A Town On Edge: Mother confident of son’s innocence in Jennifer Hillier-Penney's disappearance
ST. ANTHONY, N.L. — When something happens in St. Anthony, like in any small town, gossip can travel faster than a November wind at the mouth of the bay.
Fifth in a six-part series (Visit cnajournalism.wixsite.com/stanthony for further detail and video.)
Jennifer Hillier-Penney holds her mother’s hand in hospital. Jennifer was described as kind, caring and mothering.
©Submitted photo via Facebook
There are several photos of Jennifer Hillier-Penney posted to the Facebook sites of her family and friends, but one in particular catches your eye.
In it she is tenderly holding her mother’s hand as she leans over the hospital bed, elbows on the mattress, looking into her mother’s face.
You get a sense that Jennifer’s compassionate touch and loving presence are calming and comforting to her ill mother.
It was taken in the days before her mother, Cassie Vine Hillier, died on Oct. 6, 2016.
Just a week shy of two months later — on Wednesday, Nov. 30 — 38-year-old Jennifer suddenly disappeared from the St. Anthony house she had once shared with her husband, Dean Penney, but who was by then estranged from her.
It’s the home where they raised their two children, Marina and Deana, who were 21 and 15, respectively, at the time their mother went missing.
No one has seen or heard from Jennifer since.
Dean Penney had been away on a duck-hunting trip that night, at his cabin in the Northwest Arm area, about 45 minutes away.
Jennifer, who had moved out of the house months before, after she and Dean separated, was living with her widowed father in St. Lunaire-Griquet. She had come to the house on Husky Drive that night to stay with Deana, which she often did when Dean was away. Marina was living in the Clarenville area.
The last anyone heard from Jennifer was around 8 p.m. that night. When Deana got up the next morning, her mother was nowhere to be found.
Jennifer’s cellphone, purse, boots and jacket were still where she left them. Her car was in the driveway, the keys in the ignition. There was no sign of a struggle, no evidence of anything out of place.
She didn’t wake Deana to say goodbye, or call Marina or any other family or friends to say she was leaving.
She didn’t drop by to see her sick father one last time.
Those who know her say that photo of her and her mother holds a clue to the story — that Jennifer was always one to support and comfort the people she loved.
She wasn’t one to run away.
And so the other part of the story remains untold — where is Jennifer Hillier-Penney?
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St. Anthony is a town of just over 2,200 people on the Northern Peninsula. It’s the service centre for surrounding towns, with a hospital, RCMP detachment, College of the North Atlantic campus, schools, a new hockey rink and other amenities.
In the past 15 years four townspeople have gone missing — Jennifer; Mildred Sexton, 47, missing since April 16, 2002; Andrew Sexton, 21, (no relation) missing since Feb. 26, 2006; and Cleon Smith, 30, missing since April 2, 2011.
While the first three cases caused worry and concern among the townspeople, it’s the Jennifer Hillier-Penney case that has changed things, striking fear through the town like a cold chill.
Many people have lost their sense of security and changed their habits — locking doors at night and only talking walks during daylight. They’re looking over their shoulders, keeping a closer watch over loved ones.
Perhaps rightly so, because while there are many unanswered questions in the other cases, it’s the only one of the four missing-person cases officially deemed suspicious by the RCMP.
And many people in town, and farther away on social media, are pointing a finger of suspicion at Dean Penney, though he has not been identified by police as a person of interest or charged with any crime.
When approached at his house in St. Anthony, Dean said he’s been instructed not to talk about the case — or to address rumours that he had something to do with his wife going missing — as the RCMP investigation is ongoing.
“Right now I can’t comment on anything,” he said. “It’s a hard go of it. We’ve been taking it pretty hard, me and my daughters. I’d love to be able to help, but right now I can’t say anything.”
In the early evening of Nov. 30, 2016 Jennifer had supper at the house of her sister, Yvonne Hillier Decker. She later spoke to her father and called Dean at the cabin before heading over to Husky Drive.
Glen Hillier, Jennifer’s brother, said Jennifer told Yvonne that she was going to the house to lie down because she had a headache.
“She called Deana and said, ‘Mom’s taking some pills and is lying down. Call me when you want a ride,’” Glen Hillier said.
“Jenny told Deana to be home at 9:30 p.m., so 9:25 p.m. Deana called Jenny, and her mom didn’t answer the phone. She tried again 9:30 p.m. and no answer. So she stayed out a little longer, then called her nan Ruby (Penney) to pick her up.
