October 21, 2018
“I’ll see you tomorrow, I’ll be down tomorrow evening.”
Those were the last words Yvonne Hillier-Decker heard her sister Jennifer Hillier-Penney say to her.
It was a cold Wednesday night in November 2016 in the small, remote town of St. Anthony, N.L. It’s on the northern reaches of Newfoundland’s northern peninsula — six hours from the nearest major city, at the end of the highway.
Like much of Newfoundland, the town was built around a thriving fishing industry. It’s a summer hotspot for tourists, who come to watch icebergs travel down the Atlantic. It’s beautiful, if barren, with sheer cliffs surrounding the town.
It feels like the edge of the world, the vast and icy ocean coming and going with the tide. It’s easy to imagine how someone could go missing here and nearly impossible to imagine how they could ever be found.
And it’s certainly a town on edge. In the past 15 years, four people have disappeared from this community of slightly more than 2,000 people. They’ve never been found. Three cases have been chalked up to misadventure, but everyone in town feels Hillier-Penney’s disappearance — the only one that was deemed suspicious — is different.
“There were a lot of people here in this town that never locked their doors at night, they lock their doors now,” Hillier-Penney’s brother Glen Hillier told The Fifth Estate. “People don't walk at night that used to walk all the time. People that used to leave the keys in their vehicles don't leave keys in their vehicles anymore. Everybody's on edge.”
It seemed like a normal Wednesday night in many ways. Hillier-Penney left work at the local hospital where she was a clerk around 4 p.m. and drove to her father’s house, a half-hour away in the nearby town of Saint Lunaire-Griquet — the town where she grew up with her seven siblings.
Hillier-Penney was 38 years old, a mother of two. The Hilliers were fixtures in the community, and Hillier-Penney was well-loved by many.
“Jennifer was known to a lot of people,” her friend, Gina Elliott, said. “They knew her as kind, passionate, funny. She had a lot of friends, no enemies … she was just well-liked.”
Hillier-Penney’s life revolved around her two daughters, Marina and Deana. “She loved kids, she loved being around family,” said Vicki Burden, Jennifer’s cousin and friend. “She had her oldest daughter at a young age. Jennifer was 17 when she had Marina, and she was happy. She was happy with a child.”
Hillier-Penney married her high school sweetheart, a local fisherman named Dean Penney, when their daughter Marina was about four years old. Jennifer was barely 21, her new husband a few years her senior.
Marina Penney told The Fifth Estate she and her mom had a very close relationship.
“She was funny, like really, really funny,” Penney said. “She just liked doing stuff with us, like our favourite thing to do in the summertime was, between school years … was go on road trips, take us places, stuff like that, and go shopping of course mainly. We all loved shopping.”
And those early days were perfect, she says.
“It was always back and forth between grandparents’ houses because they were so, so young themselves, but I mean ... our houses were always full, everyone was happy.”
But Penney began to watch her parents grow apart over the years.
“She had stopped loving my dad,” Penney said. “She didn't love him for years, I mean they were young when they got together and they grew apart so much.”
In mid-November 2016, Hillier-Penney moved home with her dad in Saint Lunaire-Griquet. She was starting a separation from her husband.
Hillier-Penney’s friends and family all knew she was unhappy.
“She may have been [in love] at the beginning, but her husband was a very good provider, too, and I guess that age, having a child, that's what you did,” Burden said. “But ... very early in the relationship it was evident ... things weren't great.”
In late November 2016, Dean Penney had plans to go duck hunting at his cabin in nearby Northwest Arm. It’s about 45 minutes from St. Anthony, on the only highway that leads back to the main part of the island — just past the small St. Anthony airport.
It’s a somewhat desolate stretch of remarkable bleakness, save for a row or two of cabins surrounded by swamps and bogs.
Deana Penney, the couple's younger daughter, still lived at home with her father. She was just 15 years old at the time, and Hillier-Penney didn’t want her to be at home alone overnight while her father was away.
