Jenni-Lyn Watson, 20, returned on November 18 to her home in Clay on Thanksgiving break from Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania, to spend Thanksgiving with her family in Liverpool, a suburb of Syracuse. But it has turned out to be such a tragic Thanksgiving for her and her family.
Watson, 20, disappeared the following day, sparking a massive search for her over the ensuing days.
Watson was last seen at home on the morning of November 19 with her parents and 17-year-old sister. When they returned home in the afternoon, Watson was gone, along with her Verizon LG enV3 cell phone, though her purse, wallet and house keys were still there.
The massive manhunt culminated with the discovery yesterday of Watson’s body in a heavily wooded swampy area near Clay Central Park in North Syracuse, N.Y., eight days after she had gone missing. The place where her body was found is a spot down a slope behind a storage shed, some 350 yards north of Wetzel Road and about two miles north of Watson’s home. It appeared someone tried to conceal the body, but that it was not buried. She was laid flat and covered up with vegetation.
Police have arrested Jenni-Lyn Watson’s ex-boyfriend Steven Pieper, 21, who is accused of killing Watson and dumping her body in a park. Pieper now faces a second-degree murder charge.
Watson and Pieper had an on-and-off relationship over an 18-month period, according to Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick. Watson has apparently broken off with Pieper in October but Pieper did not take it well. Pieper is alleged to have been at Watson’s residence on the morning of her disappearance and is believed to be the last to have seen her.
The arrest came hours after Watson’s body was found in Clay Central Park, where the search has focused since she disappeared on Nov. 19.
Watson’s family has been notified and will identify the remains. An autopsy is planned for today.
A friend of Watson’s said the young woman had recently broken off an engagement.
“The break-up didn’t go as cordially as it should have,” the friend said.
Onondaga County Undersheriff Warren Darby said Friday that more than 100 people were searching for Watson.
He said the search expanded from 600 acres to 1,200 acres. Watson, described as a 5-feet-2 weighing 100 lbs. and with dark blond hair and brown eyes, was an accomplished ballerina and dance major at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa.
Friends describe Watson as a “sweetheart” who excelled in ballet for 16 years, performing with the prestigious Moscow Ballet.
Authorities believe Watson was killed in her residence on the morning of November 19 and that her body was dumped in a heavily wooded area a couple miles away.
“Pieper has been interviewed twice,” Fitzpatrick said. “He has denied involvement.”
Detectives are looking for anyone who may have seen Pieper’s black 2008 Volkswagen Jetta in the vicinity of Watson’s home or near the area where the body was found.
Investigators also had asked anyone who had found a cell phone in a blue cover like Watson’s to call them. A transmission from that phone on the day of Watson’s disappearance led officials to search the woodlands and marshes around Henry Clay Boulevard. Clay Central Park is nearly surrounded by the Stanley J. Hamlin State Wildlife Management Area, also called Hamlin Marsh.
For days, Police searched more than 1,200 acres of woods surrounding her family’s home in Onondaga County, focusing on the area where her cell phone was last reported active.
The remains were found as part of the search routine, not because anyone had pointed authorities to the spot. Fitzpatrick credited “good legwork by the sheriff’s department.”
“They were not going to leave this area until they were convinced she wasn’t there,” he said.
Fitzpatrick said there were no visible signs of struggle from Watson.
“Our Mercyhurst family poured their hearts and souls into finding Jenni-Lyn in a genuine outpouring of humanity,” Mercyhurst college president Tom Gamble said in a statement. “Her death is devastating to our entire college community. We continue to pray for her family and extend our deepest sympathies.”
Some 600 students attended a vigil Wednesday night at Mercyhurst for the pretty and popular ballet dancer.
On her Facebook page, she listed one of her favourite quotes as: ‘You are only as strong as the martinis you drink…. tables you dance on and the friends that you have.’
Rest in peace, Watson!