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Gifford was last seen leaving the Pelican Bar, a tiki bar in the 40 block of Windjammer Lane at Windmill Point Marina in White Stone, Virginia, sometime between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. on July 6, 2014. She was accompanied by James Todd Kessler, who usually goes by his middle name, at the time; he was her boyfriend. A photo of him is posted below this case summary. According to witnesses, Gifford only had two or three drinks, but when she left she was so drunk that Kessler had to carry her out of the bar to his Nissan Xterra. Kessler said he helped her get into his car and started driving home, but she got angry because she wanted to keep drinking, and after less than a mile she tried to jump out. He stopped and let her out, and she walked away. At one point, Kessler claimed four men helped Gifford into a silver Nissan SUV after he let her out of his car.
Gifford was reported missing on July 7 and her loved ones feared from the beginning that she had come to harm, but Kessler acted unconcerned. They'd been dating casually for about two months; he was separated from his wife and in the process of a divorce, and Gifford was estranged from her husband, who lived in Orlando, Florida with their teenage daughter. She'd moved to Virginia in 2013. According to others, Gifford and Kessler had a troubled relationship, and he drank heavily and was addicted to cocaine. When Gifford went back to Florida for two weeks to visit her family, Kessler called her incessantly, demanding she return to Virginia, and even called her husband to try to get her to come back.
After Gifford disappeared, Kessler claimed he'd gotten a message from her saying she was moving to North Carolina and asking her to pack her clothes in her suitcase and leave it on the front porch of his house on the banks of Corrotoman Creek in Kilmarnock, Virginia. He said he did as she asked and the suitcase was picked up. Gifford's best friend claims she got a text from her phone that intimated she was leaving the area; it stated she had "messed up" but had gotten a job in South Carolina. Just minutes after receiving the text, Gifford's friend got a call from Kessler, who said he thought Gifford had run off to South Carolina with a businessman. Her friend didn't believe Gifford had actually sent the text, and immediately suspected Kessler was involved in her disappearance.
Gifford didn't have a permanent address in Virginia and stayed in friends' homes and in various hotels. She had held a job at a Kilmarnock hotel and was a good employee, but quit shortly before her disappearance. Her friends describe her as a quiet and very private person. She was depressed because her dog had died and she missed her daughter, and had seen a counselor. She didn't want to return to her husband and had spoken of bringing her daughter to Virginia to live with her, but her friends encouraged her to return to Orlando and make a home there for herself and her child, and she was making plans to do that.
Witnesses noted Kessler's right forearm was badly bruised and swollen after Gifford disappeared; he said she had slammed the door on his hand that night. He also had other bruises on his body and small puncture wounds on his arm; he said he'd fallen while skiing and hurt his arm while cutting brush on his property. When police searched his vehicle, they found Gifford's blood on the front passenger seat and front passenger-side door. They also found found small amounts of blood in various places throughout his Kilmarnock residence, and in the laundry basket they a red shirt, which Kessler said was the one he'd worn at the bar the night Gifford disappeared. After police pointed out the bloodstains on it, he said he'd been mistaken and had actually worn another shirt. The blood was later determined to be Gifford's.
Kessler said the bloodstains in his car came from when Gifford struggled with her seat belt and ripped off her fingernail on the night of her disappearance, and the bloodstains at his residence came from his two dogs and from a time when Gifford accidentally tripped and hit her face on a barbecue grill. Police stated there were contradictions in many of the statements he made. Extensive searches of the Northern Neck area of Virginia where Gifford disappeared turned up no sign of her.
On July 19, less than two weeks after Gifford's disappearance, Kessler was in the Pelican Bar again and met a married couple who knew him and Gifford slightly. They started talking about her disappearance, and the wife speculated that she was still alive. Kessler slammed his drink down and angrily said she was dead, then left the bar. He later returned and got into a fight with the couple outside the bar; the husband was seriously injured and had to be hospitalized for a week. Kessler was arrested and jailed as a result, charged with misdemeanour assault and battery and felony malicious wounding. In March 2015, while still in jail, he was charged with first-degree murder and malicious concealment of a dead body in Gifford's case.
Kessler had been drinking with her at the bar the night Gifford disappeared, and authorities believe, based on the residue on his bloodstained red shirt, that he was also under the influence of cocaine. They theorized he beat and strangled her to death after she told him she was leaving, put her body in a green and blue cloth wardrobe suitcase, weighted it with chunks of concrete, and dumped it in one of the many waterways in the local area.
Cellular phone records showed Gifford's phone was in the area around Kessler's family home on the night of July 6, not in the area of Windmill Point Marina, where he said he dropped her off. The next day during the morning and early afternoon hours, her phone was inactive for several hours while his phone remained active and moved from his family home to a nearby cabin owned by his family, where there was a dock and a small boat. Both phones were later active and in the areas around the home and marina. Kessler was seen power-washing the dock at the cabin, and at least one witness saw the crumbled remains of concrete blocks there.
Kessler maintained his innocence at trial and testified in his defense, saying he had loved Gifford and hoped to marry her, and that he was trying to get her to stop drinking. He denied having worn the red shirt with the blood and cocaine residue, but the prosecution produced a photo taken in the bar that night which showed him wearing it. Kessler said he believed Gifford was still alive. His defense argued Gifford might have left of her own accord and changed her identity; they produced witnesses had supposedly seen her after her disappearance. The prosecution had no hard evidence as to how and where she met her death or where her body was, and investigators didn't collect the blood evidence they found in his house, so they couldn't prove it was Gifford's. The defense argued the entire case was "conjecture" and "speculation" and there was no proof Gifford was dead.
In August 2015, after just three hours of jury deliberation, Kessler was found guilty of second-degree murder. The prosecution had previously offered to let him plead guilty to that charge and reveal the whereabouts of Gifford's body in exchange for a twenty-year sentence, but he'd refused. The jury recommended a forty-year sentence for the murder, almost double the maximum state sentencing recommendation for that offense, and five years for concealment of the body.
Foul play is suspected in Gifford's disappearance due to the circumstances involved.
Lancaster County Sheriff's Office