“She went back to the house for a week because Dean was away hunting, apparently,” Burden said. “Deana, her youngest, wanted to stay in the house. It's right next to her school."
Hillier-Penney wasn’t keen, but agreed.
"Jennifer didn't want to go there. She did not want to be in that house,” Burden said.
On Nov. 30, Hillier-Penney and her sister Yvonne Hillier-Decker had dinner with their dad. He was newly widowed, having recenly lost his wife to illness. The Hillier children were helping take care of their father.
After dinner, Hillier-Penney drove her sister to an appointment at the local hospital in St. Anthony, just a three-minute drive from her estranged husband’s house. This was her routine for the week while he was away — she’d leave work, drive to her dad’s for dinner, then drive back to Penney’s house where she’d stay overnight so Deana wasn’t alone.
But on that drive back to town, Hillier-Decker says her sister got a strange phone call. It was Penney. She says the two didn’t know where he was at the time of the call but thought he was at the cabin.
“She answered the phone and it was Dean and he was saying, ‘Are you coming home now?’ And Jennifer said ‘Yes, I'm coming, I'm coming home now,’ [he said.] ‘But are you coming right now? Are you coming home?’ ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I'm coming home right now, in a few minutes I'll be home.’”
The RCMP say Hillier-Penney got to her estranged husband’s sometime around 8 p.m. that Wednesday night after dropping her sister off.
She texted her daughter that she had a headache and she was going to go to sleep.
It’s known she was texting a man that night — a friend and former colleague — but her friends say she was getting advice from him about a divorce lawyer; he’d recently gone through a divorce himself.
Deana Penney arrived home late that night — after her 9:30 p.m. curfew — and didn’t check in with her mom.
“She came home a little bit late, and like any teenager, she crept in,” Hillier-Penney’s brother Glen Hillier said. “[Thinking] if mom catches me, you know, I'll be in trouble, but Mom's asleep so I'll sneak in and she'll think I got home … when I was supposed to get home.
“She doesn't even know if she was there at that time or not.”
The RCMP told The Fifth Estate they estimate that Hillier-Penney disappeared shortly after arriving home that night — at about 8 p.m.
The next morning, Deana Penney awoke to her mom’s alarm going off on her phone at 7 a.m. She thought it strange that her mom wasn’t turning her alarm off, so she went to check on her. She found her mom’s phone on the kitchen counter.
“Deana said, ‘That's funny, Mom normally gets up first crack and turns it off and gets ready,’ and then gets her up for school,” Hillier said. “So she went in and checked, and Mom wasn't in the bed and Mom wasn't in the house nowhere.”
It was then that Deana Penney saw all her mom’s stuff in the house — her coat, her cellphone, her purse, her jacket and her boots. Her car was in the driveway.
But her mother was nowhere to be found.
The word around town is Deana Penney called her grandmother, Ruby Penney, and told her she couldn’t find her mom. Ruby reportedly called Dean Penney back in from hunting and told him to meet her at the house.
The local story goes that Ruby arrived at the Penney home and then got in touch with police. In that community, the RCMP is the front-line police force.
Deana Penney called some of her aunts and uncles. Glen Hillier was one of the first people to arrive that morning.
“My sister Vonnie called me, and she said, ‘Jennifer's missing, Jennifer's missing,’ ” Hillier said. “I said, ‘OK, OK, I'll go up. I just thought she went to Tim Horton’s or something and got a coffee…. As I pulled in the driveway, the cops pulled in behind me and I said, ‘Oh shit, what's going on here?’ I said, ‘God, this is more than I thought,’ right?
"Jennifer's not coming back … you're wasting time here with me. You need to go look … for evidence to find where she's at.'
“We got in there and Ruby was there and Dean was there and Deana was there.”
Hillier said he, Dean Penney, Ruby Penney, Deana Penney and the police officer looked around the house to see if anything was amiss.
“Everything was as if she just vanished. Gone. Dropped off the face of the earth.”
