YULEE, Fla. — “There is something a little off about her, I can’t put my finger on it.”
That was one of the final text messages Yulee hairstylist Joleen Cummings sent to Vicki Simmons, the owner of Tangles salon, before she vanished in May 2018.
Cummings said her coworker, then known as Jennifer Sybert but later identified as Kimberly Kessler, was “real mouthy.”
“She’s been real negative," Cummings texted her boss. "Trying to avoid her."
Despite that, Prosecutor Donna Thurson told jurors Kessler was already planning Cummings’ demise.
“As Joleen Cummings made plans for the next day of her life, the defendant had planned Joleen’s death,” Thurson said.
The high-profile murder trial of the 53-year-old Kessler got underway Monday at the Nassau County Courthouse in Yulee, more than three years after Cummings disappeared. Kessler is charged with first-degree murder in connection to the disappearance and presumed death of Cummings, a 34-year-old mother of three.
Her body has never been found. Kessler has pleaded not guilty.
The state called more than a dozen witnesses Monday, including cab drivers, a convenience store clerk and law enforcement officials.
Without a body or a murder weapon, prosecutors are relying on circumstantial evidence to build their case – including surveillance video of Kessler dumping large garbage bags in Dumpsters behind the Tangles salon, Walmart surveillance footage of her buying an electric carving knife, and the presence of Joleen Cummings’ blood spattered across Kessler’s shoes, shears and work station.
Anne Johnson testified that after her daughter’s final May 12, 2018 shift with Kessler, Joleen Cummings vanished.
“Have you ever heard from her again?” Assistant State Prosecutor Ashley Terry asked. “No,” Johnson replied. “She didn’t even acknowledge her birthday.”
Kessler’s public defender Thomas Townsend told jurors there was evidence of a violent confrontation between the women.
“A violent confrontation occurred – that much is not in dispute,” he said.
But he said that Kessler’s injuries – including what he described as a curling iron burn blister across her palm – showed that whatever happened was not premeditated murder.
“These are wounds of a defensive nature that you are going to see on Kimberly Kessler,” Townsend said. “There simply is no evidence of premeditation.”
Cummings' friends and family members in court audibly rejected this argument, along with efforts by Kessler’s attorneys to link Cummings to drugs found in the salon. Public Defender Teri Sopp argued “investigating officers intentionally tried to cover up the use of drugs by Ms. Cummings, because of the notoriety of Ms. Cummings, or the prominence of Ms. Cummings’ family members in Nassau County.”
Cummings’ stepdad Connie Johnson is a former Nassau Sheriff’s Officer and was, at the time, director of the Nassau County Jail.
The judge said he couldn't see how a baggie of an unknown substance found at Tangles was connected to the victim, and said that he would not allow it to be presented to the jury.
Court resumes 8:30 am Tuesday at the Nassau County Courthouse in Yulee.