COLUMBIA, SC — Amir Jennings.
As 2012 comes to a close, the investigations into their disappearances have not found resolution. In public, the law enforcement officials responsible for finding Amir and Gabrielle show confidence that they will be found.
“We don’t give up,” said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. “We’re not going to give up.”
But as the months pass with no sign of their return, hope dims for those who have followed their cases.
Both disappeared at the hands of those who knew them well, authorities have said.
Amir’s mother, Zinah Jennings, is serving a 10-year prison sentence on a cruelty to children charge for not telling anyone where she left her toddler son.
Freddie Grant, a 52-year-old Elgin man who had dated the mother of 15-year-old Gabrielle’s mother, has been charged with her kidnapping.
Pictures of Amir, with his big, brown eyes and curly hair, started appearing in January as family and friends launched a search.
The then-18-month-old was last seen around Thanksgiving 2011, but his disappearance did not become public until the last week of December 2011, when his mother was arrested by Columbia police.
The search has stretched from Columbia to Atlanta to Charlotte because Jennings was known to visit relatives in each city. A cell phone ping led police to spend an entire January day searching a swath of woods in northern Richland County. They did not find Amir.
In spite of her prison sentence, Zinah Jennings has never told police, her mother or the boy’s father where Amir is.
Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott said investigators work on the Amir case every day.
“I am confident his mother, Zinah Jennings, knows where she left him, what she did with him and what his condition is,” Scott said. “I really believe we’re going to break the Amir Jennings case. If it’s not today or tomorrow, I just don’t believe it’s going to be a continuously unsolved case.”
On Aug. 18, a parent’s worst nightmare evolved in a quiet suburban neighborhood in Northeast Richland County when Gabrielle disappeared from her bedroom in the middle of the night.
Elvia Swainson came home from work at 7:30 a.m. to discover her daughter missing and blood in the teen’s bed.
Almost immediately, Richland County Sheriff’s Department deputies suspected Gabrielle had been kidnapped. The FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were called to help.
The supsect soon became Grant, who was dating the teen’s mother. Police traced Gabrielle’s cell phone to towers near his Elgin home and found her blood and hair on duct tape inside the house and on duct tape in a nearby junk yard.
As police searched for the petite teen, the public rallied to support her and her mother. Their church held daily prayer sessions. Hundreds attended a candlelight vigil in the Lake Carolina neighborhood. Facebook pages were created and people kept up with the latest news on the case by following #FindGabbiee on Twitter.
Lott said Gabrielle’s case captured people’s hearts because “she was such a good girl.”
Gabbiee, as she was known to friends, was about to start her sophomore year in Ridge View High School’s bioscience magnet program and was on the cheerleading squad. She played guitar and sang in church performances. Friends have described her as having a sparkling personality, and she was known for her love of the color blue, including her frequent use of blue eye shadow.
Elvia Swainson by all accounts was a hard-working single mother who put her daughter first, Lott said.
“Everything about this case grabbed people’s attention,” Lott said. “It’s the worst fear of any parent – to have your child taken from her bedroom.”
Lott said he has not given up hope that Gabbiee eventually will be found.
“I will hope that we do find her, just like I hope that we find Dail Dinwiddie and Paula Merchant,” Lott said as he referred to two other high-profile missing persons cases in the Midlands.
Monica Caison, executive director of the Community United Effort (CUE) Center for Missing Persons, said it can be hard to find missing children, especially when foul play is suspected. Investigators are working with limited knowledge and developing complex search plans.
Her group has joined the effort to find Gabbiee.
“There’s definitely going to be a resolution to her case,” Caison said. “Her Mom wants and needs it. Law enforcement is working hard, and we’re working hard.”
The CUE Center has a national reputation for successful searches. It uses volunteers to devote countless hours to a search. It’s important work, especially families who need closure, Caison said.
“Whether you’re 8 or 18 or 28, you’re still a child of somebody. Parents still say, ‘I have a child missing.’
“I don’t think any case is impossible ... You have to keep looking.”
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.