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Mystery: What Happened to Jesslyn Rich?

Her family and friends think there is only a very slim chance that Jesslyn Rich is alive. And they don’t know if they will ever find out what happened to her.

Rich, a 35-year-old prison guard, disappeared from Charlie’s Wild West bar in Orange on Nov. 11, 1984. Her new sports car was found locked in the parking lot. Her credit cards and bank book, which disappeared with her, have not been used.

Except for a key chain imprinted with the address of her bank, which was dropped in a mailbox near the bar, Rich disappeared without a trace.

Orange Police Detective Bob Taylor said he and two other detectives have spent “hundreds of hours” investigating her disappearance. The file still is open, he said, but the case has been dormant for months.

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Detective’s Conjectures

Taylor said he doesn’t know what happened. Perhaps, he said, “she walked outside and just decided, ‘I’m not going home.’ We stay away from suggesting there was foul play.”

Rich’s family and friends say they believe she was abducted, and probably killed. They say the police didn’t question witnesses thoroughly, and didn’t follow leads. Rich’s brother, Gary Munz, said the police account of the disappearance itself is wrong.

Rich and her daughters, ages 11 and 14, lived in a house she owned in Riverside. Her supervisor said Rich had an excellent work record at the California Institute for Women at Frontera, where she had been a guard for two years. She was getting an A in her law enforcement class at Chaffey College, and hoped to be promoted to sergeant at the prison.

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“She was making better money than she ever did before,” Munz said. “I’m not saying that everything was peachy. There were some tough people (at the prison). But she was happy that she had a job that was a career, that she had a chance of promotion.”

After her divorce seven years ago, “there were times when it was a struggle” for Rich to support her family, Munz said. But her job at the prison changed things.

“She was getting her house paid off. She bought her kids new clothes, two beach cruiser bikes,” Munz said. “She was taking classes at Chaffey College. She was up for a grand jury selection. She was excited about it, she wanted to take her place in society.”

John McGee, Rich’s law enforcement professor at Chaffey College, described her as a “fantastic student” who received A’s on all her work. “She never missed a class, she was never late,” he said. “She simply would not walk away from those kids.”

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‘A Very Stable Employee’

Lt. Vale Smith, her supervisor at the prison, said Rich was “a very stable employee. She was a very positive worker, well liked by co-workers, well liked by inmates.”

Rich disappeared the Sunday night of Veterans Day weekend. One problem with the case, Taylor said, was that Rich’s mother called the Riverside Sheriff’s Department, which turned the case over to Orange police on Thursday. “We were behind four days at the beginning.”

It was difficult to find witnesses who had been at the bar that night, and memories a few days later were no longer fresh, Taylor said.

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Stories about how and when Rich left the bar differed, he said. The story police believe, he said, came from a waitress. “We’re going by what we consider to be the best witness,” he said. “In a bar situation, time passes, people are talking, drinking. A barmaid knows what’s going on, who’s sitting where.”

Waitress’s Account

The waitress told police Rich left the bar through the front door, carrying her purse, at about 9:30 that night, Taylor said.

But Rich’s brother says he doesn’t believe that account. “What are they (the police) telling me? That there’s just one person (who was in the bar) who’s not an idiot who just happened to say nothing’s wrong, that she walked out on her own free will.”

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Six or seven people told Munz his sister went out the back door, he said. Three people said Rich’s purse was in the booth about 30 minutes after she disappeared, and then the purse was gone, he said.

“How does she come back in the bar and pick it up, when they’re all looking for her?” Munz said. “She doesn’t.”

Marilyn Ault, Rich’s friend since high school, was with her that night. At about 8:30 p.m., Ault said, Rich walked toward the restroom at the back of the bar. When Rich didn’t return in half an hour, Ault said, she began looking for her.

Ault says she saw Rich’s purse on a chair just after she disappeared. “I know I saw the purse sitting there, and then it was gone.”

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It was then that another woman at the bar told Ault she had seen a woman lying in the back seat of a car parked behind the bar, Ault said. The woman also told her that the man who owned the car said Rich “would be taken care of,” Ault said. Ault assumed Rich, who had been talking to the man earlier, had left with him.

Taylor said he couldn’t comment on that story because it was still being investigated.

Mother Urges Publicity

Avalon Meredith, Rich’s mother, said she talked to Taylor recently. “I said, ‘It’s been over six months . . . . Do you honestly still believe that Jesslyn walked away?’ He said, ‘I hope so.’ ”

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Rich’s brother contends police “didn’t even want to look at it as a crime at all. I really believe that they could have solved it in the first week, and we would have known if my sister was dead or alive.”

But Wayne Streed, Orange police chief, said, “We have done everything we could have done. We held several meetings with the family. Their demands are what I consider to be impossible.”

Streed said that two investigators from the state Department of Justice went over the police files on Rich “with a fine-toothed comb.”

Department of Justice spokeswoman Kati Corsaut said, “We reviewed the investigation and found that the investigation was perfectly adequate, and we had no reason to be in on it.”

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Brian Perry, a state Department of Corrections investigator, was assigned to examine the case independently of the police, to determine if Rich’s disappearance might have been related to her job. Perry found no connection and no clues.

“Right now, we are flat out of leads,” he said.

Taylor said information about the case is in the National Crime Information Center computer, used by police departments nationwide. “If a sheriff in Texas was to find her badge, it would come back a hit,” he said. “If someone in San Francisco uses her credit card, I’d be notified right away.”

Rich’s daughters, Tammi, 14, and Leslie, 11, meanwhile are living with their father, George Rich, in Riverside. For a few months after their mother’s disappearance, George Rich said, the girls cried at night. Now they cry less often.

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Girls Miss Their Mother

“They still miss her quite a bit,” he said. They have also had to adjust to a new school and new family, he said. “Getting used to their father is a change in itself.” Rich’s mother, Avalon Meredith, said she is upset that her daughter hasn’t made headlines like Laura Bradbury, the young child who vanished while on a family outing with her family in Joshua Tree National Monument last October.

“I see that Laura Bradbury girl all over, but I don’t see anything about my daughter,” said Meredith.

“I know the Bradbury girl is 3 1/2 and my daughter is 35, but she’s still my daughter, and we still hurt like hell.”

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