Another co-worker of Jennifer and Johnny?s, a man named Adam, said a few days before Jennifer went missing, Johnny was upset that Jennifer was dating a new man.
  • Adam said that he saw an e-mail exchange between Jennifer and Johnny in which Johnny said he was unhappy that Jennifer refused to date him.
  • One day Adam e-mailed Jennifer to tell her she looked nice, and this upset Johnny greatly. Johnny asked the co-worker if he was sexually interested in her.
  • On January 23, the day after Jennifer returned from her vacation to St. Croix, a co-worker reportedly overheard Johnny tell Jennifer that he was upset that she went on vacation with her new boyfriend. Jennifer responded by telling him what a wonderful time she had.
  • The day after Jennifer disappeared, Johnny told Adam that Jennifer was ?likely eaten up by alligators already.?

Johnny?s story got the attention of websleuths (and me), but the police say there is no indication that Johnny had anything to do with Jennifer?s disappearance.

David Byron Russ

Image for postDavid Byron Russ

In 2009, a man named David Byron Russ, an inmate at the Seminole County Jail, contacted Drew Kesse after he saw Jennifer?s face and information on a deck of playing cards.

Jails sometimes distribute playing cards to inmates with the photos of people who were missing or killed in the hopes someone will recognize them and provide useful information.

At the time, David was incarcerated for the murder of 58-year-old Madeleine Leinen. He pleaded guilty to the crime in December 2008.

Drew visited with David in the jail and passed along the tips he received to Orlando police investigators, who declined to meet with David.

Nothing ever came of the visit between Drew and David, or the information Drew gave the police.

The Kesses Take Matters Into Their Own Hands

Image for postJoyce and Drew Kesse ? Source: Orlando Sentinel

In 2018, twelve years after their daughter went missing, Drew and Joyce Kesse sued the Orlando Police Department to get their hands on unredacted police files.

Drew said at the time:

?We know how many law enforcement officials have looked at Jennifer?s case and have found absolutely nothing. Now it?s our turn.?

The family received more than 14,000 pages of electronic files from the Orlando Police and dozens of hours of video. A legal team and several investigators stepped in to help the Kesses look through the evidence.

A New Tip

In November 2019, the Orange County Sheriff?s Office announced it was investigating a new tip that was brought to them by the Kesse family investigator.

Dive crews plunged into Lake Fischer in Gotha, Florida, for several days after a cadaver dog indicated something was in the lake.

Image for postSearchers scour Lake Fischer in search of Jennifer Kesse?s body ? Source: Fox 51

Apparently, the tip that the Kesses had received involved a woman who claimed she had seen ?something weird? at the lake around the time Jennifer went missing ? a pickup truck pulled up to the lake and someone removed an eight-foot long carpet, dumped it in the water, and hurriedly left.

From there, the Kesse family?s investigators searched the lake and found ?an unspecified lead.?

Drew Kesse said that unlike the Kesse family?s investigator, the police said they found nothing in the lake.

He explained:

?They worked their teams, had four dogs and they didn?t have any hits. There is a body in that lake, but the Orange County Police Department said there is nothing there. There is something very wrong here.?

Where is Jennifer?

This case is frustrating because there is so little to go on. Where is Jennifer Kesse? I have a couple of theories of my own, but keep in mind I?m just a writer, not a detective.

I?m not convinced that Johnny Campos didn?t have anything to do with Jennifer?s disappearance, if for no other reason than he seemed to be a combination of apathetic and angry the day after Jennifer went missing. He went from being obsessed with her to being angry because she rejected him.

We know that many of the workers at Jennifer?s condo complex were undocumented workers, which made it difficult for investigators to question them and track their comings and goings. My theory is that Johnny Campos paid one of them to kill Jennifer Kesse.

Think about it: A chunk of money would have been very enticing for an undocumented individual trying to earn a living and fly under the radar in the United States.

I also think Jennifer is closer to home than people realize. Now, several hours elapsed between the time she left for work and the time her car was abandoned, so she could be anywhere. But the fact that her car was dumped so close to her home leads me to believe she could be nearby.

Or?

My second theory is that Jennifer was sold into human trafficking. It?s an unfortunate possibility that comes up in just about every missing person case involving a woman. But human trafficking is common, and it is especially common in Orlando.

When you do an Internet search for the top U.S. states for human trafficking, you get a mixed bag of information. But according to WJCT, Florida is among the three worst human trafficking states. In November 2019, more than 100 people were arrested in Orlando in a human trafficking sting.

Image for postSource: Florida Weekly

According to a 2017 article, Orlando is third in the nation for human trafficking.

At this point, human trafficking is about as likely as any other theory, because there?s just nothing to really point to. It?s really frustrating that being an attractive young woman comes with the risk of being abducted and sold into modern-day slavery, but it happens more often than people think.

On the one hand, if she is involved in human trafficking, it means she might still be alive and could be rescued. On the other hand, if she has been living that way for 14 years, then maybe death would have been more merciful. It?s all a matter of personal perspective.

Drew, Joyce, and Logan Kesse deserve answers. They deserve to be able to bring their daughter home, dead or alive.

Image for post(L to R) Logan, Jennifer, Joyce, and Drew Kesse in 2005

Sources:

  • CBS News
  • Ranker
  • CBS News
  • The Context of Things
  • Thought Catalog
  • Orlando Sentinel
  • WTSP News 10
  • Bay News 9
  • Orlando Sentinel
  • Oxygen
  • WJCT
  • Orlando Sentinel
  • Orlando Sentinel
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