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Crime News Dateline

Family Still Searching for Answers After Man Vanishes During Routine Sunday Walk

Kent Jacobs was taking the same walk he did most Sundays to visit friends when the 41-year-old mysteriously vanished more than two decades ago.

By Jill Sederstrom
Kent Jacobs

Most Sundays, Kent Jacobs walked the same route from his Hope Mills, North Carolina home to the neighborhood where he grew up.

Most Sundays he returned home at the same time —until the day the 41-year-old never returned.

Kent mysteriously vanished March 10, 2002 while taking his usual weekend trek to visit with friends.

“It was a well-worn path for him,” his brother Keith Jacobs told the Dateline: Missing in America podcast. “He knew it. It was always the same, always the same.”

Kent had a developmental disability that left him with the mental capacity of a child. During the week, he lived in a group home and worked as a custodian for Cumberland County, but on the weekends, Kent returned home to spend time with his mother, Martha. Each Sunday, while she went to church, he went on his usual walk to catch up with friends, always returning by 5 p.m.so his mother could drive him back to the group home.

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It was a well-oiled routine, until that Sunday afternoon in 2002 when Kent never came home, seemingly vanishing without a trace.

More than two decades later, the disappearance continues to haunt Kent’s family and a dogged investigator, who has never given up hope that the answers are still out there somewhere.

“It’s like what went wrong that day?” Kent’s sister Kimberly Baber said. “I still don’t understand why there’s no trace.”

Kent, a die-hard fan of NASCAR racing and Harley Davidson motorcycles, usually spent those Sundays dropping in on friends he’d known since childhood

“It wasn’t necessarily a scheduled thing, but they knew it’s Sunday, Kent will probably be around today. There’s sports on TV, that sort of thing,” Keith said.

The day he vanished, some of those friends reported Kent had made it to their homes like usual.

Kent Jacobs sitting on a chair.

“They would say, 'Yes, Kent was here. He was here for an hour or so and then left.' And then we asked, ‘Well, do you know where he went?’ And they said, ‘Well, he’d mentioned going to so-and-so’s house,’ so we would go to that person’s house and they would say that Kent was here and then he left,” Keith recalled.

For Kent, the trips had been opportunities to revisit his old stomping grounds, but when his sister Kim retraced his route the next day she noticed the neighborhood had dramatically shifted over time.

“It had changed so much,” she said. “And I’m like, ‘Where am I?’ And I’m trying to find people, you know, to ask questions, and again, I don’t know these people anymore.”

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Some of Kent’s childhood friends now had drug problems and criminal records and his family got the distinct feeling that some of them may not have been completely forthcoming about what happened that fateful afternoon.

“I think some people were not telling us everyone who was with them when they saw Kent and that sort of thing,” Keith said.

The last reported sighting of Kent was at 5 p.m. when witnesses put him at Brooklyn Circle, a road close to the property of Cliff Jones, a man who previously served time for manslaughter.

When Keith and his brother-in-law went to the property to question Jones, he said that he had not seen Kent that day. But Keith said he found it unsettling that at the time, Jones and some others were cleaning out a rental trailer on his property.

“It seemed to me they were really trying to clean this trailer. I mean, to a great extent,” Keith recalled.

Law enforcement scoured Kent’s walking route looking for any sign of the missing 41-year-old, but were unable to find any trace of him.

According to news reports at the time, detectives suspected Kent was a victim of foul play. They noted at the time of his disappearance Kent had been carrying around $200 in cash, and theorized he may have been harmed during a robbery.

Kent’s family worked tirelessly to keep his story in the news and to investigate tips on their own. Keith and his sister Jackie even quit their jobs in New York and Seattle and moved back to Hope Mills to focus on the search for Kent.

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The rumors they heard about their missing brother were terrifying.

“There were stories about Kent being, ah man, killed with a baseball bat,” Keith said. “There were stories about Kent being thrown down a well. Just things you never want to hear about anyone you love.”

Then, eight years after Kent vanished, Cumberland County Detective Nan Trogdon took over the case and discovered a credible tip buried in the case file.

Hank Harris, the chief of the volunteer fire department, told authorities that some time after Kent went missing an intoxicated Jones had walked into the fire department and claimed that Kent was buried in a refrigerator on his property, although he didn’t admit to killing Kent.

“Clifton had a backhoe and he buried everything,” the now-retired Trogdon explained. “He buried trailers. He buried trash.”

Trogdon said that somehow, with all the leads coming in, the tip was never investigated. By 2010, Jones had died, but Trogdon was able to secure a search warrant for his former property.

Together with a forensic archeologist and a geophysicist, authorities searched the property using ground penetrating radar and electromagnetic sensors. They discovered buried water heaters, parts of a mobile home, old carpet, and trash, but found no sign of a refrigerator.

Thick vegetation and marshy terrain made some areas of the property impossible to reach, and the search team feared they may have been digging up toxic trash, so the search was stopped. With an estimated 30%-40% of the property unsearched, Trogdon still can’t shake the possibility that Kent may be buried out there somewhere.

Kent’s family feels the same way.

“I would like to have that property searched properly, just — just to rule it out, if nothing else,” Keith said.

To date, the sheriff’s office has never executed another search warrant on the property. When the Dateline: Missing in America podcast asked if they planned another search, they said they couldn’t comment because the case is still under investigation.

Today, what happened to Kent remains a mystery.

“I just feel like I let the family down and I would like to take this time to say I’m sorry,” Trogdon said.

His family is still hopeful the case can be solved and ask that anyone who might have information about Kent, described as being 5’6” tall, 150 pounds at the time of his disappearance, with dark curly hair and brown eyes, reach out to the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office at 910-323-1500.