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Suspicious Death

Jessica Easterly Durning

Woman's body is discovered by family members a few blocks from her home

  • Last updated: December 7, 2022
  • New Orleans, LA
  • August 14, 2019

Overview of Jessica Easterly Durning

Some people just have the rare gift of making whomever they are with feel like the most important person in the world.

Jessica Ranae Easterly had that rare gift. Her friends and family fondly remember her as being smart, energetic, and absolutely hilarious, with a razor-sharp wit that her best friend terms “Betty White-level”. Once you were basking in the warm glow of Jessica’s dazzling smile, you felt on top of the world. She is described as being friendly, lively, and dynamic - simply full of life with a great sense of humor and a quickness of wit that took your breath away and left you in stitches.

Jessica had an exceptionally happy childhood growing up in Ocean Springs, MS, and was extremely close to her parents, grandparents, sisters, and cousins. Though her parents had divorced and Donna was remarried to a man named Rick Schmitt, Jessica also welcomed her stepfather into her circle of warmth, and they also a great relationship. Jessica loved family traditions and holidays, Marilyn Monroe - “Santa Baby” was her favorite Christmas carol - and the color purple. She had an unquenchable thirst for reading and enjoyed dance and the performing arts.

As she grew older, she added music, cooking, and fashion to her impressive list of interests, as she exhibited a flair for putting outfits together in creative and stylish ways. In 1994, she graduated from Ocean Springs High School and continued her education at the University of South Alabama, from which she graduated with a degree in audiology and speech pathology. Although she had a happy upbringing, as an adult she began to experience debilitating issues. She was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and suffered periods of severe pain, along with depression and bipolar tendencies. She was prescribed medication for all of these issues, and ultimately had to go on disability due to her illness.

In around 2010, Jessica fell in “love at first sight” with Justin Durning, Jr., a guest on the same boat cruise to which she had also been invited by a friend. The feeling seemed reciprocal, but the couple lost touch after seeing each other only a few times.

However, they eventually reconnected, and in 2015, they tied the knot in a sunset ceremony on the beach and settled in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans, LA.

Jessica Easterly & Justin Durning

The marriage came with what Jessica considered an enormous bonus - Justin had a daughter, Gracie, from a previous relationship, and Jessica dove into motherhood with her typical enthusiasm and warmth. Gracie quickly became the daughter of her heart, and the feeling was mutual. However, darker times were ahead, as Justin began to isolate Jessica from family and friends, and even controlled her interactions with them. There was physical abuse as well.

Her best friend, Maria - a domestic abuse survivor herself - identified the situation immediately and understood what was going on, though she was helpless to change things. But Maria remained Jessica’s sounding board and indeed was her "ride or die" best friend, as Jessica always seemed to find a way to let Maria know what was happening despite being limited in her communication.

On August 12, 2019, Maria missed two calls on her phone but picked up the third.

On the other end was her best friend, sounding absolutely frantic. Jessica begged Maria to come and pick her up, promising to fill her in on the details when she arrived. Maria was completely willing to come to her friend’s aid, but she lived several states away in Mobile, AL, and was unable to arrange for childcare that day. She didn’t want to take her children with her since she knew how volatile Justin was and felt that the situation could potentially be dangerous. Instead, she promised Jessica that she would take the following day off and drive over to get her after she dropped her kids off at school.

Later that day, while Jessica was at the doctor's office with Gracie, the two texted again, with Maria saying she'd discuss the plan with her husband and they could finalize details for the next day. Jessica told her to "hang on, I don't know what's going to happen when I get home". This was the last contact between the two, as Maria waited in vain for confirmation of the plan from Jessica that night. She didn’t hear from her again all that evening or the following day.

