ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. (AP) — Vermont police found a body in a remote area Monday that they believe is that of a beloved teacher at a prestigious New England boarding school whose SUV was found running with her unharmed 2-year-old inside.
The discovery sent shudders of grief and anxiety through the town's few thousand residents, especially after authorities acknowledged they did not know whether the disappearance of 33-year-old single mother Melissa Jenkins was isolated.
Jenkins taught science at St. Johnsbury Academy, a boarding school of about 970 students that was established in the 1840s and whose alumni include former President Calvin Coolidge.
Throughout Monday, townsfolk converged at the restaurant where Jenkins worked part-time, seeking solace and updates. As they braved bone-chilling winds for an evening candlelight service, news about the discovery of the body began filtering through the crowd.
"She would do anything for anybody. She definitely will be greatly missed," said Ron Craig, of Peacham, who said he and his wife occasionally baby-sat Jenkins' son.
It's scary that police do not know if this is an isolated incident, he added. "We've been locking our doors all the time because you just don't know what's going to happen."
Vermont State Police Maj. Ed Ledo said at a news conference Monday night that the public should be vigilant as authorities continue to seek a suspect.
He would not give details on the condition of the body found in Barnet, a town not far St. Johnsbury, where Jenkins' vehicle was discovered Sunday evening near signs of a struggle. An autopsy was planned for Tuesday.
A friend who was looking for Jenkins called police Sunday night. Her vehicle was found not far from her home in a rural area at 11:30 p.m. She had no restraining orders out on anyone, police said.
St. Johnsbury Academy also serves as a public school for the town of St. Johnsbury, about 40 miles south of the Canadian border.
Jenkins was a girls freshman basketball coach and a dorm proctor until she had her son. She graduated from Lyndon State College with a degree in natural science and geology. She was 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 Monday afternoon. "She's got a real gift with them."
She was also a waitress at night at The Creamery Restaurant in Danville, the eatery where co-workers, friends and the father of Jenkins' son gathered Monday afternoon along with others who were curious or concerned.
"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.
The academy will provide counseling to grieving students, Lovett said.
The disappearance recalled that of 20-year-old Krista Dittmeyer of Portland, Maine, whose car was found idling with its hazard lights on her 14-month-old daughter unharmed a year ago about 50 miles away in New Hampshire. Dittmeyer's body was found in a pond. Three men were arrested on charges in her robbery and killing.
Authorities said Monday there is no indication the cases are related.