ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. - Joe Hill, a sophomore at the prep school in this small town, stared hard at the handwritten condolences that lined the sidewalk, as if looking for answers. Lowering his sight, he shook his head in loss.
“It scares me,’’ he said. “I don’t know who to trust. I just keep hoping it’s not real.’’
As authorities investigated the slaying of Melissa Jenkins, a 33-year-old teacher at St. Johnsbury Academy whose toddler was found alone but unharmed in her idling car Sunday night, residents here were awash in grief, anger, and a bitter sense of betrayal.
“It’s just not fair,’’ Marion Beattie Cairns, a longtime family friend, said as she wiped away a tear. “Everybody loved her. She was always, always smiling.’’
“What’s going to happen to Ty?’’ she asked about the toddler during a somber gathering of friends and co-workers at her restaurant, where Jenkins had waitressed for a dozen years. “He’s such a beautiful little boy.’’
Jenkins was a devoted mother to her 2-year-old son and worked two jobs as she attended graduate school to give him a better life, those who knew her recalled.
“He was the light of her life,’’ said Beth Choiniere, assistant head for campus life at St. Johnsbury, where Jenkins had taught science for eight years.
The boy, who regularly visits his father, is being cared for by Jenkins’s family, friends said. He was found in his mother’s car around 11 p.m. Sunday on a back road near her home in St. Johnsbury.
Investigators said there were signs of a struggle.
On Monday afternoon, police found Jenkins’s body in Barnet, a town about 10 miles from St. Johnsbury.
The medical examiner’s office ruled her death a homicide and confirmed the identity of the body Tuesday, but authorities declined to disclose the cause “as to not inhibit the progress of the investigation.’’
Investigators returned to the scene Tuesday where Jenkins’s body was found and collected “additional items of interest,’’ said Ed Ledo, criminal division commander for the Vermont State Police.
Ledo declined to provide details “in an effort to preserve the integrity of the investigation.’’
“We are deeply saddened by the tragic death of Ms. Jenkins, and our thoughts are with her family and friends,’’ he said. “We remain committed to solving this case and to identify and bring to justice the person or persons responsible.’’
Authorities have said they do not know if the death is isolated, and asked for anyone who traveled on the road Sunday where Jenkins’s car was found or anyone who traveled on Comerford Dam Road in Barnet to contact them.
At St. Johnsbury Academy, classes were canceled, and counselors were on hand to help students. Many students wrote letters to Jenkins’s son, telling him what a good person his mother was.
Tom Lovett, the school’s headmaster, recalled Jenkins as a talented teacher with a knack for mentoring students and helping those intimidated by the idea of tackling scientific ideas. He said Jenkins recently told him that the students who needed the most were the ones “she loved the most.’’
Jenkins was completing her master’s degree in education and researching how communities and parents can best help struggling students thrive, he said.
“She had a real gift,’’ he said. Jenkins had grown up and attended college in the area, he added.
Jenkins was a popular, upbeat presence on campus, colleagues said, who coached basketball and soccer.
“One of those people who everyone loved,’’ Lovett said. On one occasion, when a new student from China arrived late for orientation, Jenkins gave him a personal tour of campus to make him feel at home.
Many students had grown close to her over the years, colleagues said, and were taking her death hard.
In handwritten messages that lined the sidewalk in front of the school, students paid their respects.
“Thank you for the courage I’m not sure you know you gave me,’’ one read. “If only tears could bring you back,’’ read another.
At the restaurant where Jenkins had waitressed, the mood was somber.
Through tears, Beattie Cairns said almost everyone in the area knew Jenkins or her family and are shattered by her death.
“You can’t imagine what it’s done to this town,’’ Beattie Cairns said. “Thirty-three years old, with a little tiny baby.’’
She said Jenkins worked Saturday night and left a little early when her baby-sitter texted her that Ty was acting up.
She usually spent Sunday nights at home with Ty, she said. She did not know why she would have left her house.
“For her to leave on a Sunday night,’’ she said, her words trailing off. “I don’t understand it.’’Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.