Kimberly Kessler found guilty of first-degree murder in Nassau County mom Joleen Cummings’ death

YULEE, Fla. — On Thursday afternoon, a jury in Nassau County found Kimberly Kessler, the woman on trial for the 2018 death of her coworker Joleen Cummings, guilty of first-degree murder.

The verdict came shortly after Judge James H. Daniel gave them the case.

[RELATED: Mother of murdered Nassau woman, Joleen Cummings, remembers final moments on 3-year anniversary of her death]

The jury listened for hours as both the prosecution and the defense gave their closing arguments earlier Thursday morning.

Cummings and Kessler both worked at the Tangles Hair Salon in Nassau County. The 34-year-old mother of three was reported missing by her mother Anne Johnson on May 14, 2018.

Investigators and prosecutors said DNA evidence showed Cummings’ blood was found throughout the business, on Kessler’s scissors and boots, and said there was a cleanup effort, believing that she was killed there even though her body has never been found.

Evidence also showed Kessler’s disturbing internet search history of murders, the purchased tools to clean up the murder and the fact she has used 18 aliases and lived in 33 cities in 14 states.

Some of those search terms included, “Joleen Cummings no body no crime” and “Florida female murders.”

[PODCAST: Where is Joleen?]

Kessler also faced a charge of grand theft of a motor vehicle after investigators said Kessler was seen on a surveillance video parking Cummings’ vehicle around 1:17 a.m. on May 13, 2018 at a Home Depot parking lot in Yulee. The jury also found her guilty on that charge.

Cummings’ mother, Anne Johnson, said her prayers have been answered.

“Justice has been served. Everything that came through me was through Joleen,” Johnson said. “Joleen was here.”

Johnson also directed a message to Kessler, pleading for her to reveal where Cummings’ body is.

“I know you feel the pain of not being able to see your son,” Johnson said. “If you could find it in your heart to tell us where are the remains of my daughter? Where are the remains of my daughter? Give us closure. I’m asking from one mother to another.”

[2020 ARTICLE: Woman accused of murdering Joleen Cummings appears in court with mask and Holy Bible]

Throughout the trial, prosecutors focused on the physical evidence presented as testified by Nassau County Sheriff’s Office detectives.

Prosecutors also said it’s difficult to try a murder with no body or defendant present in the courtroom. From Cummings’ blood in the salon to Kessler’s internet searches, they say it’s what led to the guilty verdicts and credited the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office efforts to find evidence.

“How do you mind read what somebody is thinking or planning? The internet searches told the story,” prosecutor Donna Thurson said.

Kessler had nothing but outbursts in court but before the verdict, she was asked if she wanted to stay and she responded civilly.

“No thank you,” she said to the judge.

“All right, do you want to go back downstairs?” the judge said.

“Yes,” Kessler responded.

[2019 ARTICLE: Investigators tell Kimberly Kessler they’ve found Joleen Cummings’ blood on her shoes]

Action News Jax asked if prosecutors believe the outcome would be different had Kessler taken the stand during trial. State Attorney Melissa Nelson said they have no doubts in their minds it would’ve been the same guilty verdicts.

“Her life and her history and all of her aliases and disguises and fraudulent life she had led, I would’ve expected nothing but the same if she testified,” Nelson said.

Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper said he and his staff are ready to have Kessler out of their jail and in a state prison.

“She’s evil, she’s evil in the flesh,” Leeper said. “And as soon as she’s sentenced, I want her behind bars, out of our jail because we are fed up with her crap. She’s the state’s problem now.”

[2018 ARTICLE: Joleen Cummings’ mom sends message for suspect]

Leeper said his investigators are not going to stop looking for Cummings’ body.

“We are not going to rest until we find her and hopefully one day she will turn up somewhere and we pray for that day,” Leeper said. “She could be anywhere from Nassau County to St. Johns County, somewhere in between, we don’t know, we have no clue. Hopefully one day she (Kessler) will talk. I doubt it, but hopefully she will but by God, we’re gonna keep looking.”

The state attorney’s office said Kessler now faces a life sentence in prison and her next sentencing hearing will be on Jan. 27, 2022.

Read recaps from what happened in court on previous days of the trial below.

Day 3 of murder trial:

Today, Kessler was given more than one opportunity to testify on her own behalf but she was removed from the court because of her routine outbursts. This is behavior we’ve seen from Kessler during pre-trial and every day of the trial.

