Claudine Gifford still missing:
Family, friends remain hopeful,
sheriff’s investigation continues
|by Audrey Thomasson
KILMARNOCKIt’s hard to imagine what it would be like to have a family member disappear without a trace. Claudine Jaquier Gifford’s family has gone 32 days without knowing what happened to her. Yet, they refuse to give up hope that she may still be safe and sound.
“They don’t give you a handbook for this stuff,” said Claudine’s husband of 16 years, Richard Gifford.
The fact that Lancaster sheriff’s investigators are telling them little about the case only adds to their anguish, they said.
According to Lancaster Sheriff Ronnie Crockett, they are releasing the information they can release.
“When we first came here, they were great. But I do most of the calling and they tell us to wait...I know it takes time and it’s a small police force, but it’s just going through the days” hearing nothing, Richard said.
On Monday, August 4, the sheriff’s department named James Todd Kessler, 53, of Cox’s Farm Road in Weems “a person of interest” in Claudine’s disappearance.
Last weekend, Richard, daughter Gabrielle and Claudine’s sister, Julianne Jaquier, drove from the family’s Orlando home to Kilmarnock for the second time in two weeks to check on the investigation and to participate in a candlelight vigil to pray for her safe return.
They joined Claudine’s friend, Susan Morris Page, who met Claudine when she applied for a job at the Kilmarnock Inn last year around Labor Day. “I hired her immediately...and we became instant friends,” said Page in an earlier interview.
Saturday, the family agreed to sit down for an interview and talk about the wife, mother and sister they love. They also want to clear up misinformation by describing events that happened in the days before and after she vanished.
“I’ve been crying for the last 27 days,” said Richard. “She was planning on coming back home and staying permanently.”
“If someone has her, just drop her offno questions asked,” Julianne said through tears. “I can’t go through this much more. But more importantly, Gabrielle needs a mom.”
The Jaquier sisters know what it’s like to grow up without a mom, after losing their mother when Julianne was 5 and Claudine was 11. Their Aunt Linda folded the girls into her family, said Julianne. Linda’s death last year may have been the final event that pushed Claudine to take a temporary leave from home and stay with friends in North Carolina and the Northern Neck.
“She needed to find herself,” said Gabrielle.
Claudine, 44, came to the lower Northern Neck nearly a year ago to stay with an old friend after the recession caused hard times for the couple’s finances, family business and relationship. But she called home every day to check in and to keep up with 15-year-old Gabrielle.
While many girls tangle with their mothers during the teen years, Gabrielle said they are very close. “She’s the best mother.”
“They were joined at the hip,” Julianne said of the mother-daughter relationship.
“She loves Gabby with everything she has,” added Richard.
“Claudine can be stubborn, but she’s the first person to help you. She’ll give you the shirt off her back,” said Julianne.
They affirmed their belief that Claudine would never willingly leave her family without a word.
“She came back here to pick up her things,” said Gabrielle. But when her mother failed to return after five days, the teenager wondered what was taking so long.
“I texted her about 8:30 the night she disappeared and asked ‘Mom, what’s taking so long? I thought you were just going back to pick up your van and things.’”
She never received a reply.
According to sheriff’s reports, Claudine was last seen leaving Pelicans at the Point at Windmill Point with Todd Kessler around 8:30 p.m. July 6. In his own quest for information, Richard said witnesses at the tiki bar told him that after two or three drinks Claudine was so incapacitated, Kessler carried her to his car. However, the witnesses put the departure time two hours earlier, at 6:30 p.m.
From this point, two versions of the story emerge. In one sheriff’s report, Kessler said they had an argument and he dropped her off on the side of the road about a mile from the marina. Later, the sheriff’s department issued a statement looking for four men who “were seen” helping Claudine into a silver SUV.
Asked about the conflicting reports, Sheriff Crockett said, “We follow up on all leads.”
According to Lt. Tim Self, lead investigator in the case, Kessler was the individual who gave deputies the information that “four white men assisted her into a silver Nissan SUV.”
