54ºF

74 lb. Kimberly Kessler yells, curses during competency hearing

Kessler charged in 2018 murder of Joleen Cummings, co-worker at Tangles Hair Salon

YULEE, Fla. – Kimberly Kessler, the woman charged with killing her coworker at a hairstyling studio in Yulee, cursed and yelled Monday at a hearing set to decide if she is competent to stand trial. Judge James Daniel is also asked to rule on an emergency petition by the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office asking for permission to force Kessler to eat and accept medical care.

That petition, filed by Sheriff Bill Leeper, said Kessler is trying to kill herself by starvation. Leeper asked a judge for guidance, saying jail medical staff members do not have the resources necessary to force-feed the woman, who the court was told has been refusing to eat.

Because a judge in March found Kessler competent to stand trial, the Sheriff’s Office is asking for a precedent-setting ruling from the judge. As written in the petition, petitioners have no lawful means to prevent Kessler’s “suicide by starvation” without intervention of the court.

At Monday morning’s hearing -- Kessler’s third addressing her competence -- she was removed from view after she yelled an expletive about the public defender’s office. On the Zoom hearing, Kessler could still be heard yelling and cursing in the background. A deputy came back and told the court that Kessler did not want to be represented by the public defender.

“Screw the public defender’s office,” she could be heard saying.

Daniel said he would not grant Kessler a hearing for a change of lawyer.

Dr. Louis Legum, a psychologist from Palatka who has examined Kessler, testified that she has a “free-ranging psychosis."

Then Florida State Hospital psychologist Graham Danzer, who has not examined Kessler, said he would need to see her several times to make a determination of her mental state.

“I would want to re-administer psychological testing,” Danzer said. “I would want a lot of observational information. I would want to sit down with her for a long time and then come to a conclusion.”

Nassau jail Capt. Paula DeLuca testified that Kessler refused to eat, cussed at and make demeaning remarks to corrections officers, medical staff and doctors. DeLuca said Kessler’s weight has dropped from went from 196 pounds to 74. She’s on suicide watch and has rubbed feces on herself and on the windows.

DeLuca said that was dismayed when Kessler heard this hearing was approaching and went on a binge eating spree over the weekend, including multiple peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Later in the hearing, a different deputy informed the judge that Kessler was acting out behind bars while listing to the proceedings -- taking off her clothes and smearing feces on the jail window.

The hearing ended at about 11 a.m. and Judge Daniel is expected to rule later.

After the hearing, Anne Johnson, Joleen Cummings' mother, issued the following statement:

Joleen Cummings
Joleen Cummings

What Nassau County sheriff is requesting

The emergency order that the judge is asked to rule on states: “Respondent Kessler, who has been determined to be competent by different authorities, appears determined to exercise her right to refuse to eat pursuant to Florida’s Constitutional Right to Privacy.”

Kessler had a third mental evaluation, the results of which were sealed. On Monday, the judge will hold a third mental competency hearing. Subpoenas went out Thursday to a nurse from Starting Point Behavioral in Yulee and Nassau CSO Captain Paula DeLuca, who’s second in command at the jail.

News4Jax spoke with Dr. Justin D’Arienzo, a forensic psychologist, about Kessler’s behavior.

“Someone that is decompensating and has mental health issues, it’s really hard for them to sustain a hunger strike like what she’s doing," D’Arienzo said.

If a judge takes action D’Arienzo says she would likely be force-fed at a different facility that has the resources.

“Through an IV or through a nasogastric tube that would supply her with nutrients," D’Arienzo said.

In August, a court document filed by counsel representing Kessler, stated that she had been on a hunger strike. That document stated she was “in need of hospitalization for her mental illness."

Kessler is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Joleen Cummings, a 34-year-old mother of three. Cummings has been missing since May 2018, and although her body has not been found, investigators said they found several notable items at a Georgia landfill.

Court documents state that investigators believe the hairstylist may have been killed inside Tangles Hair Salon in Yulee. Records provided to the defense attorney show that detectives and the lead prosecutor found bloodstains on a chair in the salon, the wall near the reception desk, a wooden display stand, a signboard, a vacuum cleaner leaning against the wall, another chair and a display rack next to the desk.

Following Cummings' disappearance, her SUV was found parked outside a Home Depot. Kessler was arrested May 16 after investigators said they found footage showing her getting out of the vehicle.

Kessler is believed to be that last person to see Cummings alive.

The case has attracted national attention in part because authorities said Kessler, who went by Jennifer Sybert, has used 17 aliases over the years.


About the Authors: