Investigation into Cummings’ disappearance heads for Georgia landfill
This story was updated Tuesday, July 10, 2018 at 4:30 p.m.
The search for a missing Nassau County woman, believed to be dead, led investigators to a landfill in Charlton County, Ga., last Friday after the suspect in the disappearance was allegedly seen in a surveillance video placing items in a dumpster.
At a news conference Friday held at the FBI Jacksonville Division’s office, Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper, FBI Special Agent in Charge Charles Nelson, Charlton County Sheriff Dobie Conner and State Attorney Melissa Nelson spoke to reporters about the case of Joleen Rebecca Cummings, who was reported missing May 14.
She was last seen in the company of a coworker, Jennifer Sybert, after she finished her shift at Tangles Hair Salon in Fernandina Beach on Saturday, May 12.
Kimberly Kessler, who was using the alias Jennifer Sybert at the salon, was arrested after a surveillance video showed her exiting Cummings’ vehicle in the parking lot of the Home Depot in Yulee around 1 a.m. May 13. Cummings was not in the vehicle.
A law enforcement officer found Kessler in her own car, a 2016 Kia Soul, at an Interstate 95 rest area in St. Johns County the following day and arrested her on grand theft auto charges. She remains in custody. Leeper said Kessler is not cooperating with investigators.
Kessler, according to law enforcement officials, has at least 18 aliases and dozens of previous addresses.
Leeper said video surveillance also shows Kessler throwing away what investigators believe is evidence in the case.
“Investigators reviewed hundreds of hours of surveillance video and were able to find footage of Kessler disposing of what looked like a white trash bag and emptying the contents of a trash can in one of several dumpsters in the general vicinity of the hair salon in Fernandina Beach over that weekend, items that could be important in this case,” Leeper said. He declined to give a specific location of the dumpster.
Law enforcement officials concluded that the contents of the dumpster had been taken to the Waste Management-operated Chesser Island Road Landfill in Charlton County, Ga., according to Leeper.
“The detectives immediately contacted the management of the team at Chesser Island Road Landfill and requested a hold on the area where that potential evidence was taken,” Leeper said. “That area has remained untouched since then. We narrowed our scope of search at the waste site through GPS tracking devices and coordinates of where those particular trash trucks dumped their loads on Monday, May 14.”
Leeper said that approximately 2,700 tons of trash had been dumped at that particular part of the landfill between the time the video was found and when the hold was put on that section of the dump.
“The reason we have waited this long to search the dump site is because it is in another jurisdiction and state, as well as the efforts, coordination, costs involved in these searches and the low success rate of past landfill searches,” Leeper said. “Over the past several weeks we have continued tracking down Kessler’s strange past history, collecting valuable physical and forensic evidence, reviewing telephone records, interviewed hundreds of potential witnesses, searched through hours and hours of video surveillance from various businesses at locations, and following every lead the public has provided to us.
“We have now determined that a search of the landfill is necessary to ensure that we have done all that we can do to find clues and answers for Joleen’s family, based on what we know at this point. We needed to exhaust all other leads before taking on this monumental task. It takes all of our resources and focus away from looking elsewhere.”
Spencer said the search of the Chesser Island Road Landfill will be conducted by the FBI evidence response team, members from FBI divisions in Jacksonville, Atlanta, Tampa, Jackson, Mississippi, Boston and Washington, D.C. and representatives from the FBI lab in Quantico.
Leeper explained the procedure for the search: Heavy equipment will pick up a load of trash and place it in an area where searchers can sift through it for any items of interest. Once that is done, that pile will be taken away and another load be placed for sifting.
Cadaver dogs cannot be used, Leeper said, due to the dangerous conditions that are anticipated to be encountered at the landfill, such as sharp objects and hazardous materials.
The search involves 24 team members, as well as administrative and medical staff, who began working in 12-hour shifts at 7 a.m. Saturday, July 7. Spencer said that, with that schedule, it is hoped the search can be concluded in seven days.
The FBI has agreed to pay the costs of the search, according to Leeper.
Leeper said that, while he continues to pray for resolution in the case, “we are also proceeding with developing a strong criminal case as well. We want to attempt to recover every bit of evidence we can find, provide her family with answers and confirmation that we have done all we can do up to
this point to find those answers. We do not yet know exactly what items were placed in the dumpster – but we believe, based on what we do know, that it is worth our time and effort to try to find out.”
Nelson said the state has successfully tried first-degree murder cases in which no body had been found.
Someone at the press conference Friday asked Spencer if he would confirm that the FBI is looking at Kessler as a serial killer, and Spencer declined to confirm it. Other law enforcement officers at the press conference declined to share any details of the investigation.
FBI spokesperson Amanda Warford Videll said nothing of note had been found as of the News-Leader’s press deadline Tuesday, and the FBI planned to continue the search for the evidence through at least Wednesday. Videll said additional updates would be provided later in the week.
Editor's note: On a previous version of this story the date that Cummings was reported missing was incorrect. She was reported missing on May 14.