The Disappearance of Jennifer Hillier-Penney

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EARLY LIFE:

Jennifer Hillier-Penney grew up in the small Newfoundland town of St. Lunaire-Griquet, located on the province’s Great Northern Peninsula. One of seven children – which included her brothers, Glen and Gary, and a sister named Yvonne – she experienced a childhood filled with large amounts of love.

While in high school, Jennifer met Dean Penney, the man who would become her husband. The pair eventually moved 20km away to St. Anthony, a town of just over 2,000 residents, where they would raise their two daughters, Marina and Deana.

Jennifer was described as being very family-oriented, and was known throughout the tight-knit community as being compassionate, funny and kind. As a result, she was well-liked within St. Anthony and had a host of friends, with no known enemies.

In September 2016, Jennifer’s mother passed away, the first of two difficult events to happen in her life during this period. Jennifer and Dean also separated around this time, with Jennifer wanting to divorce her high school sweetheart. According to Marina, her mother had stopped loving Dean and wished to start a new life. Very upfront with her plans, she moved back in with her father, Allan Hillier, in November of that year and began making plans to move her life away from St. Anthony. At this time, Marina had already moved away from home and was living in Clarenville, where she worked two jobs. Deana was still living in the family home, attending high school. In order to be nearer to Marina, Jennifer was in the process of finding a job in Glovertown, which is located near Clarenville.

In order to kick off the divorce proceedings, Jennifer had been in talks with a lawyer. Dean was aware that Jennifer had started the process to officially separate and is said to have been unhappy about it, as he didn’t want his wife to leave. He was also under he impression she was having an affair with the man she was texting regarding her upcoming divorce, which her friends say was strictly a professional relationship, and he was often seen watching Jennifer as she left her job each day around 4:00pm. As a result, Jennifer developed severe anxiety and was worried Dean would do something to her.

Aware of these fears and having seen numerous warning signs, Jennifer’s friends set up a safety plan to ensure they were in constant contact with her, frequently texting her throughout the day.

LEAD UP TO DISAPPEARANCE:

During the week of Jennifer’s disappearance, Dean was away duck hunting in Northwest Arm, Newfoundland. Not wanting Deana to be home alone during this time, both he and his soon-to-be ex-wife agreed Jennifer would stay at the house with her. Jennifer was reluctant at first, as she didn’t want to be alone in the house, but upon the reassurance that Dean would be 45 minutes away, she agreed. According to her family, her routine for the week was to attend work each day at the local hospital before driving to St. Lunaire-Griquet for dinner with her father and later returning to the house in St. Anthony.

At 6:00pm on November 30, 2016, Jennifer and her sister, Yvonne, ate dinner at their father’s house. Afterward, Jennifer drove Yvonne to the hospital in St. Anthony for a scheduled appointment, after which she was planning on going to the house to lie down, as she had a headache. During the drive to the hospital, she received a text and call from Dean, asking when she would be home.

Jennifer arrived home at 8:00pm, where she drew a bath and texted Deana to tell her she was going to bed because she had a headache. The next morning, she was planning on leaving for work directly from the house in St. Anthony.

That night, Deana arrived after her 9:30pm curfew, so she didn’t check in with her mother upon getting home. Once there, she saw her father had returned to the house, where he told her he’d returned to pick up some duck decoys he’d forgotten in the garage. After this, the pair said goodnight to each other and Deana snuck into her bedroom, so as to not wake her mother and alert her to her late arrival home.

Deana has stated she doesn’t know if her mother was in the house at this time, as her bedroom door was closed.

DISAPPEARANCE:

At 7:00am on December 1, 2016, Jennifer’s phone alarm went off, waking Deana. She went into her mother’s room to see why she wasn’t waking up, but found no sign of her. While her phone, purse and coat were still in the room, and her car still in the driveway, there was no note indicating where she could have gone.

Concerned, Deana called her paternal grandmother and her father, who both came right to the house. Jennifer’s brother, Glen, also stopped by, and it was discovered she had left her keys in the ignition of her car.

Jennifer was officially reported missing to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police later that day.

