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TMCNet:  Despite threats, search goes on

[January 24, 2010]

Despite threats, search goes on

BRADENTON, Jan 24, 2010 (The Bradenton Herald - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Drew and Joyce Kesse's lives changed forever on this day four years ago.

Their daughter -- and oldest child -- was abducted near her Orlando condominium.

Jennifer Kesse, a 24-year-old financial analyst, left her home on Jan 24, 2006, to go to work.

She never made it. There were no signs of struggle at her condo.

Since Jennifer's disappearance, her parents, who live in Bradenton, have turned their vehicles into mobile billboards with images of Jennifer and phone numbers, hit the national television circuit, and started a Web site flooded with images of her and information about her case.

They've done it all in the hopes that someday Jennifer might be found.

Her story has even been featured on the Maury Povich and the Montel Williams shows, which are replayed heavily abroad, according to her father.

"People are aware of Jennifer," said Drew Kesse. "She's all over." Yet while many people have reached out to the family with words of encouragement, the intense media exposure has come at a price.

There have been countless threats, Drew said, in written form on the guest book at and a some by phone.

Pictures of a smiling Jennifer with sandy blonde hair and green eyes have been copied off her family's Web site and used on dating and adult Web sites.

A man in Ghana heard Jennifer's story and said he was holding her for $6.2 million.

Another man, Andrew S. Haley, made a video toting himself as the "Catch Me Killer" on YouTube and claimed to kill 16 people, including Jennifer, according to an indictment filed last year in Hall County, Ga. He offered to give clues to see if people could catch him.

Authorities did catch him, but he never killed anyone. He faces charges of making false statements.

"It's weird crap," Drew said.

But it hasn't all been like that.

On their Web site, one person writes, "My heart goes out to your family. I can't even begin to understand how you feel." Others ask questions about Jennifer: "The folks on the forum are starving for information about Jennifer, everyday things, that might seem unimportant to most people. ... Did she have long term goals? What is her favorite color? What is her favorite take out food?" People in more than 60 countries have contacted the Kesses to say they've heard Jennifer's story, Drew Kesse said.

The threats begin Things took a sinister turn, however, when someone began making veiled threats on the family's Web site.

"I know what you drive. I see where you live. I go where you go. ... I hope you're not in an accident," read one entry in the guest book, obtained through court documents.

Threat after threat followed. The last being just last week. Drew Kesse said he has removed 100 pages off the Web site from the same person.

"Don't threaten someone's family who has been taken and we don't even know where she is now. Don't do that to my family," Kesse said.

A man also left threatening phone messages a couple of years ago on the family's Bradenton voice mail, saying "You're gonna pay," and that the Kesses' son was next, according to court documents.

The Orlando Police Department forwarded telephone logs to Bradenton Police and the case was forwarded to the State Attorney's Office in Oct. 2007. They named a 27-year-old Ferndale man as a suspect, but he has never been formally charged, according to reports.

The state declined to file on the case at the time because the voice on the machine "was left in a distorted manner," according to court documents.

Drew Kesse continues to block the IP address of the threatening poster's computer, but the suspect, or suspects, continues to get new IP addresses, he says. When it was traced back to a residence by a Webmaster and prosecutors, it matched the same location that the Kesses received the harassing phone calls, he said.

Last month the Kesses filed injunctions in court to protect themselves.

However, Manatee County Circuit Court Judge Janette Dunnigan denied the motion for the injunction because the identity could not be proven and the threat was not considered credible by legal standards.

Dunnigan declined to comment for this story because the decision was made in closed chambers The State Attorney's Office also declined comment.

Protection in the law? According to local authorities, nothing in state law protects the Kesses from harassment online.

Florida currently does not have a menacing threats law for electronic media, according to legal experts.

While the state does have a cyber stalking law, the threats have to be considered credible -- meaning the person has to have the means to carry out the action and the threat must explicitly state harm or death against a person's life.

As for the online threats the Kesses are receiving, Mark Lipinski, a criminal defense attorney based in Bradenton, said the language in the threats has to be more explicit and credible to prosecute.

"He's being menacing, but there's no statute in Florida that would cover that," he said. "It's close. It's inching toward the line, but it just isn't enough." Investigators are also challenged in placing a person behind the keyboard if they won't cooperate in an interview.

Bradenton Police Department Detective Jim Curulla said aside from the language sometimes not meeting requirements, it's difficult to prove who is sitting at the computer.

"When you go to do family interviews and everyone lawyers up, you can't prove who's using the computer and it's unfortunate," he said. "That's why the state can't prosecute. They can't prove beyond a reasonable doubt who's doing it." "Everyone feels bad for the Kesses and everyone's trying to help, but unfortunately everything I've sent over to the state gets declined." With that in mind, Drew Kesse is supporting a proposed bill in the upcoming session of the Florida Legislature that would include a provision focusing on online threats to kill or do harm to a person or their family. The violation would be a second-degree felony.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Janet Adkins R-Fernadina Beach.

"The intent is to bring the legislation into the 21st century and be able to include things like e-mails and sites like Facebook," said Larry Williams, a legislative aid to Adkins.

The bill, HB317, is divided into two parts and features an addition to the Florida state law on threats.

The first half focuses on threats being made during domestic violence, but it's the second portion of the bill that makes online written communication -- even if its anonymous -- that contains threats to kill or do bodily harm to a person or their family members a second degree felony.

"It's going to give teeth to the police and say you can't do that," Kesse said.

Lipinski said the bill would need to be reworded to include menacing language rather than threats for harm in order to make a difference in a case like the Kesses.

Fletcher Baldwin, a law professor at the University of Florida who specializes in cyber crime, said a law specifically dealing with online threats is long overdue.

"We turned the corner long ago. You have to have different focus when dealing with online threats. Invasion of privacy is not the issue here. You put yourself out in the public arena and you threaten people's lives. That's not right," he said.

'We just want her found' Amid the threats and spectre of court injunctions, the Kesses travel each year to Orlando to raise awareness about Jennifer's disappearance and educate others about safety.

The annual safety event, which was held Saturday, has grown each year to include free fingerprinting and IDing to anyone at the Mall at Millenia in Orlando.

This year a group of individuals is offering a $1 million reward leading to Jennifer's safe return by Feb. 24.

"Somebody knows. We just try to keep awareness up everywhere. The leads are better than ever before," Drew Kesse said.

Orlando Police Department Sgt. Barbara Jones said the detectives have received more than 1,000 tips in the case.

"Whatever comes in we sort through and follow up. Anytime you get media coverage, you'll get some. Some of it will be good and some of it will be bad," she said. "Of course the tip we need unfortunately hasn't come in yet. Jennifer is still missing." And despite the threats they've received, the Kesse family will continue to look for Jennifer.

"Tell me something else to do and I'll do it. We have unconditional love for Jennifer, Kesse said.

"It doesn't matter about us. We just want her found. It's all about love for Jennifer. Period." Anyone with any information about Jennifer can contact the Crime Line at (407)423-8477 or the Orlando Police Department at (407)246-2470.

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