On August 14, Maria received a message from Jessica’s Facebook account, but it wasn’t from Jessica — it was from Justin, asking if his wife was with her. Maria told him she was not, and she asked about the last time he saw Jessica. Justin said it was around noon on that day, and he mentioned that Jessica had not taken her phone, keys, or ID card. Maria immediately wanted to contact the New Orleans Police Department, but Justin was afraid of “freaking out” his daughter. The two argued via messenger, and Justin lied and told her he’d already contacted NOPD and they told him to wait 24 hours. He accused Maria of suspecting that he’d hurt his wife.

Regardless, Maria sent NOPD to the Durning home for a welfare check. Police took the report on August 15 but seemed largely disinterested in the entire situation, recording discrepancies in the timeline without even questioning them. Justin told them that Jessica was wearing blue jeans and a tee shirt when last seen, and that he’d woken from a nap at 3:00 pm the previous day to find her gone. That same day, Justin again messaged Maria, who by now was certain something terrible had happened to her friend. She created and shared a missing persons poster for Jessica, which enabled her to contact Jessica’s sisters Audrey and Amanda, who ultimately became the driving force in moving the investigation forward.

When Jessica’s birthday passed on August 17 without any contact, both the sisters and their cousin Doug decided to travel to New Orleans to meet with detectives and arrange a search party.

They arrived early for the meeting on August 22 and decided to scout out the neighborhood to design a likely potential search route. Driving a few blocks from the home Jessica shared with Justin, the family noticed a foul odor, prompting them to pull over and search on foot.

Their search led them to a tree-lined, wooded area of City Park, near the intersection of Orleans Avenue and Kenilworth Street, close to the Interstate 610 underpass. To their horror, there in the grass, the group spotted a badly decomposing body lying in the harsh, unremitting Louisiana sun. Despite the condition of the body, which was clad in black shorts, a black tank top, and black shoes — the family knew immediately it was their beloved sister and cousin.

Jessica’s ID Found Near The Crime Site

They notified NOPD and the body was picked up by the coroner. Authorities did not spend a lot of time at the scene; they basically scooped Jessica up without even securing the crime scene. The remains, however, would not be positively identified as belonging to Jessica for over 2 months, due to the mishandling and loss of a DNA sample and a lack of follow-up investigation. It was not until November 8 that the DNA match - taken from Jessica’s mother - was announced, and the remains were confirmed as Jessica Renae Easterly.

Jessica’s body would sit in the morgue for over 4 months before an autopsy was conducted and the manner of death could be officially announced. The coroner classified her cause and manner of death as "undetermined", but insisted a drug-related death could not be ruled out. He further confirmed that the advanced state of decomposition in which the body had been found had limited toxicology testing to the liver, which had tested positive for methamphetamine and bupropion - a medication commonly used in the treatment of bipolar disorder, with which Jessica had been diagnosed.

Meanwhile, the month after the DNA match was announced, Justin created two GoFundMe sites to raise money for a memorial service for Jessica. One was under Jessica’s legal name; another was under the alias by which she was known professionally within her occupation. Jessica had made her living - perhaps due to her disability, perhaps as a result of coercion from her husband, or perhaps by conscious choice and agreement - by performing with Justin in the adult entertainment industry. They made their living creating videos and other adult content, performing together on webcams, and selling photographs and other merchandise.

In fact, after Jessica’s remains were found, Justin hid the fact of her death from her colleagues and fans in the industry, continuing to pose as Jessica online in order to sell lingerie, shoes, and other personal items. However, after the DNA match was announced, Justin could no longer sustain the fiction that Jessica was alive. Instead, he found another way to exploit his wife by creating a fundraising page. Supporters were promised personal items such as "exclusive photos", lingerie, shoes, and pre-recorded videos of Jessica in exchange for donations.

Fortunately, both of these offensive pages were taken down shortly after they were created and did not result in further exploitation of Jessica’s memory. Justin’s bizarre behavior continued, however. In January 2020, Justin was detained for a 24-hour psychological observation period after he approached a woman in a bar who was also named Jessica. He told her his wife's name was Jessica and that she had died by suicide, and he insisted she take all of Jessica's clothes. Luckily, her friend recognized Justin from social media posts regarding Jessica’s death and called the police. Justin was detained but not formally questioned, and then released after 24 hours.

