ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. — The Vermont prep school teacher whose toddler was found alone in her idling SUV over the weekend was killed, a medical examiner ruled Tuesday as an autopsy confirmed a body found along an isolated stretch of road was indeed hers.
Melissa Jenkins’ exact cause of death was not released so as not to inhibit the investigation, authorities said. Police did not say whether they had a suspect in their sights, and detectives returned Tuesday to the area where the body was found to collect more evidence.
“We are deeply saddened by the tragic death of Ms. Jenkins, and our thoughts are with her family and friends,” said the lead investigator, State Police Maj. Ed Ledo. “We remain committed to solving this case and to identify and bring to justice the person or persons responsible for the death of Ms. Jenkins.”
Community members speculated who could have killed a single mother they described as kind and helpful, and they anxiously awaited an arrest.
“I just hope they find whoever did it,” said a tearful Marion Beattie Cairns, who owns The Creamery Restaurant in Danville, where Jenkins had worked as a waitress at night. “Her little boy —that’s what breaks my heart right now.”
A makeshift memorial of luminaries — white paper bags with individual notes from students on them — lined the entry to a main building at the prestigious St. Johnsbury Academy, where Jenkins worked as a science teacher. The boarding school also serves as the public high school for St. Johnsbury, a town of about 6,200 about 40 miles south of the Canadian border.
Between 100 and 200 students and faculty members gathered at the academy Monday night after the news came out that a body had been found. Classes were canceled Tuesday.
“They have a range of emotions, just like me,” headmaster Tom Lovett said Tuesday of his students. “I’m done with the numbness and I’m done with the confusion; there’s a lot of sadness and a lot of anger starting to arise.”
Students were writing letters to Jenkins’ 2-year-old-son, Tyrell Javon Robertson, known as Ty, so he could eventually know how she had changed their lives, Lovett said.
Jenkins taught science and had served as the freshman girls basketball coach at the academy, a school of about 970 students that was established in the 1840s and whose alumni include President Calvin Coolidge.
On Tuesday, police said investigators had worked overnight. They appealed to the public for help, asking anyone who might have traveled Sunday night along the road in in a rural section of St. Johnsbury where Jenkins’ car was found, or along the road in Barnet where the body was found.
Jenkins grew up in Danville, a tight-knit town west of St. Johnsbury where she attended the Danville School, which has about 300 students.
“All the kids go through K-12 school together. They play basketball together. Most of them have worked at my store or here at The Creamery,” said Marty Beattie, Jenkins’ uncle through his first wife, and the owner of Mary’s Quick Stop a store on U.S. Route 2.
“They’ve laughed together, they’ve played together,” he said. “So it’s not all just genetic, but we’re one big family.”
Violent crime is rare in picturesque northeastern Vermont but not unknown.
In September 2010, Pat O’Hagan, a 78-year-old grandmother, disappeared from her home in Sheffield, about 20 miles north of St. Johnsbury. Her body was found almost a month later about 10 miles from her home in Wheelock.
Police have ruled the death a homicide, but no arrests have been made. Authorities have not said whether they believe Jenkins’ case is connected.