Investigators search for Wichita area woman’s remains, case still cold

The case of a young woman murdered 20 years ago has gone cold at times, but the investigation has heated up several times over the years.
Updated: Oct. 4, 2022 at 10:00 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - The case of a young woman murdered 20 years ago has gone cold at times, but the investigation has heated up several times over the years. Factfinder 12 sat down with investigators and family who hope someone reading this will have the answer that will bring Jennifer Wilson’s killer to justice.

The girl who liked and was liked by everyone.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be described the way people describe Jennifer Wilson? Her mother Paulette Mattingly speaks of her daughter, Jennifer, like many mothers might speak of their children.

“She was funny...she’d like to be right in the middle of everything,” Paulette explained. “She was just a very friendly funny person...liked to joke.”

Jennifer loved animals, so much so, Paulette thought she might have grown up to be a veterinarian. More than any though, she simply adored her white German Shepherd Sadie. In addition to her love of all things furry and four legged, she was a go-getter from the very start. Jennifer won debater of the year her junior year of high school, served on the school’s yearbook committee, worked on the school newspaper. She sang, played piano, even took gymnastics and was ready to take on the world come graduation day.

“She got her first job out of high school. She was working out at Town West, and she got a job at Jean’s West, which is no longer there of course, and got to be manager. I think probably an assistant manager,” Paulette said.

Eventually though, out on her own, Jennifer found working retail wasn’t quite paying the bills.

“She did work as a hostess in a restaurant for a while,” Paulette continued. “She found out she couldn’t make as much money as she could dancing.”

Jennifer took a job dancing at a now defunct Wichita “gentleman’s club” called Jezebel’s.

“She was very independent and she was going to make it on her own, and I think that’s when she started dancing,” Paulette said. “She never told me that’s what she was doing...not for a long time.”

Gone without a trace.

Jennifer eventually moved into a home on the outskirts of Derby with a roommate who also worked at Jezebel’s. The two formed a close relationship, sometimes even stopping by to see Jennifer’s mother together. Until in September 2002 when the roommate came to see her without Jennifer.

“Her roommate came to tell me that she (Jennifer) had left. She was crying. She was all upset,” Paulette said. “She told me all about how Jennifer and her had gotten into an argument and had left.”

Paulette said it wasn’t unusual to go for stretches of time without hearing from her daughter, and knowing her roommate like she did, she said she had no reason to think anything was wrong. After she didn’t hear from Jennifer for 18 months though, the worry began to set in. Why hadn’t she called? Jennifer’s mom decided she needed to have another conversation with the roommate.

“I finally called her where she worked, and they said she hadn’t worked there for a long time,” Paulette recounted. “Later I found out during that time, she was working at another club using Jennifer’s social security number...that’s when I got suspicious, and I called the police.”

By then it was March 2004. Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office Forensic Investigator Jeremy Noel spoke to Factfinder 12 about the case.

Playing catchup on a crime

“At that point, you know, you’re already 18 months behind the ball,” Noel said.

Noel says they began interviewing witnesses. They heard about that argument between Jennifer and her roommate. It happened at Jezebel’s one night in September 2002. Then they spoke with the roommate herself.

" (She) was a little reluctant, I would say, to initially come up and talk to detectives,” Noel said. “At some point during that interview though, she invoked her right to Miranda and said, you know, ‘I want to talk to my attorney’.”

By itself, that might not have made investigators suspicious but there was more. Something no one could seem to get past. Jennifer was gone, yes, but what was still there raised eyebrows with just about everyone close to the missing 29 year old.

“The dog was still there. That’s what everybody kind of got hung up on was, there’s no way in the world she would have left that dog at that house,” Noel said.

Left behind was Jennifer’s beloved German Shepherd Sadie, who eventually disappeared as well.

“I never thought about why did I not question why the dog was still there. That Jennifer didn’t take the dog with her when she left,” Paulette said.

There were other things as well that made investigators and Jennifer’s mother suspicious. There were conflicting stories Jennifer’s roommate told various people. Stories that Jennifer had moved to Kansas City, that she’d made withdrawals from her bank account, at least two different stories about what happened to Jennifer’s dog. None of which could be verified by investigators.

Tips did come in, in trickles over the years. Investigators searched the fields behind the home where Jennifer and her roommate lived, they used cadaver dogs several times and they dug looking for Jennifer’s remains.

“We probed areas inside of a barn out by a pond, out in the middle of a pasture,” Noel said.

Investigators used ground penetrating radar, pinpointing a location to dig, but found nothing. A tip Jennifer could be found buried beneath the deck of the home also produced no results.

“We dug a pretty deep hole behind the house looking for Jennifer’s remains. We did not find her body,” Noel said.

A final wish for Jennifer

While all this was happening, Jennifer’s mother kept a journal of sorts to tell Jennifer what she’d missed while she was gone and to deal with her own emotions while she waited.

“I kept writing to Jennifer, ‘why won’t you call me?’ You know, ‘I can’t believe that you wouldn’t want to let us know where you are’,” Paulette remembered. “I just wanted her to know she wasn’t forgotten when she came back...it was just a journal of how I was feeling from day to day. It helped me because I didn’t have anybody else to talk to.”

Now, 20 years after she last saw her daughter, Paulette said she knows Jennifer is gone forever. She had her declared dead in 2013 and purchased a cemetery plot to hopefully one day lay her to rest.

“I just would like to be able to put her where I know where she is. Out there,” Paulette said. “I would like to find her body.”

It’s a final wish for Jennifer, Jeremy Noel said he intends to make happen.

“If that’s the last thing that I can do for Paulette in my career, then I know I did good,” he said.

The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office cold case unit is actively working this case. If you have any information that could help them solve it and bring Jennifer’s mother some peace, please call (316) 660-3799.