Episode 105: Jenna Van Gelderen

February 5, 2024

When a young woman disappears from her parents’ home, leaving behind a handful of strange clues, her family must fight for answers. What happened to Jenna?

Episode Media
Jenna Ruth Van Gelderen (Atlanta Jewish Times)
Jenna, Will, Roseanne, and Leon Van Gelderen (Oxygen)
Important locations in Jenna’s case (Google Maps)
Interior of Jenna’s car when it was found (Facebook)
Glass frame that held the missing tapestry (Oxygen)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a missing persons case from Georgia, one that definitely has more questions than answers. It’s a case that I believe can be solved if the right person comes forward. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

On the morning of Saturday, August 19, 2017, a veterinary assistant pulled up to the Van Gelderen home in the Druid Hills neighborhood of northeast Atlanta, Georgia. He was there for a scheduled house call, but when he knocked on the door, there was no answer. The Van Gelderens were on vacation, but their adult daughter Jenna was house sitting and knew he was coming to administer an injection to their elderly cat. The vet continued to knock for a few minutes longer, but when there was still no response, he contacted Jenna’s brother Will.

Will was surprised by the call; Jenna definitely would have answered the door if she was home. Maybe she had overslept or had left to run a quick errand. Will tried calling her cell phone, but she didn’t pick up. He finally just drove over to the house and let the vet inside.

The minute they entered the house, Will knew something was off. Jenna wasn’t there, but all the lights were on, and so was the TV. Jenna’s cell phone charger was on the end table, and the sneakers she wore every day sat next to the couch. But her car was gone, and so were her purse and cell phone.

Most concerning was the fact that Jessie, the family’s 21-year-old cat, had not been fed that morning. Jenna adored Jessie and would never have skipped a feeding. If she was planning to leave, Jenna would have made arrangements for someone else to take care of Jessie.

As the hours passed and Jenna still hadn’t returned and still wasn’t answering her phone, Will grew more and more concerned. He knew that Jenna wasn’t just ignoring his calls. Something was wrong.

Leon Van Gelderen and Roseanne Glick were on vacation in Canada when they learned that their daughter was missing. They booked the earliest flight home, and while they waited, they started investigating. Jenna was still on her parents’ phone plan, so Leon and Roseanne had access to all her call logs. They began contacting every single person Jenna had talked to in the last few days. No one knew anything about Jenna’s current whereabouts, but her parents were able to figure out that Jenna had gone out to meet a friend on Friday night around 10:30. She was back at the house by 1:15am, and 45 minutes later, she texted a friend that she was going to bed. That text was the last communication on Jenna’s phone.

When Jenna still hadn’t shown up by Sunday, Will contacted the DeKalb County Police and reported her missing. Leon and Roseanne arrived back in the United States the next day. They halfway expected to open the front door and see Jenna standing there waiting for them, but of course, she wasn’t.

Once they were home, Leon and Roseanne confirmed what Will had told them – Jenna’s purse, phone, and car were all gone from the house – but they also noticed that Jenna’s suitcase, the one she had brought for house sitting, was missing. If she had just gone to run an errand, why would she have taken her suitcase? On the other hand, if she had planned to be gone for a longer period of time, why would she leave behind the items she used every day, like her shoes and phone charger, and the bag of makeup and toiletries that still sat on the bathroom counter?

There was also the question of the missing tapestry.

On the wall in the Van Gelderens’ study hung a large, five-foot-long glass frame. The frame usually held a family heirloom, a hand-stitched Egyptian tapestry purchased by Jenna’s grandfather during World War II. But now, the frame was empty, and a corner of the glass had been broken. Had Jenna decided to take the tapestry with her for some reason?

But that didn’t really make sense. The glass frame was heavy and awkward, and it would have taken more than one person to remove it from the wall. Jenna wouldn’t have been able to take it down by herself. Had someone broken in to steal it? Although the tapestry had sentimental value to the family, it wasn’t worth very much money. And there was no sign of a break-in at the house. The family searched local pawn shops and online marketplaces, but there was no sign of the missing tapestry. It seemed to be just another piece of the increasingly confusing puzzle.

Jenna’s family was desperate for answers. Where had she gone, and had she gone there voluntarily? Roseanne later told Oxygen, “It was a strange feeling… I felt like something is not right, something has happened. I knew something was wrong.”

Jenna was the youngest of Leon and Roseanne’s two children, coming along five years after her brother Will. As a child, Jenna was bubbly and energetic; Roseanne described her as precocious. She was always asking questions, wanting to know as much as possible. But early on, her parents suspected that something was different about their daughter. In elementary school, Jenna was diagnosed with a nonverbal learning disability, but it wasn’t until her adulthood that she was officially diagnosed with autism.

