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Claudine Gifford still missing: Family, friends remain hopeful, sheriff’s investigation continues

From left are Gabrielle, Richard and Claudine Gifford. Claudine has been missing since July 6 when she was last seen leaving a bar on Stingray Point in Lancaster County.

by Audrey Thomasson

It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to have a family member disappear without a trace. Claudine Jaquier Gifford’s family has gone 32 days without knowing what happened to her. Yet, they refuse to give up hope that she may still be safe and sound.

The fact that Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office investigators are telling them little about the case only adds to their anguish, they said.

“When we first came here, they were great. But I do most of the calling and they tell us to wait . . . I know it takes time and it’s a small police force, but it’s just going through the days” hearing nothing, Richard said.

On Monday, August 4, the sheriff’s office named James Todd Kessler, 53, of Cox’s Farm Road in Weems “a person of interest” in Claudine’s disappearance on July 6.

Saturday, the family agreed to sit down for an interview and talk about the wife, mother and sister they love. They also want to clear up misinformation by describing events that happened in the days before and after she vanished.

“Claudine can be stubborn, but she’s the first person to help you. She’ll give you the shirt off her back,” said Julianne.

They affirmed their belief that Claudine would never willingly leave her family without a word.

According to sheriff’s reports, Claudine was last seen leaving Pelicans at the Point at Windmill Point with Todd Kessler around 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 6. In his own quest for information, Richard said witnesses at the tiki bar told him that after two or three drinks Claudine was so incapacitated, Kessler carried her to his car. However, the witnesses put the departure time two hours earlier, at 6:30 p.m.

From this point, two versions of the story emerge. In one sheriff’s report, Kessler said he and Claudine had an argument and he dropped her off on the side of the road about a mile from the marina. Later, the sheriff’s office issued a statement looking for four men who “were seen” helping Claudine into a silver SUV.

Asked about the conflicting reports, Sheriff Crockett said, “We follow up on all leads.”

According to Lt. Tim Self, lead investigator in the case, Kessler was the individual who gave deputies the information that “four white men assisted her into a silver Nissan SUV.”

In May, even weeks before her disappearance, Claudine went to North Carolina for a two-week stay to help a friend recovering from surgery, Page reported. However, while returning to Virginia, her mini van broke down and she called Page for help. Page was sitting in a Kilmarnock restaurant when she took the call. When she offered to wire $100, Kessler, who was in the same restaurant, came over and interrupted the conversation, insisting he would wire her $200 and then drive down to pick up Claudine, said Page. Since the women had only met him briefly once before, they declined his offer. But he refused to listen and left for North Carolina. After Claudine returned with him, they started dating, said Page. “She felt obligated.”

Within a couple of weeks, Claudine was traveling again, this time returning to her Florida home to celebrate Father’s Day with her family. “We talked through our problems and she was planning to stay,” said Richard.

During the two weeks with her family, Kessler called Claudine incessantly, insisting she return to Lancaster, “even threatening to blackmail her” with her daughter in order to get her to return, Richard said. “He even started calling and texting me.”

Richard said he and Kessler got into a heated argument over the constant calls and what Richard felt was Kessler’s interference with the couple working on their marriage.

Richard said he had to leave for New York for an uncle’s funeral and when he returned, despite his concerns for her safety, Claudine decided to go back to Virginia to pick up her van and clothing.

“Claudine indicated she was going to stay (with Kessler) only to find the ‘things’ he could use to blackmail her,” Page said. She also told her friend of her concerns about Kessler’s behavior. But after 16 years of marriage, she was naive when it came to dating, Page added.

On the morning of July 6, the day she disappeared, Claudine texted she was picking up her van and belongings from Burgess, said Page.

When Kessler called Page the next day, wondering if she knew where Claudine was, Page immediately notified the sheriff’s office. “They were great. They responded right away even though it hadn’t been 24-hours,” Page said.

From Florida, Richard also reported her missing on Monday. Over the next two weeks, search parties of law enforcement and tracking and cadaver dogs, as well as supporters from across the state, combed the Windmill Point and Corrotoman River areas off Hunton Lane and Cox’s Farm Road in an effort to find Claudine.

Richard arrived in Lancaster soon after she was reported missing and joined in the search, also distributing “missing” posters to businesses. At a store in White Stone, employees told him Claudine’s husband had already dropped off a poster. After Richard explained he was her husband, employees played the store surveillance video for him, which showed Kessler pulling out a rolled up poster he had stuffed down the front of his shirt, he said.

The “Richard Gifford: Bring Claudine home” fund has been established at the Bank of Lancaster for donations to aid in the search and help cover some of the family’s travel expenses. 

Help Save the Next Girl, a national organization formed by the parents of slain Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington, is making media contacts on the Giffords’ behalf, supplying posters to aid the search and posting updates on their website.

According to the Lancaster Sheriff’s Office, the investigation is still ongoing. Kessler is being held without bond in Lancaster jail on charges of malicious wounding and assault in an unrelated case. His court date is September 3.

The sheriff would not be interviewed for this story. Kessler’s attorney, Jim Breeden, was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

Read the rest of this story in this week’s Southside Sentinel at newstands throughout the county, or sign up here to receive a print and/or electronic pdf subscription.

posted 08.06.2014

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