ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. (AP) — The discovery of a body believed to be that of a beloved teacher at a prestigious boarding school sent shudders of grief and anxiety through a small New England town a day after her SUV was found running with her unharmed 2-year-old boy inside.
Melissa Jenkins, a 33-year-old single mother, taught science at St. Johnsbury Academy, a school of about 970 students that was established in the 1840s and whose alumni include former President Calvin Coolidge.
Vermont State Police Maj. Ed Ledo would not give details on the condition of the body found Monday in Barnet, a town not far St. Johnsbury.
A friend who was looking for Jenkins called police Sunday and Jenkins’ vehicle was discovered that evening near signs of a struggle.
An autopsy was planned for Tuesday.
A family friend is caring for the boy. His father, B.J. Robertson, would not comment on Jenkins’ disappearance.
Authorities acknowledged they did not know whether Jenkins’ disappearance was isolated, and Ledo said at a news conference that the public should be vigilant as authorities continue to seek a suspect.
Throughout the day, townsfolk converged at the restaurant where Jenkins worked part-time, seeking solace and updates.
As they braved bone-chilling winds for an evening candlelight service, news about the discovery of the body began filtering through the crowd.
“She would do anything for anybody. She definitely will be greatly missed,” said Ron Craig, of Peacham, who said he and his wife occasionally babysat Jenkins’ son.
Craig said it’s scary that police did not know if this was an isolated incident. “We’ve been locking our doors all the time because you just don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
Jenkins’ vehicle was found not far from her home in a rural area at 11:30 p.m. Sunday. She had no restraining orders out on anyone, police said.
Jenkins was a girls freshman basketball coach and a dorm proctor until she had her son. She graduated from Lyndon State College with a degree in natural science and geology. She was working on her master’s degree, headmaster Tom Lovett said.
“She’s got a real gift with students who either haven’t liked science before or learning science doesn’t come easy to them,” Lovett said. “She’s got a real gift with them.”
St. Johnsbury Academy also serves as a public school for the town, about 40 miles south of the Canadian border.
Jenkins was a waitress at night at The Creamery Restaurant in Danville, the eatery where co-workers, friends and the father of Jenkins’ son gathered Monday afternoon along with others who were curious or concerned.
“We all know her. It’s a tough thing right now,” said Marion Cairns, the owner, who described Jenkins as bright, pretty, a good mother and fun to be around. “She’d cut her arms off before she’d let anybody touch that boy. I mean, that boy meant everything to her.”
Eric Berry, 44, of Lyndonville, a cousin by marriage whose daughter is Jenkins’ goddaughter, described her as a beautiful, kind person whom he believes was coming to someone’s aid when she disappeared.
“She left her house with the idea, I think, to try to help somebody, and that’s as far as I’m going to go with that because I don’t want to damage any investigation,” he said.
The academy will provide counseling to grieving students, Lovett said.
The disappearance recalled that of 20-year-old Krista Dittmeyer of Portland, Maine, whose car was found idling with its hazard lights on, her 14-month-old daughter unharmed, a year ago about 50 miles away in New Hampshire. Dittmeyer’s body was found in a pond. Three men were arrested on charges in her robbery and killing.
Authorities said Monday there is no indication the cases were related.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.