Page, who first reported Claudine missing, claimed witnesses said a couple of men separately offered to help but were turned down and that they were still at the tiki bar after Claudine and Kessler left.
Julianne said her sister wouldn’t pass out after only three drinks and expressed concern she may have been drugged without her knowledge.
They insisted Claudine never used drugs.
“She was so against drug use, she wouldn’t even take all the pills in a prescription,” said Julianne.
Page also insisted Claudine never used drugs. As a non-user and weighing only 112 pounds, drugs would have really affected her, said Page.
Seven weeks before her disappearance, Claudine went to North Carolina for a two-week stay to help a friend recovering from surgery, Page reported. However, while returning to Virginia, her mini van broke down and she called Page for help. Page was sitting in a Kilmarnock restaurant when she took the call. When she offered to wire $100, Kessler, who was also in the restaurant, came over and interrupted the conversation, insisting he would wire her $200 and then drive down to pick up Claudine, said Page. Since the women had only met him briefly once before, they declined his offer. But he refused to listen and left for North Carolina. After Claudine returned with him, they started dating, said Page.
“She felt obligated,” said Page.
Within a couple of weeks, Claudine was traveling again, this time returning to her Florida home to celebrate Father’s Day with her family. “We talked through our problems and she was planning to stay,” said Richard.
During the two weeks with her family, Kessler called Claudine incessantly, insisting she return to Lancaster, even “threatening to blackmail her” with her daughter in order to get her to return, Richard said. “He even started calling and texting me.”
Richard said he and Kessler got into a heated argument over the constant calls and what Richard felt was Kessler’s interference in the couple working on their marriage.
“She was only with Kessler maybe a month,” said Richard. “We were married 16 years.”
Richard said he had to leave for New York for an relative’s funeral and when he returned, despite his concerns for her safety, Claudine decided to go back to Virginia to pick up her van and clothing.
Back in Virginia
“I wanted to go with her, but she insisted on going on her own,” said Richard. “She returned because of his threats to send Gabrielle things. She was afraid he would.”
“Claudine indicated she was going to stay (with Kessler) only to find the ‘things’ he could use to blackmail her,” Page said. She also told her friend of her concerns about Kessler’s behavior. But after 16 years of marriage, she was naive when it came to dating, Page added.
On Sunday morning of the day she disappeared, Claudine texted she was picking up her van and belongings from Burgess, said Page.
When Kessler called Page Monday morning, wondering if she knew where Claudine was, Page immediately notified the sheriff’s department. “They were great. They responded right away even though it hadn’t been 24-hours,” she said.
From Florida, Richard also reported her missing on Monday. Over the next two weeks, search parties of law enforcement and tracking and cadaver dogs, as well as supporters from across the state, combed the Windmill Point and Corrotoman River areas off Hunton Lane and Cox’s Farm Road in an effort to find Claudine.
Richard arrived in Lancaster soon after she was reported missing and joined in the search, also distributing “missing” posters to businesses. At a store in White Stone, employees told him Claudine’s husband had already dropped off a poster. After Richard explained he was her husband, employees played the store surveillance video for him which showed Kessler pulling out a rolled up poster he had stuffed down the front of his shirt, he said.
On August 3, the family gathered with more than 50 friends and supporters in a candlelight vigil for Claudine’s safe return. It was held at the Kilmarnock Inn where the Giffords were staying as guests of the inn.
During the event, Richard thanked the community for its support.
“Everyone has been great. The inn has been taking great care of us,” Richard said. “Susan has been great...calling us every day. She loves Claudine.”
The “Richard Gifford: Bring Claudine home” fund has been established at the Bank of Lancaster for donations to aid in the search and help cover some of the family’s travel expenses.
Help Save the Next Girl, a national organization formed by the parents of slain Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington, is making media contacts on the Giffords’ behalf, supplying posters to aid the search and posting updates on their website.
According to the Lancaster sheriff’s department, the investigation is still ongoing. Kessler is being held without bond in Lancaster jail on charges of malicious wounding and assault in an unrelated case.
The sheriff would not allow him to be interviewed for this story. Kessler’s attorney, Jim Breeden, was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.
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