Dean Penney called his elder daughter Marina Penney and asked her if she’d talked to her mom that morning. At first, she wasn’t overly worried.
“I just assumed whatever she was doing was on her own account, like maybe something had come up and she was just getting away with one of her girlfriends,” Penney said.
She said it wasn’t until later that day when she saw an article online about a missing woman that reality began to sink in.
“I was here at the table and [my boyfriend] was out in the kitchen, and … we just looked at each other and we started crying because … it got really real, and I said OK, well, I only found out this morning, I'll give it 24 hours.’”
But that 24 hours came and went, and there was still no sign of Hillier-Penney.
The RCMP has declined to be interviewed by The Fifth Estate, stating that the case is open and ongoing.
In documents, they describe it as an “ongoing investigation into a kidnapping and homicide which is believed to have occurred on or around November 30, 2016 at or near St. Anthony, Newfoundland and Labrador.”
But in the initial days after Hillier-Penney’s disappearance, her friends and family say the RCMP treated the case as they would a runaway or suicide.
Friends and family say the police were asking them what was going on in her life — and if she had a reason to leave on her own account.
“I just knew … there was no … she's gone for a break or anything like that,” her friend Gina Elliott said. “That's what I tried to explain to [police] when I was giving the interview, was, … she's gone. I kept saying, ’Jennifer's not coming back … you're wasting time here with me. You need to go look. Look for evidence to find where she's at.’”
Elliott said police were suggesting to her that Hillier-Penney ran away or committed suicide.
“They kinda said to me, ‘Well, she was upset, you know, her mom just died.’ I said, ‘Yes, Jennifer was upset. Yes, Jennifer was going through a difficult time with the breakdown of her marriage. But Jennifer was moving on. Jennifer had a job interview. Jennifer was … planning her life, she was not ready to kill herself.’”
The Fifth Estate talked to almost a dozen of Hillier-Penney’s friends and family and asked if they thought she could have run away. Nearly every person said the same thing — HIllier-Penney would not have left town without telling anyone. They all said she loved her two daughters and her family too much to leave.
The RCMP talked to those same friends and family and began looking for Hillier-Penney. They brought search dogs and a helicopter and a sonar-equipped boat to search the harbour — but there was no sign of Hillier-Penney.
Her friends and family who were present in the initial days of her disappearance say they felt police weren’t taking her disappearance seriously enough.
“She feared for her life, I feared for her life."
“The investigation was botched right from the beginning,” Burden said.
It took the RCMP almost a week to lock down the house where Hillier-Penney disappeared — a potential crime scene — and in those days, with someone missing, it seems like almost everyone in St. Anthony came through the house, bringing casseroles for the family and lending their support while they searched for answers.
“She went missing from the house and forensics didn't even get down there until about a week after she went missing,” daughter Marina Penney said. “There was, I'm going to say maybe 100 different people in and out through the house between cops and friends and family. So I mean, how're you going to sort through fingerprints in a house with so many fingerprints?”
“Apparently people were in and out of that house that morning, people were going through her purse, her cellphone, her iPad, whatever they could get their hands on,” Burden said.
A week after she disappeared, on Dec. 7, 2016, the RCMP put out a media release that said: “Following an extensive investigation, the RCMP now considers the disappearance of St. Anthony resident Jennifer Hillier-Penney to be suspicious.”
And not long after that, the RCMP also said there "are no public safety concerns at this time."
The RCMP says the case is open and ongoing.
It’s now been almost two years since Hillier-Penney disappeared. Friends and family grow increasingly frustrated with police and the case, which they say feels like it’s at a standstill.
With so many unanswered questions around Hillier-Penney’s disappearance, The Fifth Estate wanted to look into what was going on in her life around the time of her disappearance.
Hillier-Penney was ready to start a new life. She was not only separating from her husband, but just a few weeks before she disappeared, she’d been talking to a lawyer about getting a divorce.
“I know that she spoke to a lawyer to start the separation and then divorce,” Burden said. “This was the first steps.”
