YULEE, Fla. – A jury on Thursday found Kimberly Kessler guilty of first-degree murder in the death of her Nassau County salon co-worker Joleen Cummings, who disappeared in 2018.
Kessler was also found guilty of theft because she was seen on surveillance dumping Cummings’ vehicle in a parking lot the night she was last seen alive.
The verdict was reached about 12:35 p.m. after just over an hour of deliberations.
Kessler was brought into the courtroom before the jury but declined to be in the courtroom when the verdict was read and was taken out. There were no outbursts like there were during previous court appearances.
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Cummings’ mother, Ann Johnson, and loved ones hugged as they heard the jury’s decision.
Kessler is facing mandatory life in prison, and sentencing is set for 1:30 p.m. Jan. 27.
“She is evil. She is evil in the flesh. And as soon as she is sentenced, I want her behind out of our jail,” said Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper. “It’s the state’s problem from now on.”
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Closing arguments from both the state and the defense wrapped up shortly before 10:45 a.m. Thursday.
Prosecutors say Kessler killed Cummings, a 34-year-old mother of three, while the two were working together in Tangles Hair Salon in May 2018. Cummings’ body has not been found.
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During closing arguments, the state walked the jury through the timeline of Kessler’s actions.
The state started by reminding the jurors that Cummings has not been seen or heard from in three years and has not used her bank account in that timeframe. The state said she was looking forward to her birthday and was making plans to make a Mother’s Day present with her kids to give to her own mother.
The state then reviewed all of the evidence — including the blood found throughout Tangles; the video footage of Kessler shopping for supplies and driving and parking Cummings’ car; and her internet searches, which included “Joleen Cummings no body no crime.” They also discussed the fact that the women did not get along, and they pointed to a tense interaction between the two women the day before Cummings disappeared. During closing arguments, prosecutors told the jury that evidence showed Kessler used scissors to kill Cummings before disposing of her body.
During the defense closing arguments, they again pointed to how the internet searches are out of context and how the purchasing of zip-ties are not consequential to the case. The defense attorney also pointed to bruising on Kessler’s legs, up her arm and shoulders. The defense said all of this shows that there was a violent conflict.
“What has the state not offered you? Who started it? Who was the aggressor in this fight? Who was defending themselves? How did it end? There are no answers to those questions. You don’t have to fill in the blanks,” the defense said.
After the verdict, Leeper said one person helped solve the case: Cummings.
“She left her blood and she left her DNA, and that’s what got her. That’s what helped us close this case out,” he said.
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State, defense rest cases
The state and defense both rested their cases on Wednesday.
The defense rested after only calling one witness: Lead Detective Wayne Harrington, who had previously testified for the state. The defense showed Harrington a baggie found in the Tangles Hair Salon days after Cummings disappeared. He described the baggie as having a chalky-like substance but doesn’t believe it was tested for evidence. It’s unclear where the baggie was found in the salon. Last month, the defense filed a motion saying Cummings and Kessler got into an argument over drugs in the workplace.
The state rested after putting several witnesses on the stand for two days.
Prosecutors focused Wednesday on Kessler’s internet searches. Nassau County Sheriff’s Office Detective Charity Rose testified about thousands of searches in Kessler’s phone in the days leading up to Cummings’ disappearance May 12, 2018. According to Rose, searches included the following terms: “autopsy,” “cadavers,” “murderpedia,” “victimpedia,” “female murderers by country” and “Florida female murderers.” On May 16, according to Rose, Kessler searched “Joleen Cummings no body no crime,” as well as other things regarding Cummings’ disappearance.
The defense argued that there was no way to know the full context behind the searches or who was physically doing them.
Michelle Money testified that Kessler asked her whether the Storage on Sadler facility had live video surveillance and asked if it was recorded. Another witness, an employee at West Marine in Fernandina Beach, said Kessler bought heavy-duty zip ties there on May 5, 2018, and paid for them in cash.
Kessler was brought into the courtroom three times Wednesday. The judge wanted to give her a chance to participate. All three times she had outbursts, mostly shouting, “Jordan Beard is Joleen Cummings’ cousin,” something she has said repeatedly through the course of the trial. Jordan Beard is Kessler’s previous attorney who is not Cummings’ cousin. The jury was not in the courtroom during these moments, and Kessler was removed and placed into a separate room where she could watch the proceedings. Kessler had similar outbursts in court Monday and Tuesday.
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Testimony focuses on evidence found inside Tangles
Much of Tuesday’s testimony from detectives focused on evidence found inside Tangles Hair Salon, where the women worked together. Investigators believe that evidence shows Kessler attacked and killed Cummings in the salon.
Prosecutors also focused on Kessler’s boots, which were found inside her storage unit. She was seen wearing them the day Cummings was last seen alive, and dried blood drops were found on the boots.
The defense has suggested that it’s possible Kessler and Cummings got into a fight and injuries Kessler suffered were caused by her protecting herself.
The jury was also shown pictures of the inside of both women’s cars. During cross-examination, the defense argued that there should have been blood everywhere, even inside those cars, but none was found.
Harrington was on the witness stand Tuesday and explained how investigators went to a landfill to search the garbage Kessler dumped in a dumpster. Harrington testified it was July 7, 2018, the heat index reached 117 degrees, and the search teams wore ice vests.
The landfill search continued for days. Cummings’ body was not found, but the state suggested there was enough DNA evidence to prove Kessler killed Cummings. The defense said without a body there’s no proof of a murder.
Witnesses take stand after opening statements
Prosecutors began the trial Monday with a timeline, highlighting Kessler’s purchases and internet searches, as well as surveillance video in the days surrounding Cummings’ disappearance.
Opening statements were followed by several witnesses, including Ann Johnson, Cummings’ mother. Johnson testified that it wasn’t her daughter’s personality to just disappear. “She didn’t even acknowledge her birthday,” Johnson said.
Cummings was first reported missing after she never showed up to pick up her children on Mother’s Day 2018.
Multiple witnesses testified that they went to Tangles Hair Salon on May 12, 2018, and saw hairdressers Cummings and Kessler. It’s the last day Cummings was seen. Cummings’ ex-husband, Jason Cummings, testified that Joleen Cummings never picked up their two young sons from him the next day, which was Mother’s Day. “I was waiting for her to pull up. I waited about an hour. I tried to contact Joleen,” he said.
Over the years, the state has released a slew of evidence, including photos of blood found in the salon and surveillance footage of Kessler in Joleen Cummings’ SUV, without her.
Kessler was also seen on surveillance video carrying trash bags from Tangles Hair Salon to a dumpster behind the building.
And a receipt shows Kessler bought cleaning gloves, ammonia, trash bags and an electric knife around the same time Joleen Cummings disappeared.
State prosecutors opened by saying Cummings was killed by Kessler, and though a body was never found, there was a large amount of Joleen Cummings’ DNA left behind at the salon. Investigators found a blue bin that contained a partial fingernail of Joleen Cummings. Prosecutors also told the jury in opening statements that Kessler search the internet on April 30, 2018, for “co worker guilty of killing co worker.”
The defense said this case is about evidence and a lack of evidence. The defense also acknowledged that Kessler and Joleen Cummings worked together and had an ongoing conflict.