After the autopsy was conducted, Jessica’s stepfather and her sister Audrey met with New Orleans Police Department detectives.

At the meeting, they were told that Jessica’s death, which had been classified as “undetermined”, was now considered a cold case. Authorities offered theories of accidental death and drug overdose to the family, who adamantly disagreed and instead wanted the case investigated as a homicide. On January 31, 2020, the Orleans Parish Coroner’s autopsy report was released. Jessica had suffered a fractured nose, broken jaw, broken rib, and a broken C4 vertebra (neck), along with post-mortem disarticulation of the left second rib - although the latter was likely caused by police handling the body.

The Coroner's Office admitted that the advanced state of decomposition in which the body was found, along with the remains sitting in the morgue for such an extended period of time, likely impacted the results. They stated that her body would be released to her next of kin - her husband Justin - for burial, but he did not claim the body and she remained in the morgue.

In March of that same year, a couple in Jessica’s neighborhood discovered a blanket and Jessica's crumpled ID card near where her remains had been found, months after the body had been discovered. Though they immediately contacted NOPD, it took the police 170 days to collect these items from the couple. Nor did they question Justin as to whether the ID was the same as or a duplicate of the one Jessica had allegedly left behind, along with her phone and keys, as he had reported.

Meanwhile, because the police had not performed a DNA test on the ID card and blanket, Jessica’s body remained in the morgue, with her family unable to lay her to rest. After this latest example of NOPD’s utter indifference to her sister’s case, Audrey reached her breaking point and filed a formal complaint with the Public Integrity Bureau against the police department for "Failing to Properly Investigate the death of Jessica Easterly Durning”. Four months passed before the family heard back from the bureau that an investigation had been opened into the department’s handling of the case. The complaint would eventually be dismissed as unfounded. Later that fall, crime scene investigators were called to the Durning home to collect samples from a futon and headboard that were set out on the curb as trash. The results of this forensic testing did not come back until the following June, when they revealed nothing incriminating.

Jessica's body was ultimately turned over to her devoted family in February 2021 after lingering in the morgue for an unbelievable 530 days.

Authorities were unable to reach her disinterested husband, nor did he attend the small gathering to say goodbye to Jessica that her family had arranged. Due to COVID-19, plans for a celebration of life ceremony were put on hold until it was safe to gather in larger numbers.

Where the case stands today:

Thanks to an online petition started by Audrey and the family in May 2021, New Orleans District Attorney Jason Williams agreed to re-investigate Jessica’s death. The petition quickly gained signatures and was featured in a YouTube video by Kendall Rae about the case. Within 48 hours of the release of the video, DA Williams contacted Jessica’s family and agreed to meet. That August, Williams held a press conference at the corner of Orleans and Kenilworth, where Jessica’s remains had been cruelly and unceremoniously dumped, only to be discovered by her sisters.

At the presser, he referred to Jessica’s death as a homicide for the first time, seeking help and tips from the public. Just a few days earlier, Jessica’s family had finally held her funeral so that family and friends could say a proper goodbye. A month later, thanks to funding provided by Season of Justice, a billboard was erected directing anyone with information about her death to contact Crimestoppers of New Orleans. While the family hopes - perhaps in vain - for increased accountability and a more aggressive investigation by the NOPD, Audrey, Amanda, and the rest of the family have not given up on uncovering the details of how Jessica died and holding someone accountable for her death.

They continue to drive awareness of her case, and with the December 2022 release of the weekly podcast “Undetermined” - which tells the story of Jessica’s suspicious death - it is hoped that her case reaches a wider audience and that somebody, somewhere, holds the key to obtaining justice for Jessica.


Information

  1. Date Missing:August 14, 2019
  2. Date Found:August 22, 2019
  3. Birthday:August 17, 1976
  4. Age at Incident:42

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Jessica and Justin's Home

New Orleans, LA

Home in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans shared by Jessica and Justin Durning.

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