She was also talking to a local businessman, a friend and confidant, for help in finding a divorce lawyer.
But the separation, The Fifth Estate has learned, wasn’t something Dean Penney wanted.
“He told her, ‘It doesn’t matter that you don’t love me, you belong here,’ ” Elliott said.
“As far as I know, he wasn't very happy,” Burden said. “But that's as far as everybody knows, that's a fact. He wanted Jennifer, he didn't want her to leave and he wasn't happy.”
Not only was Hillier-Penney looking to leave her husband, but she also wanted to leave town.
“She was like 'I don't want to be miserable anymore,” her daughter Marina Penney said. “She made a decision, like she was getting stuff lined up, she wanted a divorce, she wanted to leave, and she wanted a new start from everything. Like she wanted to be away from St. Anthony, she wanted to put some distance between her and that place.”
So she began putting her name forward for jobs. She applied for a position as a secretary at the police station in Glovertown — eight hours from St. Anthony, not far from where Marina was living.
“She was like 'I'll be there every weekend,’” Marina Penney said. “She's like, 'We'll go to town and shop every weekend, go to movies, stay in hotels.'
“She was just so excited for it, like so excited.”
The job application was going well. The next stage in the process was set for a few weeks later.
In fact, the day she disappeared she was asking her friend Elliott, who she worked with at the hospital, to be a reference for her.
“That week I told her we had to just get through that week and then she would have been with me,” Marina Penney said.
But Hillier-Penney's dreams of being closer to her daughter never materialized. And Marina Penney never saw her mom again.
What many in town didn’t know was that Hillier-Penney wasn’t just trying to leave, she was trying to leave fast.
“She didn't want more than what was hers,” Burden said. “She didn't want anything from Dean. She just wanted to take her personal belongings, basically her clothes, and get out.… She just wanted out."
The Fifth Estate has learned that Hillier-Penney was living in fear around the time of her disappearance. And that fear came from her estranged husband, Dean Penney.
“She feared for her life, I feared for her life,” Burden said.
This fear made her friends want to take steps to keep track of Hillier-Penney.
“Jennifer told me … that he said that he would make away with her. And they would never find her. Like she knew that. So yeah, it's why we had a safety plan. So she had that fear, whether it was real or not, but it was real to her.”
Burden and Elliott came up with a safety plan, where they had her check in with them before she went anywhere, they said, and they took turns checking in with her — if one didn’t hear from her, the other would check.
Hillier-Penney would text her friends when leaving work, and if she didn’t text them a half hour later when she should have arrived home, one of them would reach out to her to make sure she made it there OK.
Elliott says when she got the call the morning of Nov. 30, she had a bad feeling.
“I was trying not to be alarmed but inside I was trembling ‘cause my gut told me, I mean this is what we've been planning for months to avoid, safety plans, daily. And she's gone.”
Hillier-Penney’s friends say she’d been willing to stay with her daughter at her estranged husband’s house that week because he was out of town, though she still had lingering fears that Penney might stop by the house.
“The night she dropped me off at the hospital, we drove from Dad's up to the hospital and on the way up she was saying, ‘Vonnie I'm scared.’ I said what are you scared of? ‘I'm just afraid,’ she said, ‘Dean is gonna come back in the middle of the night.’ I said yeah but Jennifer, Dean wouldn't do nothing to you, you know? She said, ‘You don't know, Vonnie, you don’t know.’ ”
On the advice of his lawyer, Dean Penney has declined The Fifth Estate’s requests for a formal interview.
The Fifth Estate approached Penney at his home in St. Anthony in May 2018. Without knowledge that he was being recorded, Penney said that he wouldn’t do anything to Hillier-Penney and that he loved his wife and two daughters.
“The three of my girls [were] everything to me, and still are,” Penney told The Fifth Estate. “That’s all I really work for and function for is for the girls.”
Penney said he has no knowledge of what happened to Hillier-Penney and that he was out of town the week she disappeared.
