This Life with Gracie: Where is Jenna Van Gelderen?


It has been seven months since Roseanne and Leon Van Gelderen learned their daughter, Jenna, was missing. Seven months.

Seven months of being stuck in the gray area. Seven months of not knowing. Seven months of feeling helpless.

It’s a horrible place to be, but every year, according to DeKalb County police, somewhere around 500 people go missing.

“I’ve been advocating for Jenna my entire life, through the school system, social situations, through college and beyond, that’s what I did,” Roseanne said. “Now I feel like like I’ve hit a brick wall.”

And yet, both she and Jenna’s father are hoping against hope authorities will soon find Jenna alive. The chances of that happening are actually pretty good.

According to DeKalb Police Capt. Anthony Ford, nearly 500 people are reported missing in the county each year. Of those, more than 98 percent are found alive within 12 months.

Jenna, 26, was reported missing Aug. 19, shortly after her parents, who were away on vacation in Canada, received a call from a family friend saying he couldn’t reach her.

Her brother, William, hadn’t been able to reach Jenna either.

“I tried calling her to let her know I was going to be late,” he said.

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When William arrived, the doors to the family’s Druid Hills home were locked. The lights and television were on. Jessie, their beloved rescue cat, hadn’t been fed. It was as if Jenna had vanished into thin air along with her car and the suitcase she had when she arrived to house-sit.

William continued trying to call Jenna but couldn’t get an answer.

“We knew something was wrong,” Leon Van Gelderen said. “No one could reach her.”

They pulled the telephone log from the phone Jenna still had on their plan and called everyone she’d talked to that Friday. Only one of them said he’d seen her the night before.

Two days later, the couple arrived home from Canada. Police, they said, believed Jenna had left of her own free will. The Van Gelderens, though, are convinced she’d left against her will.

Besides her phone charger, Jenna’s shoes and makeup were still there. And most importantly, Jessie the cat.

“She loved that cat. She would’ve made arrangements for the cat,” her father said. “This is completely out of character.”

Jenna was the second of the Van Gelderens’ two children, arriving five years after William and a miscarriage.

“I was homebound with her, and really glad when she arrived,” Roseanne said.

RELATED: Identification of dead child haunts DeKalb Medical Examiner’s Office

From the beginning, she said, their little girl was a challenge, always questioning things, so much so that the habit once landed her in a corner of her teacher’s classroom.

When a principal suggested they have her tested, Jenna was diagnosed with a nonverbal learning disability.

By middle school, things had really turned bad. Unable to understand the bounds of friendship, she was often excluded from parties and other social gatherings. By high school, she was often the victim of bullying.

She transferred to the Howard School, where she graduated in 2010, before heading to Georgia Gwinnett College.

Unable to keep up, she left there after three years and enrolled at Gwinnett Tech, where two years ago she earned an administrative assistant certificate.

Her penchant for structure had paid off.

“She was a very regimented person,” Roseanne recalled. “She remembered every birthday, every anniversary. If we planned a vacation, she wanted to know every detail in advance — when we were going, where we were going, what time we were eating.

“That’s why her disappearing is totally out of character. She was continuously checking in with us every day. She’d call and ask me questions, and I’d call and ask her questions. Every hour, I was getting pictures of Jessie from her.”

Jenna’s need to fit in, to be accepted, however, was a point of great concern for her parents. They worried that people took advantage of her.

Their fears only heightened when she decided to move out last April without telling them where she was staying.

“She thought she was making friends, but they were people who used her,” her father said.

Sometimes it was as simple as using her to taxi them around town or as extreme as using her name to acquire credit for cellphones.

Jenna Van Gelderen is described as 4 feet 11 and weighing 140 pounds with dark brown hair and brown eyes. You might have seen billboards across the state bearing her image, pleading for information about her whereabouts.

Police are still investigating her disappearance, but as of last week, they had no reported sightings, no phone activity, no bank account activity, and no social media activity.

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Jenna’s phone pinged at 7:15 a.m. and 7:45 a.m. in Fairburn the morning she went missing, and two weeks later, her dark blue Mazda 6 was found parked along a road in northwest Atlanta when a woman recognized it from information she saw on Facebook.

So far, Capt. Ford said, police have served over a dozen Superior Court search warrants for phone records, conducted several ground-search activities with K-9 groups, interviewed dozens of people and, for several months, had a detective assigned exclusively to this case.

“We can’t stress how important it is that anyone with information about Jenna, no matter how trivial it may seem to them, contact us,” he said. “They can also contact Crimestoppers at 404-577-TIPS (8477) if they wish to remain anonymous. There’s a $25,000 reward being offered in this case.”

The Van Gelderens are offering an additional $25,000 for their daughter’s safe return.

Ford said there are a couple of people of interest, but no one he would classify as a suspect and no active leads.

“All of us here can imagine how distraught we’d be if it was our loved one, and we’ll continue to follow any investigative avenue we feel might be productive,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Van Gelderens, Roseanne, Leon and their son, Will, wait, hoping Jenna is alive. Somewhere.

“To not know is the worst thing in the world,” Roseanne said. “I don’t want to think the worst. I think maybe.”

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.



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