“Like a typical teenager, Deana snuck in the house (when Ruby Penney dropped her off) because she didn’t want to wake her mom, because she didn’t want to get in trouble for being out later than she was supposed to. She walked by the bedroom and the door was closed. Next morning she heard her mom’s phone alarm going off and she said, funny, Mom is letting the phone alarm go off that long. So then she went out to the room and Jenny wasn’t there. We don’t know if Deana was in the house all night by herself or not.”
Glen Hillier said he got to the house that morning between 8 a.m. and 8:15 after being alerted that Jennifer was missing.
When he arrived, an RCMP officer who lived next door was walking into the house at the same time. Dean Penney was there by that time, after returning from the cabin. He had been called by his mother, Ruby, who had also rushed to the house.
“There was nothing out of place in the house. Everything was the same as it always was,” Glen Hillier said. “The cops asked if was she depressed. ‘Do you think she killed herself? Do you think she ran away?’ I said, ‘Man, not a chance.’ She would never leave the girls, and Dad.”
As Glen Hillier speaks, he seems oblivious to the fact that his hand and knuckles are hitting the surface of the table with a quick, sharp knock as each detail is conveyed. He contains his emotions until it becomes too much and the tears build up.
It’s been an unending nightmare for his family, particularly his nieces, he said.
Glen Hillier acknowledged Jennifer and Dean were having a rough time, and Jennifer was trying to move on with her life.
He said she’d applied for an administrative position with the RCMP in Glovertown and was scheduled for a second interview.
“She was excited about moving closer to Marina, who lives in Clarenville, and getting out of here — a small town and all the gossip,” he said.
“Jenny was well-liked in town. She never had an enemy anywhere, as far as I know.”
On the following day, Thursday, Dec. 1, the RCMP organized massive ground, air and water searches involving search and rescue teams, the local fire department, a helicopter and many volunteers.
After those searches ended in the days and weeks following, the family continued to organize their own with help from volunteers in town.
“We searched the sides of the road from here to right out to the airport,” Glen Hillier said. “The support we had was crazy. In a small town, everyone helps. They were like, ‘What can we do? Do you need food, need me to search?’ People took time off work to search. It was unheard of.”
The RCMP is planning another search after the snow has all melted from woods roads and trails.
Vicki Burden, Jennifer’s first cousin and best friend, says Jennifer was “kind and caring and mothering.”
“She was a nurturer. She loved to laugh, to have fun. She had this giggle … if something set her off, that was it — she was laughing and there was no stopping her.
“The morning of Dec. 1 when I heard, I knew automatically she hadn’t run off or that she had done anything like commit suicide. I know somebody took Jennifer. She did not go on her own.”
The RCMP has told the family the case is a top priority and the investigation is active.
Burden doesn’t think the police took it seriously at the beginning.
“I don’t feel they did,” she said. “It was days later before forensics showed up, before her car was searched. People were in and out of the house. It is so sad, because there could have been so much evidence there.
“What I think is that Jennifer went home that night and somebody went into that house and forced her to leave, or incapacitated her and took her — likely the latter. Because if somebody forced her, she would have put up a fight.”
Gina Elliott, another of Jennifer’s good friends, said Jennifer was looking to the future. She said she spoke to Jennifer almost every day and would have known if Jennifer was thinking of running off or was feeling suicidal.
“I know she did not harm herself, kill herself, commit suicide. That didn’t happen,” Elliott said. “I knew enough about Jennifer to know the difference. … She would have called me if she was having a rough day, a rough moment. But I’m telling you, she would not have done that to her dad and them two girls. She loved them too much. … That wouldn’t have happened.”
Elliott said the RCMP should have brought in more resources from Day 1.
“I wonder if we were a bigger centre, would this not have had more attention? Because right from the beginning of this investigation I don’t think we had what we needed,” she said.
“We don’t even have searches completed in areas where most people think would be the obvious places to search.
“It is absolutely heartbreaking. I just ache every single day for those girls, and you know, you feel so helpless, you don’t know what to do. I really want the searches to continue and the investigation needs to be active enough that we see something being done. Jennifer is somebody. She is not just one of four people missing. She’s a mom, a very good person. She was loved by a lot of people and she just can’t be another statistic in St. Anthony, Newfoundland.”