Kessler was wheeled in to the courtroom and almost immediately started yelling, “Jordan Beard is Joleen Cumming’s cousin. Jordan Beard is Joleen Cumming’s cousin. You knew that. Jordan Beard is Joleen Cumming’s cousin.”

[2018 ARTICLE: Joleen Cummings: FBI begins searching Georgia landfill for evidence]

Kessler was placed into a separate room in the courthouse to watch the rest of the trial proceedings.

Closing arguments for the Kimberly Kessler murder trial will begin tomorrow, Nov. 9.

You can count on Action News Jax to be in court tomorrow for closing arguments and alert you on air and online as soon as a verdict in the case is reached.

Day 2 of murder trial:

During the second day of testimony in the Kimberly Kessler Trial—the prosecution primarily focused on helping the jury to understand what steps were taken during the investigative process to find Joleen Cummings—and what items were found.

The witnesses called to the stand by the prosecution were strictly technical.

Each of them played a role in collecting evidence, analyzing the evidence, or searching for evidence in Cummings’ disappearance.

[2019 ARTICLE: Newly released documents shed light on what may have happened to Joleen Cummings]

The Tangles Hair Salon and Storage on Saddler facility were two of the focal points in today’s testimony.

Sergeant Mark Murphy, with the Criminal Investigation Division of the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office, was the first person the prosecution called to the stand.

The jury was shown several pictures, from Murphy’s visits to Tangles. He visited the salon several times.

Sergeant Murphy explained that the evidence markers, seen in the pictures, were placed where “reddish-brown” stains were found—which includes the calendar at the reception desk, and the stylist chair. Those stains were tested and came back “presumptive positive” for blood.

Luminol, a substance used to detect blood you can’t see with the human eye, was also used throughout the salon.

Jean Blundell, a Senior Crime Lab Analyst with FDLE was also called to the stand.

[2018 STORY: Nassau County Sheriff: We have evidence Joleen Cummings is not alive]

She told the jury she photographed and searched a storage unit that belonged to Kessler at the Storage on Saddler facility.

Blundell said black combat boots and a spray bottle were found, each with “reddish-brown” stains.

The crime analyst said both items were tested for blood and came back positive.

By mid-afternoon—Detective Harrington, the lead detective on the Cummings case, was called back to the stand again for the second day in a row.

[2018 STORY: Mother of suspect in Joleen Cummings’ disappearance speaks out]

He recalled the thorough steps taken to look for evidence in Cummings’ disappearance in 2018, including the search of wooded areas, beaches and the Chesser landfill in Georgia.

Harrington told the jury the FBI command post was at the top of the hill of the landfill.

Harington went on to explain how search crews looked and worked through all of it.

[2019 STORY: New jailhouse recordings of Kimberly Kessler released in missing Nassau County mother case]

It should be noted, that even with the tireless search efforts—Joleen Cummings’ body has never been found.

Kimberly Kessler was also not a part of day 2 of the trial, she has escorted out again after one of her routine outbursts.

The defense asked the judge for another mental competency review for Kessler. The judge denied the request because he said there’s no need to have the same behavior from Kessler analyzed, again.

Day 3 of the Kessler Trial is set to resume at 8:15 a.m. on Wednesday.

Day 1 of murder trial:

On Monday, 12 jurors heard hours of testimony as the prosecution made their case on day one of the trial.

Kessler is accused of murdering her co-worker, Joleen Cummings, in 2018. Cummings and Kessler worked together at a Nassau County hair salon called Tangles.

[RELATED: Joleen Cummings disappearance: Timeline of events]

Cummings was also a mother of three.

Action News Jax Courtney Cole spent the day in the Nassau County courtroom, where the prosecution team led its case by focusing on what happened the last day Cummings was seen alive: May 12, 2018.

A number of witnesses were able to take the stand today, without any interruption from Kessler.

That’s because Kessler was wheeled into the courtroom, and just seconds later, was wheeled back out after one of her routine outbursts. She was overheard saying, " I refused unjust counsel” and “Jordan Beard is Joleen’s cousin” — which is not a true statement. Beard is actually a part of the legal team representing Kessler.

[2018 STORY: Joleen Cummings disappearance: Hair salon clients say there was tension between Cummings, suspect]

The judge said Kessler is welcome back into the courtroom if she asks, but he is not willing to let her interrupt court proceedings.