“I wasn't in town … I was down at the cabin down in the Northwest Arm. I was down for a full week. Hunting, duck hunting, right. And it's just, just really strange.”
Since then, The Fifth Estate has learned that on that Wednesday night — Nov. 30, 2016 — Penney came back into town from his hunting trip.
“He came to the house that night to get something out of the garage, he said he had to come back for his [hunting] decoys,” Marina Penney said. “My sister told me that he called her when he was coming back into St. Anthony that night just to be like 'Hey, what's up, I'm going to be stopping into the garage and grabbing my decoys' and stuff like that. When she heard him out there she just went out in the [door of] the garage and said 'Bye, goodnight.’”
The Fifth Estate decided to approach Penney again to clarify some facts in the story.
In that second conversation outside of his home in August, he told The Fifth Estate he was home that night.
“I came back here but my daughter was here in that house at that time,” Penney said.
“But you did come back here to get your decoys?” The Fifth Estate’s Mark Kelley asked.
“Yes, I told the police that.”
Penney says that as far as he knows, Hillier-Decker was the last one to see her that night.
To Hillier-Penney’s family, the fact that he returned to the house late at night to get decoys after he’d already been hunting at his cabin for days doesn’t make sense.
“He was out there … and didn't have decoys to go duck hunting?” Glen Hillier said. “You'd think he'd have them the whole time he were hunting, wouldn't you? You would think. You'd think he'd take them even is he didn't need them. That's suspicious, too, right? There's a lot of things that don't add up.”
Police have named no official suspects in Hillier-Penney’s disappearance.
But two years later, with no answers and nothing coming from police, people in the community have begun to form their own opinions about what may have happened to her. The theories range from strangers passing through town to Hillier-Penney taking a fateful walk into the woods that night.
Penney’s daughter Marina has her suspicions.
“I don't want to think that [my father] did, but it's not looking good,” she said. “It's not easy, I never wanted to think that but I mean it's always there in the back of your mind… I would've never thought that he was the one responsible for it, but when I left [St. Anthony] I was like 'If I can do anything for my mom, it's to try and figure this out from every angle.'”
Penney said she tries to “think like a cop,” and to not be biased when she’s thinking about what could have happened to her mom.
“I can't just rule [my father] out because he's a relative to me. And then when you put him in, when I put my dad in that situation just like thinking things through my head, like how that night could've played out, like it just makes me sick with anxiety and fear.
“I recently I asked him to do a lie detector test because I said to him ... I don't understand anything anymore.... I told him that I wanted him to do a lie detector test or he was never going to see me and [my baby] again, and he couldn't do it because his lawyer said not to. And maybe he might understand that in his head, but in mine I don't.”
In the second conversation with The Fifth Estate, Dean Penney said that he had nothing to do with Hillier-Penney's disappearance.
On Nov. 30, it will be two years since anyone has heard from Hillier-Penney.
“She was robbed of her life,” Burden said. “Of seeing her kids grow up … her two girls getting married, she has a grandbaby … and that baby will never know how wonderful his grandmother was.”
Her friends, family and loved ones are all left searching for answers — desperate for closure in the loss of Hillier-Penney.
“You go down to Dad's and you know what Dad said - last time I saw Jennifer she was at the door, at the patio door, he said that's the last I've seen of Jennifer,” Jennifer’s sister Joann Peyton said.
Any time Peyton closes that patio door, she thinks of how her sister told her father she’d be home again soon.
“She said, ‘Dad, I'll be back.’ There's never a moment that I don't think — when I close that patio door — [and] think of Jennifer and say well this is what she said to Dad.
“And she didn't come back. And this is what [Dad] has to live with, when Jennifer walked out that night and she said: ‘I'll be back.’”
"Finding Jennifer: The Investigation (Part 2)" airs Sunday, Oct. 21 at 9 p.m. on CBC-TV. You can watch that episode, as well as "Finding Jennifer (Part 1)," on The Fifth Estate's YouTube channel.
For information or tips on this or any other story, contact Lisa Mayor at firstname.lastname@example.org.