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'We will not stop': Jennifer Kesse's family searches for answers 16 years after her disappearance

Her case has never been solved.

ORLANDO, Fla — Editor's Note: Jennifer Kesse's case was featured last year on CBS News' "48 Hours," which contributed to this report. You can watch the full episode here. Additionally, within this article, the video above is from November 2019.

Monday marks 16 years since Jennifer Kesse disappeared.

Kesse was a graduate of Gaither High School in Tampa. At the time she vanished, she was living in Orlando. In fact, she'd just moved into a condo there.

The then 24-year-old had recently been promoted at work. She was a project manager for a timeshare company. Timeshares are big business in Florida.

Kesse was in love with her boyfriend, Rob Allen, with whom she'd been in a long-distance relationship for the last year. He lived in Fort Lauderdale, and they would visit each other on the weekends. They'd actually just gotten back from a getaway to St. Croix about a week before she went missing. By all accounts, the trip had gone really well.

The Monday after getting back was Jan. 23, 2006. That night, there was a phone call between Kesse and Allen, who were back at their homes, which were about three hours apart. According to CBS News, they had a disagreement on the phone – with the long distance part of their relationship taking its toll. Allen says it was the last time he ever heard from her.

The next day, Jan. 24, 2006, Kesse's parents got a call saying she hadn't shown up for work. When they tried dialing her, they got her voicemail. They hopped in the car with their son and drove to her condo.

Inside, CBS says nothing seemed out-of-the-ordinary. In fact, makeup on the counter and a wet shower seemed to indicate she'd just recently been there. Her purse, phone and keys were not inside.

The case generated media attention. Missing person signs were posted. And police launched an investigation.

Two days later, her black Chevy Malibu was discovered outside a different condo building about a mile away. Surveillance video showed somebody parking Kesse's car there, but the person's face was blocked by a fence post. 

Kesse was nowhere to be found, nothing appeared stolen from the car, and there wasn't any evidence to suggest any sort of struggle.

Her parents went ahead and moved into her condo, so they could help with the investigation. They told detectives Jennifer had previously complained to them about building workers who made her uncomfortable.

Later that year, Detective Joel Wright was named lead investigator in the case. Wright's theory was that Kesse was abducted.

Credit: Provided Photo
Jennifer Kesse

Three years later, a former housekeeper reportedly told Wright the guy in the security camera image sort of looked like a guy named Chino, a former maintenance worker at Kesse's condo complex. Wright then realized an anonymous tip had been reported right after Kesse vanished, also suggesting Chino might know something.

Wright interviewed Chino inside a prison in 2009. At that point, Chino was serving an unrelated sentence for statutory rape. Chino said he didn't know what happened to Kesse and passed a polygraph, according to CBS.

Wright was reassigned in 2010; and Florida formally declared Kesse dead in 2016, despite never finding her body.

Her family still had no answers, and their frustrations were mounting. They sued the Orlando Police Department in 2018, asking for a copy of the case files.

Kesse's father says they reached an agreement with the police agency almost four years ago. The agreement, he explained in an update online, meant the police would – over a four-month period – create and send a digital file of the case information to the family in exchange for $18,000.

"We paid the price, in full, upfront," father Drew Kesse wrote. "That four-month agreement has turned into three years and ten months and the department is still incapable of fulfilling their end of the agreement. Incompetency at its best. If we (the Kesse’s) did that, we’d be in jail."

Under the deal, Drew and Joyce Kesse took over the investigation, which is no longer being run by Orlando PD detectives. They hired a private investigator.

In 2019, law enforcement divers searched Lake Fischer in unincorporated Orange County after the private eye identified a tip about somebody dumping a rolled-up carpet into the water several months after Kesse disappeared. As CBS pointed out, the day Kesse went missing, workers happened to be laying carpet nearby – making that tip noteworthy. The private investigator believes she may have been abducted by a construction worker.

The divers found nothing in the lake.

This week, the Kesse family, now living back in Bradenton, are beginning their seventeenth year without Jennifer. Over the years, a GoFundMe page has raised more than $100,000 to help bring them closure.

In an update on Jan. 20, Jennifer's dad said her loved ones won't stop trying to figure out what happened. He also expressed more frustration with the Orlando Police Department.

"We firmly believe the department’s negligence and lack of competency cost Jennifer the chance to be found," Drew wrote.

He said the family and private investigative team is ready to speak with any other law enforcement force. As he explains, they would need authorities to help approach any potential suspects because trying to do it on their own would ruin a future prosecutor's case.

"So we will fight tooth and nail and yell from the mountain tops until someone hears us and FINALLY acts," Drew added. "We won’t be put to the side by anyone. It’s very difficult and slow fighting against the machine that is Orlando politics, but no one should be put through what is happening to us. No one."

10 Tampa Bay reached out to the Orlando Police Department on Monday. A spokesperson sent the following statement:

"The Orlando Police Department remains committed to finding the answers to the disappearance of Jennifer Kesse. Despite our 16-year commitment, there are some cases that remain difficult to solve. Since our agreement to produce the documents in this matter, we have worked closely with their counsel and have turned over thousands of pages of documents and hours of recordings for their independent team to review and investigate. Our hearts continue to go out to the entire Kesse family, and our detectives will continue to investigate any new leads."

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