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Vanished: the Disappearance of Joleen Cummings

More than two months after disappearance of popular local woman, who is now presumed deceased, police still searching for clues

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Joleen Cummings spent the day before Mother’s Day this past May at her job as a hairdresser at Tangles Hair Salon in Fernandina Beach. Her plans were to leave work and spend the holiday with her children. The holiday was going to be even more special because it was also her birthday. She has not been seen since.

The prime suspect in Cummings’ disappearance is a woman named Kimberly Kessler. Since 1996, Kessler has lived in 33 cities in 14 states and used 18 different aliases. After obtaining a cosmetology license under the name Jennifer Sybert, she worked with Cummings at Tangles Hair Salon. Police are convinced she was the last person to see Cummings alive.

Tangles Hair Salon was closed the Sunday after Joleen went missing, as well as the Monday that followed. When police arrived on Tuesday morning to interview the woman they knew as Jennifer Sybert, she had not yet arrived for work. Her social security number and address were revealed to be fake. That afternoon, police learned that a vehicle matching the description of Cummings’ beige Ford Expedition had been parked overnight in a Home Depot parking lot not far from Tangles.

“We found some camera footage that showed Joleen’s vehicle being parked around 1:17 a.m. Sunday morning,” said Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper at a press conference on May 22. “The video showed the driver sit[ting] there for a few minutes and then get[ting] out. We were hoping to see Joleen get out of the vehicle, but who do you think it was? The Tangles hairstylist who last worked with Joleen on Saturday. She went by the name of Jennifer Sybert.”

On May 16, Kessler was apprehended as she slept in her car at a rest stop in St. Johns County. Since being placed in custody, she has not spoken to investigators. At one point, she refused to eat—a bizarre attempt at protest that led to her being transferred to the Duval County Jail. Still, no one knows why or how Cummings vanished, and the shadowy past of her presumed killer has added to the mystery surrounding her disappearance.

Tangles Hair Salon is closed now. In early June, the owner wrote a heartfelt goodbye to customers online, explaining that it just would not be the same without Cummings. The sign has been removed and can be seen lying on the floor inside. The name has been scrubbed from the windows, but the letters are still there, faint against the glass.

The shopping center is located along the section of A1A that connects Yulee, Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach. Up and down this stretch of road, businesses have fliers posted in their windows that read “Missing Joleen Cummings” and “Suspect Kimberly Kessler AKA Jennifer Sybert.” The fliers show photos of both Cummings and Kessler, as well as a list of Kessler’s aliases. Everyone in the area is closely following the case.

At Woody’s Bar-B-Q, Cummings’ disappearance weighs heavily on the staff. Woody’s is in the same shopping center as Tangles. Everyone expresses genuine sorrow over the disappearance of the much-admired woman. All accounts of her create the impression that she was a pretty, popular hometown girl, liked by all. The 34-year-old was a mother of three who had many friends and family in the area. “Everyone was very close-knit,” says Woody’s manager Jeremy Bynun. “They were like family.”

Kimberly Kessler—under the name Jennifer Sybert—briefly worked at Woody’s as a server. She has since become a notorious character, the stuff of local legend and lore. “She didn’t know how to talk to people,” says owner Yvette Wood. “She was a very strange and secretive person.” Wood describes Kessler’s routine of tucking her long hair into the back of her shirt and wearing a wig to cover it. Bynun talks about her strange habit of ordering a pound of meat and eating it with her fingers. They discuss the incident that led to Kessler’s quitting, a strange episode in which Wood asked Kessler to cut more lemons and Kessler proceeded to scream at her and storm out of the restaurant.

The address Kessler provided to Woody’s Bar-B-Q was also fake. The assumption is that she had been living out of her car. The staff at Woody’s says she would shower at a nearby gym and eat meals at a local Salvation Army center. She reportedly worked at a Great Clips hair salon before Tangles. In response to questions about Kessler’s supposed employment, the eyes of a Great Clips staff member go wide and she says, “We’re not supposed to talk about that.”

“We’re not quite sure why all the disguises or if she has been involved in the disappearance of anyone else before,” said Sheriff Leeper, “but it seems she is definitely running from something.”

Her family in Butler County, Pennsylvania reported Kessler missing 10 years ago. The police in Pennsylvania have said Kessler’s disappearance was suspicious, and that they believed she was a person who didn’t want to be found. Her mother told WTAE in Pittsburgh that she believes Kessler assumed a false identity as part of an ongoing effort to locate her son, Evan. The reasoning behind this is vague and unclear. The WTAE story also proposes that Evan died as a baby.

Since that interview, ex-partner Tim Edwards has surfaced to provide his own version about Kessler’s past. Edwards told First Coast News that Kessler was living under the name Melissa McKernen when he met her in 1997. When their son was born in 1998, she put the name Christina Melissa Brook on the birth certificate. According to Edwards, “All I know is from my side of it. What she told me was that she was trying to avoid her mother, and I guess what she was telling her mother was [that] she was trying to avoid me.”

Edwards claims Evan was 15 months old when Kessler had an argument with a neighbor, and the neighbor contacted Social Services. When a Social Services representative intervened to remove Evan from Kessler’s care, she “went to Social Services with a handgun trying to get Evan back from them.” Kessler later fled the area before she was arrested. Edwards was awarded full custody of their son, and Kessler’s parental rights were terminated.

The name Jennifer Sybert was one Kessler took from the grave of a teenager in Pennsylvania. The real Jennifer Sybert died at the age of 13 in a car accident in Rheinbert, Germany. According to Donald Rebovich, executive director of the Center for Identity Management & Information Protection, “The reason you would want to do that is—depending how long that person has been deceased—that person does not have a credit trail. As an identity thief, that’s what you want.”

“The people who commit these sorts of offenses know how to manipulate the system,” says Rebovich. “If a person wants to try to get a social security number, for example, they might be able to socially engineer someone who works for the Social Security Administration or a government agency where they have that information available.”

Investigators say they know Cummings is dead, but they will not say how they know. Sheriff Leeper has stated only that the community will be shocked when the evidence is revealed. Since her arrest, Kessler has been charged with grand theft auto and possession of a false passport. The Nassau County Sheriff’s Office (NCSO) can prove that Kessler had Joleen Cummings’ car, but the question is whether they will be able to prove much else.

After searching more than 40 locations in Nassau County, as well as areas in St. Johns and Duval, the NCSO teamed up with the FBI to comb through a mountain of trash the size of a football field at the Chesser Island Landfill in South Georgia. They were looking for a white trash bag Kessler threw away the night of Cummings’ disappearance. Kessler was caught on security footage disposing of the bag in a dumpster outside Tangles Salon.

Wearing white suits with respirators, search teams worked 12 hours a day in brutal heat, raking away layers of refuse, hoping to find something, anything, that would further their investigation and bring closure to the family of Joleen Cummings. The landfill search concluded on July 13. The evidence collected has not been disclosed to the public and the outcome of the investigation remains unclear. The only thing certain is that the whereabouts of Joleen Cummings are still unknown.

On the last day of the landfill search, Leeper stood before a gathering of reporters and said, “There is one person who knows where Joleen is, and that person is in the Duval County Jail. And she’s not talking.”

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