Jessica Easterly Durning and her sister, Audrey Gutierrez, spent hours on the phone with each other - talking, watching reality TV. When their schedules got hectic, they swapped long Facebook messages back and forth that mostly included song lyrics or hashtags with powerful words or phrases to lift each other up.
The sisters, who grew up mostly in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, now lived in different states, Jessica in New Orleans, Louisiana and Audrey in Biloxi, Mississippi - so they relied on their frequent phone calls.
“We could talk for hours about anything,” Audrey told Dateline. “She was so happy-go-lucky. Like, if you were feeling down, you could talk to her and she would pick you up.”
Audrey, along with Jessica’s best friend, Maria Creel, both told Dateline those long calls with Jessica are what they miss the most.
It was Maria who Jessica frantically called just two days before she disappeared in August of 2019.
Maria told Dateline she was at home in Alabama on August 12 when she missed a call from Jessica. And then a second call. And a third call.
When the two finally connected a few minutes later, Jessica asked Maria to come pick her up at the house she shared with her husband and her stepdaughter, in New Orleans.
“She didn’t go into specifics, only that she needed to leave,” Maria said. “But it was a 2-hour drive and I didn’t have anyone to pick up my kids from school. So we started making a plan for me to pick her up the next morning.”
The last time Maria heard from Jessica was in a text that read, “ok just hang on, idk what’s gonna happen when I get home.”
But two days later, Maria hadn’t heard anything from Jessica, which she said was unusual.
It was about 9 p.m. on August 14, Maria said, when she got a message from Jessica’s Facebook account. It was Jessica’s husband, Justin Durning.
He asked, “Is Jess with you, Grace and I are worried????” Grace is Justin’s daughter and Jessica’s stepdaughter.
“When I read that message, my whole body went cold,” Maria told Dateline. “I knew right then something terrible had happened.”
In a flurry of frantic messages, Jessica’s husband told Maria that he last spoke to her around noon that day and that she had left everything behind, including her cell phone, car keys, money and her ID.
Maria told Dateline she called the New Orleans Police Department to perform a welfare check at Jessica’s house on General Haig Street. That evening, Jessica’s husband filed a missing persons report.
But Jessica’s 43rd birthday on August 17 came and still there was no trace of her.
“I’ve always talked to her on her birthday, I’ve always called her,” Jessica’s sister Audrey said tearfully. “And that year I called her. And I didn’t get an answer. Thought maybe she was just out. But I should’ve known something was wrong. And I didn’t… I just didn’t think this could ever happen.”
On August 22, a week after Jessica was last seen, Audrey, their other sister, Amanda, and their cousin, traveled to New Orleans to speak with detectives at the New Orleans Police Department. But first they decided to conduct their own search in Jessica’s neighborhood.
Audrey said they were driving when a foul smell prompted them to get out of the car and search on foot. It was Audrey who made the horrific discovery.
Along the tree line of a wooded area of City Park near the intersection of Orleans Avenue and Kenilworth Street, about two blocks from Jessica’s home, was a body clad in a black tank top, black shorts and black shoes.
“I was devastated,” Audrey told Dateline. “I knew right away it was her. I couldn’t believe this was happening.”
Audrey called the police and an investigation was launched.
But it would be three months before the body was identified. On November 8, 2019, the body was positively identified as Jessica Easterly Durning, according to the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office.
Jessica’s family told Dateline they believe foul play was involved in her death and that her body was placed where she was found.
Gary S. Scheets, a spokesperson for the New Orleans Police Department told Dateline this week that the case remains open and active and is being investigated by the 3rd District detectives.
“This thing would not have taken this long as it has had she not laid in the New Orleans sun for a week and a half before her body was found,” Jessica’s stepfather Rick Schmitt, of Summerdale, Alabama, told WDSU after receiving the results. “That’s what made the autopsy to difficult… The fact that she was there, everything points to she was dumped there; she did not die there.”
Rick Schmitt added that his stepdaughter was a “good woman” who made close friends that she kept for life.
“She shouldn’t be dead right now,” he said, with tears on his cheeks.
Two more months passed before Jessica’s family received her autopsy report on January 15, 2020.
According to Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office Spokesman Jason Melancon, the autopsy found evidence that Jessica sustained a nose injury as well as a “a small linear fracture” to her jaw around the time she died. However, in the report signed January 8, the pathologist did not address how these injuries might have been sustained.
The Coroner’s Office classified both the cause and manner of Jessica’s death as undetermined.
In an email to Dateline, NOPD Spokesperson Gary S. Scheets said Jessica’s case “remains an unclassified death” and “ is not currently classified as a homicide.” He added that the investigation remains open and active.
This month marked a year since Jessica’s body was found, and her family and friends are still left with many unanswered questions.
Maria, who has been friends with Jessica for at least 20 years, told Dateline their phone calls filled a place in her heart that is now empty.
“I still can’t believe she’s gone,” Maria said. “It’s been a year, but that doesn’t mean we’re giving up on her. We’re never backing down - and we will get justice for Jessica. It’s what she deserves.”
Jessica’s friends and family continue to rally for justice for Jessica, who they described as an outgoing, fun and beautiful person who could always put a smile on your face.
Her sister, Audrey, maintains a website dedicated to the case and has kept their love of hashtags going with the most important one of all -- #Justice4Jessica.
“She was such a beautiful person,” Audrey said. “I’ve never met anyone that’s had anything bad to say about Jessica. She was a good friend. She was a great sister. I can’t believe she’s gone.”
Anyone with information is asked to contact the Third District at 504-658-6030 or call Crime Stoppers anonymously at 504-822-1111 and toll-free at 1-877-903-7867.