The couple reported Jenna missing Aug. 19, 2017, shortly after getting a call from a family friend saying he couldn’t reach her. They were vacationing in Canada at the time and Jenna, the youngest of the Van Gelderens’ two children, had volunteered to house sit and care for their cat.
When her brother, William, couldn’t reach her either, he arrived at the family’s Druid Hills home to find the doors locked but the lights and television still on. Jessie the cat, who had not been fed, was there but 26-year-old Jenna, her car and the suitcase she arrived with were all gone. Other personal items were left in the house that Jenna always had with her.
They’d later learned that Jenna’s phone pinged at 7:15 a.m. and 7:45 a.m. in Fairburn the morning she went missing, and two weeks later, her dark blue Mazda 6 was found parked along a road in northwest Atlanta when a woman recognized it from information she saw on Facebook.
In March, DeKalb police said in addition to getting search warrants for Jenna’s phone records, they’d conducted several ground-search activities with K-9 groups, interviewed dozens of people and, for several months, had a detective assigned exclusively to this case.
Last week, they told me this case has been a priority for more than a year, but the department doesn’t comment publicly on active investigations.
“We understand how difficult this has been for family and friends,” DeKalb Police Chief James W. Conroy said in response to email questions. “Public safety staff continue to talk with family members on a regular basis.”
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But the Van Gelderens say police haven’t done enough to find their daughter, not even the things they said they would do.
“They tell us that they have consulted with the GBI, but no one from the GBI has contacted us,” Leon Van Gelderen said. “The detective said he got her belongings from her apartment, but there was no mattress, no sheets, no pillows, no bedding. The roommate claimed she was sleeping on the floor, which we know is not Jenna, but they didn’t think that was sufficient to get a search warrant. Now after a whole year, we’re no further along. The police have bungled things tremendously.”
Desperate for help, the Van Gelderens recently sent letters to Dekalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, County District Attorney Sherry Boston and Police Chief James Conroy pleading for their help to get the GBI to take over the case.
That was a month ago, and none of them has responded.
Meanwhile, the Van Gelderens are hoping legislation, such as the Ashanti Alert Act which would create a national coordinator for cases like their daughter’s, will soon become law to ensure cases are handled properly.
“Cases of missing adults seem to fall through the cracks,” they said.
Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The bill would essentially act as an Amber-Alert type of system to notify the public when an adult age 19 to 65 is missing and help local and regional law enforcement to find them, along with having a national coordinator and procedures.
In April, Virginia lawmakers passed the Ashanti Alert Act and, in September, the House of Representatives passed the federal version. The senate will consider the bill next.
The legislation is named for Ashanti Billie, who went missing in 2017 in Norfolk, Va., where her car and some belongings were found. Thirty-two days later, the 19-year-old’s body was discovered in Charlotte, NC. The DNA found at the site led to the arrest and incarceration of her captor.
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The Van Gelderens believe that if such an alert and related procedures had been in place when Jenna went missing, they might have found their daughter by now. But they also believe it would help if local police turned the case over to the GBI.
They point to the recent case of Mollie Tibbetts, the 20-year-old college student abducted and killed while jogging.
Tibbetts disappeared on July 18 and was found little over a month later after federal, state and local authorities scoured the rural county, sifting through electronic data from her Fitbit, cellphone and social media accounts for any clue about what happened to her. Investigators also talked to hundreds of people and received more than 4,000 tips. The break in the case came, however, when they found someone with a security camera system while canvassing a neighborhood.
That’s when they determined 24-year-old Cristhian Bahena Rivera was the last person to see Tibbetts. Rivera, who led officials to her body, has been charged with first-degree murder and faces life in prison.
“The state of Iowa handled her case completely different from the way Jenna’s case has been handled,” Leon Van Gelderen said. “Something as simple as interviewing our neighbors could’ve made the difference, but they never even bothered to figure out who was staying on our street or interview a single person”
Chief Conroy did not respond to specific questions about the Van Gelderens’ claims, but asked that “anyone with information regarding the whereabouts of Ms. Van Gelderen, contact Crimestoppers at 404-577-8477.”
All calls will be treated confidentially, he said.
Someone knows exactly where Jenna Van Gelderen is. Dead or alive, knowing would put an end to her parents’ wondering and give them peace.
You have to wonder how anyone could not at least give them that?
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