ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. (AP) — Police suspect foul play in the disappearance of a beloved teacher at a prestigious New England boarding school whose SUV was found near her home with the engine running and her unharmed 2-year-old son inside, authorities said Monday.
A National Guard helicopter chopped through the sky and police scoured woods, roadsides, rivers and fields near Melissa Jenkins' home in rural St. Johnsbury in northeastern Vermont, where the single mother teaches at St. Johnsbury Academy.
"She's very well known within this community, very well respected and cared for, or cared about," said Vermont State Police Maj. Ed Ledo. "So we are pulling out every resource that we can in order to find her and bring her back safely."
Police called in officers from other areas of the state and FBI to help, he said. They also wanted to hear from anyone who had been on the road where her vehicle was found Sunday night.
"We're all just in shock, and we have no answers or any ideas of any direction to look," said Marty Beattie, Jenkins' uncle through his first wife. "We'd all be doing anything we could right now."
The woman has been missing since Sunday night, when a friend who was looking for her called police. The friend found the SUV, which was running with Jenkins' son inside, not far from her home in a rural area at 11:30 p.m.
Evidence from the scene indicates there was a struggle, police said. She had no restraining orders out on anyone.
Jenkins teaches science at St. Johnsbury, a boarding school of about 970 students that was established in the 1840s and whose alumni include former President Calvin Coolidge. It also serves as a public school for the town of St. Johnsbury.
She was also a girls freshman basketball coach and was a dorm proctor until she had her son. She graduated from Lyndon State College with a degree in natural science and geology. She is 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."
She is also a waitress at night at The Creamery Restaurant in Danville, where co-workers, friends and the father of Jenkins' son gathered Monday afternoon while the restaurant was closed.
"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."
A family friend is caring for the boy. His father, B.J. Robertson, would not comment on Jenkins' disappearance.
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. "Again, she was someone that was always trying to help somebody in the world, and I think that's what happened."
He told students of her disappearance in an assembly in the chapel Monday morning. Some, especially the dozen seniors she met with each morning as their adviser, were "very emotional," he said.
He said he told the students, "The best we can do for each other and Miss Jenkins is to be hopeful."