INVESTIGATION:

When they first got involved, the RCMP didn’t initially suspect any foul play, feeling Jennifer had simply left town of her own accord, despite speaking with her friends, family and colleagues who said otherwise. Glen feels the authorities didn’t take his sister’s disappearance seriously enough, despite him having shared his fears that she wouldn’t have left without notice.

Marina had a similar reaction to the RCMP at first, as she was under the impression her mother could have stayed with a friend. She didn’t believe she would have left without informing anyone.

Not put off by the RCMP’s initial theory, Jennifer’s friends and family put up missing persons flyers across St. Anthony. The RCMP also conducted numerous land and sea searches during this time, which would eventually cause the focus of the investigation to shift. These searches saw extra RCMP resources assigned to the search, as well as the assistance of the local chapter of the Canadian Rangers and a rescue team from Roddickton, Newfoundland, whose volunteers knew the area well. On December 2 and 3, 2016, investigators searched the town with the use of a sniffer dog from the K-9. The dog didn’t pick up Jennifer’s scent beyond the house, and searches of the harbour and nearby bodies of water, which included the use of a dive team, didn’t uncover any evidence. Local residents were asked to check their properties for anything out of the ordinary, and on the fifth day of searching, a helicopter got involved, but failed to find Jennifer.

Dean did not participate in the searches for Jennifer at this time.

On December 7, 2016, seven days after Jennifer disappeared, the RCMP changed the status of the investigation to suspicious. This resulted in her and Dean’s home being locked down and a forensics team being brought in, where they found no signs of a struggle or suspicious activity. Her family has questioned why it took so long for investigators to cordon off the home, as over 100 people had been in and out over the previous week, thus potentially contaminating anything that could be considered evidence.

After the initial search for Jennifer was completed, the police presence in St. Anthony was reduced to only officers from the local RCMP detachment.

Early into the investigation, Jennifer’s mother-in-law and Dean’s mother, Ruby Penney, offered a $25,000 reward for information that could lead to a resolution to the case, and she publicly stated her son wasn’t involved in his wife’s disappearance. She also shared her hopes that Jennifer had simply run off, as she didn’t think she couldn’t handle it if she were dead. However, many have said they feel the reward was Ruby’s way of deflecting attention off of Dean.

To help raise money to bring in a vessel to look for Jennifer in the water near Fishing Point Park, the town organized a bingo fundraiser, which raised $22,500. In 2017, Gary Hillier helped organize the search, but given poor weather, the boat was only able to search for one day and didn’t find anything.

In early 2017, businesses and organizations in St. Anthony placed posters featuring Jennifer’s photo in their windows, and people began attaching stickers to theirs cars, in the hopes of spreading awareness about her disappearance. Billboards were also placed near the local Tim Horton’s and at Fishing Point Park, and Jennifer’s niece, LeAnn, created 300 car magnets.

In October 2017, the RCMP’s major crimes unit from Corner Brook, Newfoundland visited St. Anthony to do some additional questioning in the case. However, they have not revealed any specifics regarding this.

In December 2017, around 100 people from throughout the Northern Peninsula gathered at the Fishing Point lighthouse to release balloons in Jennifer’s memory.

The CBC’s investigative news show, The Fifth Estate, covered the case in a two-part investigation, which saw reporter Mark Kelley interview Jennifer’s family and friends, including Dean. As a result of the investigation and on the urging of the RCMP and Dean’s lawyer, the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador granted a publication ban on the case, which prevents the media from releasing the names of anyone the RCMP has or had identified as being involved in Jennifer’s disappearance.

After The Fifth Estate aired their investigation, the RCMP in St. John’s, Newfoundland contacted the family and informed them that the case is still a priority for the major crimes unit.

Dean’s lawyer has told him not to publicly comment on the disappearance. While he knows those around him suspect him, he denies any involvement, saying he was down hunting at the cabin in Northwest Arm the entire week. He claims Jennifer was texting another man on the night she went missing, but people have questioned whether Dean’s assumption of the affair could have been why he himself had texted her on the night she went missing. Jennifer’s friends have also questioned why Dean hadn’t initially brought the duck decoys with him to the cabin, as he was an experienced hunter.

