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A Town On Edge: Mother confident of son’s innocence in Jennifer Hillier-Penney's disappearance

A view from the east side of St. Anthony looking across part of the harbour. Four unsolved missing-person cases in 15 years have rattled the town.
A view from the east side of St. Anthony looking across part of the harbour. Four unsolved missing-person cases in 15 years have rattled the town.

ST. ANTHONY, N.L. — When something happens in St. Anthony, like in any small town, gossip can travel faster than a November wind at the mouth of the bay.Families know each other well, and often go back generations together.

So last Dec. 1, when many people started to think that Dean Penney might have known something about his estranged wife, Jennifer Hillier-Penney, going missing without a trace the night before, the rumours soon swirled.

One of those rumours was that Dean’s mother, Ruby Penney, had cleaned the house on Husky Drive after Jennifer went missing.

Despite having heard many of the rumours being spread, Ruby Penney seemed caught by surprise on that one.

“Oh my God,” she said during an interview. “No, I definitely didn’t clean up anything.”

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Jennifer went missing overnight between the evening of Nov. 30 and the early morning of Dec. 1, 2016.

It’s a baffling case, as personal items — her cellphone, purse, boots and jacket — were left behind. Her car was still in the driveway with the keys in the ignition.

Jennifer went missing from Dean Penney’s house. They had been married for 17 years, but separated that September, and she had moved to nearby St. Lunaire-Griquet with her recently widowed father.

She had been back at the Husky Drive house that night to stay with their youngest daughter, Deana, because Dean was on a duck-hunting trip at his cabin 45 minutes away.

Following an extensive ground, air and water search, police deemed the case suspicious. The RCMP’s major crime unit, police dogs, forensic identification section and other officers came to the town to investigate. That work is ongoing, with another ground search expected in the coming weeks.

A week after Jennifer went missing, Ruby Penney put up a $25,000 reward for any information that would help find her daughter-in-law, saying Jennifer had been more like a daughter to her.

She said she believed her son to be “100 per cent” innocent and hoped someone would come forward with information.

Jennifer Hillier-Penney in a photo released by the RCMP in the days after she went missing from the Husky Drive area in St. Anthony Nov. 30, 2016. There’s been no sign of her since.

But more than six months have passed and no one has stepped up to claim the reward.

Ruby says some people have a different view of why she offered the reward money.

“I thought I was doing the right thing when I issued a statement saying I was putting up a reward, but I have heard the rumours on the go that people thought that I put up the reward to throw suspicion away from Dean,” she said.

“Well, I definitely never. I’ll tell you right now, he’s my son. I love him. But if I thought for one minute that he had anything to do with this, I’d be the one to go to the police myself. I don’t condone something like that, and not from my own and not from anybody else.”

Dean Penney was approached for comment for this series, but declined, other than to say he and his daughters, Marina and Deana, have been taking Jennifer’s disappearance hard.

People have asked why Dean didn’t take part in the searches for Jennifer or make an effort to find her on his own.

Ruby Penney says it would have been inappropriate given the suspicion levelled at him.

“It’s an ongoing investigation and there’s been different scenarios, and (the police) are working on all of it, and that’s why he couldn’t actually say anything,” Ruby Penney said. “It is difficult, I think, but like he was saying, as long as they find her, he don’t care what he has to go through.”

Dean Penney has never been identified by the police as a person of interest, nor has he been charged with anything.

Other than being convicted and fined on July 5, 2016 for careless use of a firearm, there doesn’t appear to be any criminal activity in his past. He also faces two charges of failing to comply with the conditions of a fishing licence, which will be heard in Corner Brook provincial court on June 28.

A number of people in St. Anthony say Dean Penney seemed unhappy about the couple’s separation.

Ruby Penney, however, says that while Jennifer had indicated she was going her own way, she still spent time at the Husky Drive house.

“I don’t believe there was any animosity there. She never indicated anything, and I know Dean would never lay his hands on her,” Ruby Penney said. “I don’t think they ever had an argument in their lives where it got violent, so I don’t know where all this stuff is coming from.”

Jennifer’s close friends, Vicki Burden and Gina Elliott, say they were aware of some tension between the two.

“She was very uncomfortable around him. And he wasn’t taking the breakup well,” Burden said. “That is just common knowledge. She was having a lot of stress. Her mother passed away in October. Some of it was from him.”

Elliott said Jennifer was trying to get along with Dean for the sake of their daughters.

“To be honest, I don’t think he wanted the split like she wanted the split,” Elliott said. “She had come to this decision and I don’t think he really agreed about it.”

Jennifer’s family, particularly her daughters, Marina and Deana, who were 21 and 15, respectively, at the time their mother went missing, are devastated.

Jennifer’s sister, Joann Hillier Peyton, said there are no words to describe how the family feels.

“It’s devastating. Every day we just don’t know how to continue, but we have to,” she said.

“It’s not something you would think you’d have to deal with. You always have that feeling in your stomach, and that heavy, heavy feeling every moment of the day.

“We are not letting this settle. We are not going to stop until we get answers.”

Next: Expert weighs in on all four cases; more on Jennifer Hillier-Penney case

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