UPDATE 5:27 PM EST: South Carolina law enforcement officials used cadaver dogs in their search for 18-month-old Amir Jennings (pictured) while his mother, Zinah Jennings, sat in jail on charges of lying about her final interactions with him. Click here for more details.
COLUMBIA, S.C. — A former college student who became depressed and erratic after becoming a mother is charged with lying about where her missing 18-month-old son has been for more than a month, police said Wednesday.
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Authorities said they were desperately searching for Amir Jennings after his 22-year–old mother, Zinah Jennings, told them several inconsistent and false stories about the boy being with relatives and friends in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia.
“I’m trying to stay optimistic about this,” Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott told The Associated Press Wednesday. “But short of being optimistic, this case bothers me.”
The mother and son were reported missing in early December, but the mother turned up after she was involved in a car accident on Christmas Eve.
Scott said officers hope a tip line and media exposure will lead to more information.
“I want someone to call us and say, `We just saw this on the news, we have Amir, we’re sorry, we didn’t realize this was going on,'” he said. “Her stories are so across the board that our search right now is from Charlotte to Atlanta.”
Investigators said they hoped Amir Jennings was alive but they weren’t getting much help from his mother. In early December, grandmother Jocelyn Jennings Nelson reported her own daughter missing, saying that she hadn’t seen her in several days and hadn’t seen her grandson since the Thanksgiving holiday.
According to an incident report, Jennings had had a car wreck several days before and had been making “cryptic phone calls to other family members indicating her ongoing fight with depression is continuing.”
That sort of behavior wasn’t unusual for the young mother, according to relatives, who told investigators the one-time college student had begun disappearing for days on end, with her son, since his birth.
“The grandmother told me specifically that, when she was in school, she was a very good person, a very good student,” said Scott, adding that relatives had previously filed several missing persons reports on Jennings. “But once the baby was born, the conduct kind of changed.”
Jennings attended Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., for one academic year, from fall 2007 until spring 2008, according to a school spokeswoman.
Early on the morning of Christmas Eve, Jennings wrecked her Dodge Neon in a one-car accident near her house in Columbia. Authorities learned that Jennings was reported missing and they say Jennings began giving shaky stories about her son’s whereabouts. They also spoke with Amir’s father, who told them he had seen the boy during Thanksgiving but generally has had little contact with the boy.
“First it’s, `He’s with my sister in Atlanta. Oh no, I’m sorry, he’s with my friend in Charlotte,'” Scott said. “It’s all over the place. … Everything she’s telling us is just lies.”
Several days later, police again spoke with Jennings, who said her son was with a friend in Columbia, but that story was also a dead end. After days of giving police bad information, the mother was charged Dec. 29 with unlawful conduct toward a child and is being held on $150,000 bond.
The police chief said he did not know if Jennings had an attorney. The number listed for both Jennings and her mother was not working, and the grandmother did not immediately return a message left on her work number. Police have not released the name of Amir’s father.
At this point, Scott said investigators have two theories.
“It’s either A: Zinah has given Amir to someone. Or Zinah has, in some way, shape or form, harmed Amir,” Scott said. “Until we have something more on Amir, I do not rule out foul play. And in my mind, there’s already an air of foul play, because no one will tell us where Amir is at. Foul play doesn’t have to mean that someone is deceased. Foul play is lying to police.”
Scott said he’s struggling to remain optimistic that Amir will be found unharmed. He would not discuss any evidence police have collected from the mother’s home or car.
“It’s the way this whole case is playing out,” Scott said. “It’s more than just that the child is missing. The mother is lying about the whereabouts of the child.”
There was no answer Wednesday at the blue two-story home where police say Jennings, her mother and son live, its door and front porch still festooned with Christmas decorations. The house, just a few blocks from one of Columbia’s busiest thoroughfares, is on a quiet, tree-lined street of other one- and two-story homes, some with fenced-in yards and porches.
“We see each other and speak and say hello,” said Selwyn Young, who lives across the street from the Jennings family and said he recalled seeing Jennings pushing the baby around the neighborhood and walking the family’s dog. “Hopefully they find him. Hopefully they get it right.”