The RCMP have not publicly commented on whether they consider Dean to be a person of interest in the case, but they have searched his home, truck and cabin. Marina has shared her own doubts regarding her father and says she hasn’t ruled him out as being involved in her mother’s disappearance. In 2018, she asked him to take a lie detector test or else risk never seeing her again, but declined to take one on the advice of his lawyer.

On the second anniversary of Jennifer’s disappearance, the Hillier family organized a walk, which took them to the local RCMP detachment and the driveway of the family home.

In December 2018, the RCMP approached the Supreme Court to keep numerous items they’d collected throughout the investigation, a request that was granted, with an end date of December 15, 2019. It is one of a series of extensions the authorities had received since the investigation began.

In June 2019, rumours began to spread around St. Anthony that bones were found inside a discarded air mattress in Hare Bay, Newfoundland. Marina received no response when she contacted the RCMP about these rumours, so she contacted the fisherman who found the mattress, who told her no bones had been discovered.

In October 2019, over 40 rocks were painted in Jennifer’s memory and placed beneath the missing sign in Fishing Point Park. As local residents started taking and hiding them, a pastime often undertaken by children as a game, the family had to request the rocks not be removed from the location. This was followed by a memorial event later in the year, which included a walk from the local Lions Club to the RCMP detachment and back again.

Jennifer’s family and friends feel the RCMP investigation has been flawed since the start, and have shared their frustration over how the case has been handled. They currently have no hope that investigators will be able to help and say any conversations they have with them are void of any pertinent information. While the RCMP have never named a suspect or person of interest, they are currently treating Jennifer’s disappearance as a kidnapping and possible homicide. Despite not having organized any recent searches, they’ve interviewed over 100 people and are currently waiting for someone with information to come forward.

Volunteer searches for Jennifer still occur, headed by her friends and family. Marina has offered up the remaining money from the search fund, which currently sits at $8,500, to anyone who can provide a lead in the case.

Jennifer’s disappearance has been pretty jarring for the community of St. Anthony, as three other individuals have gone missing from the area since 2002. Mildred Dawe-Sexton went missing on April 16, 2002 at the age of 47; Andrew Sexton was only 21 when he went missing on February 26, 2006 whilst on a snowmobiling trip with friends; and Cleon Smith went missing on April 2, 2011 at the age of 30. All three disappearances remain unsolved.

THEORIES:

There are currently three main theories in relation to Jennifer’s disappearance. Given how tight-lipped the RCMP have been about the investigation, it’s difficult to say which is the correct one.

1) The initial theory held in the case was that Jennifer left because she needed a break from what was going on in her life. Given her upcoming divorce and the numerous changes occurring in her life around the time of her disappearance, it’s been theorized Jennifer simply left in order to start a new life. However, everyone who knows her says she wouldn’t have left without notice, especially given how much she loves her children.

2) The main theory held by Jennifer’s friends and family is that she was abducted and murdered. The majority of them feel Dean was somehow involved, given his behaviour in the weeks leading up to Jennifer’s disappearance, but given the lack of evidence in the case and how little the RCMP have shared about their investigation, it’s difficult to say what actually happened to her on the night of November 30, 2016.

3) A final theory in the case is that Jennifer fled St. Anthony in order to get away from Dean. This is supported by her reported fear of Dean in the lead up to her disappearance. However, if this were the case, there would have most likely been sightings of Jennifer either elsewhere in Newfoundland or in another Canadian province, or there would have been other types of evidence to support this train of thought.

AFTERMATH:

As a result of Jennifer’s disappearance, the residents of St. Anthony have begun locking their cars and doors, and have stopped walking alone at night.

The Hillier family have created a Facebook page to help keep Jennifer’s case in the public eye.

Jennifer’s loved ones say they will hold a memorial every year until she is found.

CASE CONTACT INFORMATION:

Jennifer Hillier-Penney went missing from Husky Drive in St. Anthony, Newfoundland on November 30, 2016. She was 38 years old, and what she was last seen wearing is currently unknown. At the time of her disappearance, she stood at 5’7″ and weighed between 160 to 170 pounds. She has blonde hair and green eyes.

Currently, her case has been deemed suspicious, with the RCMP investigating it as a kidnapping and possible homicide.

If you have any information regarding the case, you can contact the St. Anthony RCMP at 709-454-3543 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.

Image Credit: Facebook

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