Following opening statements from the prosecution and defense, the prosecution began by calling Detective Harrington to the stand.

Harrington is the sergeant of the Criminal Investigations Division with the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office. He is also the lead detective on the Kessler murder case.

He told the jury the investigative team interviewed Jason Cummings, Joleen’s ex-husband, Anne Johnson, Joleen’s mother, Jason Gee, Cummings boyfriend, the babysitter (who was not named) and Vicki Simmons, the owner of Tangles Hair Salon.

[2019 STORY: Report: Kimberly Kessler asked how another inmate accused of murder hid body]

The defense team conducted a cross-examination to point out that Harrington knew the stepfather of Joleen Cummings. Cummings’ stepfather is a long-time employee of the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office. Harrington also told the defense, on the stand, that he knew Anne Johnson as well.

Defense asked Harrington if NCSO handled the case more urgently because of the relationship to Cummings’ family, but Harrington said there is an urgency with all missing persons cases.

The next four witnesses that were called to the stand were clients at Tangles. Three of them were regular clients of Cummings, and one had their hair cut by Kessler.

[RELATED: Judge denies another mental evaluation in final hearing before jury selection]

What they all had in common was that they were all served by Cummings on May 12, 2018, the last day Cummings was seen alive.

Each witness told the jury that Kimberly Kessler, known in the salon by her alias Jennifer Sybert, and Joleen Cummings, were the only ones working in the salon that day.

While none of them said they noticed anything unusual about Cummings, one of the witnesses said she noticed Kessler “pacing a lot” and that she was “not able to stay still” during her visit to the salon on May 12th.”

Two of the witnesses told the jury that Cummings would often talk about her three kids. Cummings told the two witnesses that her kids decorated flower pots for Johnson, their grandmother.

[2018 STORY: Joleen Cummings case: Suspect has used 18 aliases, reward for information increases]

When Johnson took the stand, it was evident she was trying to remain strong for her daughter and her family. But, three years later, the grief of losing her daughter Joleen continues to weigh heavily on her.

Johnson teared up, telling the jury that Joleen would never disappear without saying anything to her kids.

Even though they were divorced at the time of her disappearance, Cummings’ ex-husband, Jason, told jurors he still loved Cummings and that she was a great mother.

“I took a week off of work. And I drove on every road in Nassau County. ... just looking for anything. Seeing if I can see her car, just ... I promised my kids I’d try to find their mom,” Jason told the jury.

[2019 STORY: Ex-husband of murder suspect, Kimberly Kessler, knew she was using alias]

They had two kids together. Joleen had another child from a previous relationship.

Vicki Simmons said Kessler had only started working at Tangles in February 2018, and did not show up for work on May 15, 2018, the first day the salon was open after Cummings’ disappearance.

Simons told the jury that when she walked into the salon on May 15, she noticed an odd smell. She said there was also a plant right beside the reception desk that was totally different and that all of the lights were off.

Sergeant Mark F. Murdock, with the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office, walked the jury through a video he had watched from the closing of Tangles at 5:00 p.m., May 12, 2018, through the morning of May 15, 2018.

[2018 STORY: Docs: Suspect in missing Nassau County mom case admitted to being fugitive bank robber]

Tangles did not have a security system, only a fake camera above the desk to act as a deterrent, according to Jim Simmons, the husband of Vicki Simmons and co-owner of Tangles.

Jim said employees knew the camera was not real.

The camera footage Murdock referred to is from a nearby business, Dick’s Wings, which is located near Tangles, in the same strip mall.

Sergeant Murdock was assigned to Investigations Division as a detective.

[2019 STORY: Source: FBI investigating Nassau County suspect, Kimberly Kessler, as possible serial killer]

While the video clip played, he told the jury that Kessler “appeared on video about four times; was seen dumping a white bag at first, then kitchen-sized trash can and then a blue bin into a grassy area.”

Detective Harrington was also called back to the stand in the afternoon to talk through surveillance video from a local Walmart, where Kimberly Kessler was captured at a checkout buying an electronic knife, black garbage bags, gloves and ammonia.

Day two of the Kessler trial continues on Tuesday at 8:15 a.m. at the Nassau County Courthouse.

Action News Jax will have a crew inside the courtroom, and we will live-stream the trial here.

Aurielle Eady

Aurielle Eady, Action News Jax

Aurielle Eady is a digital content producer for Action News Jax.