Being on the autism spectrum varies for each individual, but in Jenna’s case, she thrived on routine, always wanting to know what was going to happen next. Roseanne told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that Jenna was very regimented; she didn’t usually deviate from her routines at all. Roseanne said that while Jenna was house sitting, “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 was also a very trusting person, and her parents worried that someone might have taken advantage of that trust in the days before her disappearance. And this fear wasn’t unfounded – Jenna had been negatively influenced by others before.

About six months before she vanished, Jenna had started hanging out with a new group of friends. Jenna had always longed for friendship, eager to please and wanting others to like her. She struggled with social norms, but this new group seemed to accept her. However, in March of 2017, Jenna got caught stealing $3,000 from the pet store where she worked. According to her family, Jenna had been coerced into taking the money by these people who claimed to be her friends. Leon told the Journal Constitution, “She thought she was making friends, but they were people who used her.” Jenna was ultimately fired from the pet store and charged with misdemeanor theft, and the experience left her parents even more concerned for her safety and well-being.

In the aftermath of Jenna’s theft charge, Leon decided to dig into these so-called friends of Jenna’s. He told Oxygen that he had accessed Jenna’s cell phone records and what he saw was alarming. It was clear that these “friends” were still taking advantage of her. According to the Journal Constitution, some of the people involved were even using Jenna’s name to open credit cards and bank accounts. Jenna had also sent dozens of money transfers from her account, seemingly at the request of these friends.

When Leon confronted Jenna about what he had found, telling her that these friends were not good for her, Jenna got angry, seeing her father’s actions as a betrayal of her trust. After that, their relationship was strained, and Jenna eventually decided to move out of her parents’ house. At first, she wouldn’t tell them where she was staying, but they eventually learned that she was staying with a friend in Atlanta. Over the next few months, Leon worked to rebuild his relationship with his daughter, but Jenna was often secretive, not wanting to share details about her life anymore.

However, her family tried to see this new independence as a good thing for Jenna. Will told CBS46 that moving out on her own was a big step for her. “She was just starting to get a grasp on her adulthood.”

So when Jenna disappeared in August, her family wanted to believe that she was merely exercising her independence, but it just didn’t jive with what they knew about her. Jenna was not the sort of person who would completely cut contact with her family out of the blue; even when she moved out of the house, she still talked to them multiple times a day. She followed her routines religiously, and this behavior was so far out of the norm for her.

As the DeKalb County Police began their investigation into Jenna’s disappearance, Jenna’s family was also investigating. They reached out to their community, asking friends and neighbors to pass out flyers and spread the word around town that Jenna was missing. They took to social media, asking anyone with information to come forward. Will became involved with online forums like WebSleuths, hoping that someone could help piece together the strange clues Jenna had left behind.

The family also looked into Jenna’s phone records and social media accounts, of which Will had the passwords, and they were shocked to discover that Jenna had a second cell phone that no one had known about. Looking through the messages on the second phone, the family saw that on the night she disappeared, someone had been trying to convince Jenna to leave her parents’ house and return to her apartment. Leon told Oxygen that there was no way to tell who had sent those messages to Jenna because the phone didn’t record that information, which makes me wonder if Jenna was using some sort of app to hide her communications. But why? What was she into that would require not only a secret phone but possibly an app to further hide the activity? Or was this another example of her being manipulated by someone with ill intentions?

Early on, the family decided to hire a private investigator to help with the case. The PI learned that Jenna had actually been renting a room from a friend at an apartment complex on Lenox Road, just a few miles away from her parents’ house. However, according to an August 28th post by Will, Jenna’s roommate would not let the family into the apartment, saying they needed to get a warrant if they wanted to look inside. Naturally, the family found this to be very suspicious.

DeKalb County Police didn’t seem to prioritize Jenna’s case at first, but as the family began to uncover more information on their own, detectives began to pick up the pace. They eventually were able to get into the apartment and retrieve Jenna’s belongings, but according to Will, they didn’t seem to get much information from the roommate.

At the end of August, Jenna’s family was able to get access to her Google location history, which helped them piece together a rough timeline of her movements in the days before she disappeared. According to Will, her phone was tracked to 18 different locations on Friday, August 17th, but all activity ceased by 11:30pm. There was no activity on that phone on Saturday, suggesting that she may have turned off the phone’s data or completely switched over to using the second phone.

They also learned from Jenna’s friend that when she went to meet him on Friday night, she was driving her mom’s car instead of her own. It’s a strange choice for her to make when her own car was apparently in fine working condition, but Jenna didn’t tell her friend why she had switched cars for the night, and he didn’t ask. It could be something as simple as being low on gas, but it could be an important piece of the puzzle. On September 4th, the family posted on Facebook that they believed that someone else had been in the car with Jenna the night before she disappeared, and that that person had come back to the house with her. They’ve never said why they believe that, but it seems like a significant piece of information if true. Unfortunately, police didn’t process that car for fingerprints, so we may never know for sure.

