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  • Writer's pictureJ. R. Erickson

The True Story that Inspired Grave Devotion

Each of the novels in my Troubled Spirits series are inspired by a true crime. Grave Devotion is no different. If you haven’t read the novel, you may want to wait to read the true crime inspiration. That being said, the novel and the story that inspired it are very different.

If you’d prefer to listen to the true story (with more detail) on my podcast, Bitter Endings, you can find it right here.

The True Crime…

It was May 12th, 2018, an ordinary day in the life of Joleen Cummings, but one tinged with excitement because the next day was her birthday and Mother’s Day. The mother of three worked her shift at Tangles Hair Salon in Yulee, Florida. What came after would be a mystery that baffled her family, friends, and investigators. It appeared that Joleen had left the salon and vanished into thin air. The truth would be far more sinister.

On May 12th, 2018, Joleen spent her day at Tangles Hair Salon in Yulee, Florida where she worked as a hair stylist. She worked with several other stylists, including a woman who named Jennifer Sybert. At five p.m. Joleen reportedly finished for the day and, according to her co-worker, fellow stylist Jennifer Sybert, Joleen left for the day.

Joleen was never seen again.

At the time of Joleen’s disappearance, Joleen was separated from her husband, who was also the father of her children. She was dating a man that she had a somewhat contentious relationship with. When Joleen did not arrive on May 13th to pick up her children, Joleen’s former husband contacted her family. Joleen’s mother reported her missing.

Police descended upon Tangles Hair Salon to question Joleen’s co-workers, hoping to piece together the last moments she was seen. They interviewed several of the stylists at the salon, but one particular stylist, Jennifer Sybert, who’d worked with Joleen the day she vanished, was nowhere to be found.

Though Sybert was reportedly the last person to see Joleen alive at the salon, she quickly quit her job after Joleen vanished, which she’d only worked at for approximately a month, insisting she had a stalker and couldn’t be involved in police matters.

Detectives investigated the men in Joleen’s life and ultimately ruled out the involvement of either her estranged husband or her current boyfriend. On May 15th, just three days after Joleen disappeared, her vehicle was found parked in a Home Depot parking lot in Yulee. When investigators watched surveillance video from the store, they saw a woman who would be identified as Joleen’s co-worker Jennifer Sybert, park the vehicle and walk away from it.

Detectives went in search of Sybert and, though she’d given a bogus address on her employee paperwork at the salon, they ultimately located her sleeping in her vehicle in St. Johns County, Florida. She was arrested for grand theft auto.

Sybert told detectives that her legal name was not, in fact, Jennifer Sybert. It was Kimberly Kessler.

Investigators didn’t have a clue the tangled web they were stepping into when they started looking into Kessler. It would eventually be revealed that Kessler was a chameleon. Since 1996, she’d had 18 aliases and lived in 33 different cities and 14 different states. Kessler’s mother had previously reported her missing in 2012, though she’d actually disappeared from her hometown of Butler, Pennsylvania in 2004. None of her family had heard from Kessler since that time.

Her current alias, Jenifer Sybert belonged to a woman who’d been dead since 1987.

When police reviewed footage from Tangles Hair Salon, they spotted Kessler repeatedly walking bags of trash to the dumpster behind the building on the night Joleen disappeared.

They found more disturbing evidence after reviewing surveillance from a nearby store, which showed Kessler, in the hours after Joleen vanished, buying ammonia, trash bags and an electric knife.

The evidence continued to mount when the forensics team descended on Tangles Hair Salon. Using luminol, they found blood spatter on the floor, walls and backs of chairs. Clearly, a violent and likely deadly altercation had occurred in the salon.

Three years after Joleen’s murder, as the trial for Kimberly Kessler approached, Joleen’s family prayed that her remains would be found. Her mother released a statement which said, “The children are surrounded by Joleen’s pictures. While I know Joleen’s soul is in heaven, I feel her spirit is here, watching over her children. Sometimes I hear her say, ‘Mom do this or do that. Kiss and hug those kids for me.’ It brings a smile to my face and tears to my eyes.”

The murder trial for Kessler was punctuated by frequent outbursts from the defendant, and she often had to watch the trial from a separate viewing room.

The state had a solid case against Kessler, which included evidence that Joleen and Kessler did not get along. In the days before Joleen vanished, she’d told friends she suspected Kessler (who was then going by Jennifer Sybert) was strange and not who she appeared to be. Investigators had also discovered that Kessler had been researching ‘killing a co-worker’ weeks before Joleen disappeared. The evidence against Kessler was overwhelming. The one drawback was that Joleen’s body had never been found; however, police were confident Kessler had murdered Joleen, dismembered her, and put her body in trash bags, which were eventually taken to the landfill. Though police searched the local landfill, they never recovered Joleen’s body.

The jury spent only an hour deliberating before returning a verdict of guilty against Kimberly Kessler in the murder of Joleen Cummings. She was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Sources:

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