After decade, teen wasn't missing after all

After decade, teen wasn't missing after all

October 19, 2008
The St. Augustine Record
By CHAD SMITH, [email protected]

Things looked lost for Jennifer Carbonell even before she went missing from Palm Coast nearly a decade ago.

At 14 she moved from Pennsylvania to Daytona Beach to live with her aunt. Her mother thought she would straighten out there.

Things didn't work out that way, though.

A wayward teenager to begin with, her already-complicated life spiraled out of control beginning with a fistfight with her 21-year-old cousin.

The younger girl was taken to juvenile detention, marking the beginning of a three-year stretch of arrests for probation violations and seemingly unending adversity.

At 15 she got pregnant, and her aunt kicked her out of the house.

She returned to Pennsylvania to give birth to her baby boy, Andrew, and came back to Florida a few weeks later to be with the child's father.

She was arrested the day after she got back on warrants she didn't know were out for her.

At 16, because of her run-ins with the police, her son was left with his paternal grandmother, and she was placed into foster care.

At 17 she was living in Palm Coast when she became pregnant with her second child.

Then one day in June 1999, after her foster mother dropped her off for work at a Steak 'n Shake, the 5-foot-4-inch blonde, carrying her second baby boy, disappeared.

Missing and pregnant

Flagler County Sheriff's Office detectives were assigned to track down Jennifer, but all of their leads led nowhere.

A year went by. Then two. Then three.

The case was filed away as cold, but a detective kept searching databases. He never found anything.

Then, on Oct. 10, Detective Kim Davis got a call from the Doe Network , a national catalog of information on missing people.

The network's director assigned to Florida cases was calling to see if an unidentified body of a girl found stabbed to death in the woods of Sampson County, N.C., was Jennifer.

The body was found about three weeks after she was last seen in Palm Coast and somewhat matched her age and description.

Davis had a hunch that it was Jennifer who had been left to die in east-central North Carolina near a labor camp and a road called Easy Street.

"I actually thought that was what we were looking at," Davis said.

Alive and well

Davis said she was surprised when it turned out Jennifer and the body didn't match, but the case sparked her curiosity so she started making her own calls.

On Monday she tracked down the grandmother Jennifer's baby was living with, and she got some more surprising information.

Jennifer had kept in touch with them for four years after she went missing.

As it turned out she hadn't gone missing at all.

She went back to Allentown, Pa., and her mother, in part, because she was told her second child, Hector, would likely be taken from her when she turned 18 and placed into foster care. Just like his mom.

But why didn't the authorities in Flagler County know that she wasn't missing?

When reached by telephone Friday and Saturday, Jennifer Carbonell said she was as confused as anybody else when Davis called her Monday.

She had not been arrested since moving back north but had dealt with the police and recently applied to a police department.

Davis said she wasn't sure how two and two were never put together to figure out that Jennifer was alive.

With missing children, there are usually only grim outcomes. And even if Jennifer had been alive that whole time, Davis figured she would have been arrested or, at the very least, would have come up in a database somewhere.

"It was kind of shocking for me ... being that how much time had passed," the detective said.

A fresh, fresh start

Carbonell said her fortune completely turned around in Pennsylvania.

At 19 she had her third child, Angelo. She has been with Angelo's father since she moved back, and they are now married by common law.

At 22 she enrolled in a second-change program for high school dropouts and earned her diploma, not a GED, and walked in cap and gown with the class of 2004.

"I probably was the oldest one in the school, but I did it," she said.

Now, at 26, she is finishing up a degree in criminal justice at a junior college, where she has made the dean's list and has a 3.56 GPA.

She said her rocky upbringing inspired her to go into law enforcement, and the plan is to first become a corrections officer, a long way from the teenager running from the Department of Juvenile Justice in Palm Coast and a long way from Daytona, where Andrew, now 10, still lives with his grandmother.

If she could regain custody of him she would, she said. It was heartbreaking leaving him behind, but she didn't think she had a choice.

"It still is," she said. "I have two other children that ask about their brother."

She said she made poor choices as a teenager but didn't know what else to do. Now, the only reason her phone number is listed is so the son she lost can find the mother who went missing.

"I was a child myself trying to raise a child," she said. "I didn't leave to take the easy way out. That was the hardest decision of my life."