Of course, we do know that it was Jenna’s car that went missing from the house on August 19th, not her mom’s. Local media outlets shared pictures of Jenna’s missing blue Mazda with Georgia license plates, and thankfully, it worked. On September 5th, almost three weeks after Jenna vanished, a woman driving down Defoor Place in North Atlanta spotted the car parked along the curb. She had seen the pictures on Facebook and immediately called the police.

When investigators arrived at the scene, they found the car doors unlocked and the gas tank nearly on empty. Inside the vehicle, they located Jenna’s purse with her ID and debit card. In the backseat was the missing suitcase with all the compartments unzipped and Jenna’s clothes scattered around. Police processed the vehicle for evidence, but there were no fingerprints to be found. It’s unclear if there were no fingerprints at all – which would be strange since Jenna drove that car regularly – or whether police were only looking for prints belonging to other people.

Either way, they didn’t seem to find anything useful, and surveillance video from businesses on Defoor Place didn’t provide any new leads. The car was returned to the family.

Once they got the car back, the family did their own search. They noticed that the driver’s seat was pushed all the way back, and they wondered if someone else had been driving. Jenna was 4’11” – she always drove with the seat as close to the steering wheel as possible. She wouldn’t have any reason to push it back that far.

Will also discovered a cell phone charger in the car that didn’t match either of Jenna’s two phones. Unless Jenna had a third secret phone they didn’t know about, she would have had no use for that type of charger.

The investigation continued to progress, and police were eventually able to get all the data from both of Jenna’s cell phones. They learned that her second phone had pinged off a tower in Fairburn, Georgia, at approximately 7:15am on Saturday, August 19th. It pinged again at 7:45am, then went dark. Fairburn is a small suburb of Atlanta, about 20 miles south of the Van Gelderen home in Druid Hills. According to Police Captain Anthony Ford, the area surrounding the cell tower spans nearly 100 acres of thick woods and dirt roads, places that aren’t heavily traveled. It would be easy to hide.

This lead became even more interesting when investigators learned that Jenna’s blue Mazda had been spotted on a traffic camera in Atlanta at the same time her phone was pinging 20 miles away. Captain Ford told Oxygen that on the day Jenna went missing, they were “very confident that the car and the phone were not in the same place.”

But in spite of this new information, Jenna’s case seemed to fizzle out. Although investigators had several persons of interest, they didn’t have enough evidence to make any arrests. In January of 2018, Crime Stoppers announced a $50,000 reward for information in the case, but not even that brought new leads. The family was so frustrated. Roseanne told the Journal Constitution, “I’ve been advocating for Jenna my entire life… Now I feel like I’ve hit a brick wall.”

The family was also frustrated with how police had handled the case. They believe if DeKalb County had taken Jenna’s disappearance seriously from the beginning, they might have been able to get more answers. Leon told the Journal Constitution that the police hadn’t even interviewed their neighbors, and they could never get any straight answers from the detectives assigned to the case.

It wasn’t until July of 2019 that Jenna’s case was finally turned over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. But even the GBI didn’t seem to be in a hurry to work the case. In a Facebook post, the family said, “People often ask us, what’s going on with the case? It’s hard to even respond to that as we just don’t know. So much of what the authorities do is kept under wraps from us and not shared, they keep telling us they are actively working the case and don’t feel like the work they are doing is being appreciated.”

For a long time, Jenna’s family held out hope that she was still alive. But as the years passed, they realized that they needed to give themselves permission to mourn her loss. In August of 2021, the family held a memorial service at their synagogue. While they expressed their hope that answers would someday come, they said their goodbyes and shared memories of Jenna’s bright smile, her gentle heart, and her loving nature.

As of this recording, it’s been over six years since Jenna disappeared. Her family continues to search for answers, knowing that the truth is out there. In a Facebook post, Roseanne said, “I have seen the good in our world with all the support we’ve received… I believe that again, goodwill outweighs the evil and Jenna will be found.”

Jenna Ruth Van Gelderen was 25 years old at the time of her disappearance on August 19, 2017. She is 4’11” tall with black hair and brown eyes. Her ears are pierced and she has a tattoo of the Star of David on her upper thigh. She may have been last seen in the Atlanta suburb of Fairburn, the Druid Hills neighborhood, or near Lenox Road or Defoor Place in North Atlanta. If you have any information about Jenna’s disappearance or her current whereabouts, please contact the GBI tip line at 1-800-597-8477 or visit http://gbi.georgia.gov to submit a tip online.