The 68-year-old homeowner at 1644 South Central Avenue was gone for a few weeks between mid-October and mid-November. Sometime during that span, thieves broke into the house, stole jewelry, tools, family keepsakes and documents, a large sum of rare coins, including Liberty dollars from the 19th century and currency from different countries, and a 2021 Honda CR-V with a Blue Book value of $40,000. The total value of the thefts were estimated at $65,000.
They left a note on a whiteboard in the kitchen: “Sorry,” the note read, “but homeless and struggling Thank you so much and sorry for your loss God Bless.”
The thieves appeared to have taken their time, and their note conflicted with unnecessary, seemingly malicious abandon: they also broke, damaged or soiled different parts of the house, shattering a window, breaking a door, and leaving empty beer cans and bottles on the kitchen counter in an added indignity of the thieves’ impunity: they partied as they pillaged. More than mere homeless people down on their luck, it suggested the arrogance of professional thieves who’d done this before, and got a kick out of it.
And they had: When the Flagler Beach Police Department finally arrested Jesann L. Willis, 35, and Rickley Joshua Senning, 32, the couple was found to be originally from Gaithestburg, Md., and to have gone on a six-state spree of robberies, armed robberies, criminal mischief, grand thefts and other crimes, and to have had a sinister and violent past: Senning had a a few years ago been convicted of assaulting and kidnapping a circuit judge in 2014. She was his ex-girlfriend. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but seven of those years were a suspended sentence. He was involved in another kidnapping just last October in Maryland.
But they weren’t so professional as to make sure not to leave calling cards behind other than their sarcastic note. Fingerprints were lifted from a champagne glass and coffee cups. Those would prove to be key in the investigation. If Willis and Senning imagined they could get away with it because they were targeting a small town, they hadn’t figured on Flagler Beach Police detective Rosanna Vinci–the Florida Police Chief Association’s reigning Officer of the Year in small departments in the state–or Records Clerk Susie Buttner, who together broke the case.
The ransacking of the house on Central Avenue took place in the fall. The police department’s canvas of the neighborhood turned up a resident who said he witnessed a couple between 20 and 30 years old walk west from the rear of the South Central Avenue house. All he could say was that he thought they were white. There were no surveillance cameras. Vinci was assigned the case on Nov. 15. A check with law enforcement about any notable licence plate reader hits turned up nothing. Since the Honda was not reported stolen until well after the theft, it would not have triggered a hit.
On the other hand, Flagler Beach police did, as a result of an LPR hit, locate a stolen 2008 Ford E350 out of Virginia. It had been parked in the 500 block of South Oceanshore Boulevard. Vinci was assigned that case, too. It was Buttner who connected the two cases, according to Flagler Beach Police Chief Matt Doughney. The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office took the vehicle for processing.
On Nov. 24, Vinci spoke with the homeowner, who reported receiving several turnpike violations from Delaware to New York and New Jersey, essentially tracing the route the thieves took with the Honda. Vinci tracked down images of the car from the turnpike authorities. Willis and Senning had attempted to outsmart authorities: they’d located an unassigned tag in the house and replaced the Honda’s tag with the other one. It didn’t stop the investigation from identifying them as they racked up $421 in turnpike violations.
The stolen tag was entered into the stolen vehicle databases across the country, and before long–at 2:34 p.m . on Nov. 24–a license plate reader reported a delayed hit on the tag in Illinois. On Nov. 30, a detective from the Monroeville Police Department contacted Vinci and said the tag was linked to several armed robberies in Pennsylvania, including in Monroeville. But the thieves had not been identified. Willis and Senning were identified as armed and dangerous in subsequent be-on-the-lookout advisories that went nationwide. Meanwhile the Sheriff’s Office’s crime scene investigator and fingerprint analyst had been working on evidence, yielding both fingerprints and images from the stolen vehicvle that had been found on South Oceanshore Boulevard.
Vinci was able to detect a name from an Ohio driver’s license in some of the images: that of Willis. At that point she didn’t know if Willis was a victim or a perpetrator. She ran her name through law enforcement databases. Willis turned up. A lot, So did another name in the same arrest reports: that of Senning. It was becoming almost obvious that the couple worked in tandem. Senning had a warrant out for armed robbery.
In a Dec. 1 conversation with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office in Maryland, Vinci learned that detectives there were searching for the couple in connection with the robberies of a bank and a convenient store. The same afternoon the Volusia County Sheriff’s Jamie Ziehl, a fingerprint analyst who also reviewed evidence, had matched evidence at the South Oceanshore house with prints, identifying both Willis and Senning. The case was made. The home owner of course knew nothing of the two.
Vinci was able to reconstruct the couple’s spree. It began on Nov. 2 in Rockville Md., then at Mary Washington University, where the Ford truck was stolen. The truck was recovered in Flagler Beach four days later. The burglary at the house took place sometime between Nov. 6 and 8. By Nov. 9, the Honda was picked up running tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike.
The couple was arrested the evening of Dec. 2 in Washington, D.C. By then the investigation had involved detectives, investigator and law enforcement agents from Georgia,
Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
By the morning of Dec. 8, Doughney, the Flagler Beach police chief said in a release, the suspects had “confessed to all crimes committed in Flagler Beach, and have additionally confessed to” three armed robberies, numerous armed robberies to jewelry stores, convenience stores, gas stations and hotels in various states on the East Coast, and may yet face additional charges.
For all their violence it was a sensational exaggeration when Doughney, in his release to media, compared the couple to a “Modern Day ‘Bonnie & Clyde'”–Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow–who, with their gang in Depression-era America, murdered at least 13 people, nine of them law enforcement officers, as they robbed their way through the Central United States. A 1967 movie starring Warren Beatty, rich in historical inaccuracies, glamorized the couple’s remorseless and often cowardly murder spree that a crime reporter for the Daily news more accurately referred to as “a pair of human rats with no more decent traits than any rat would have.”
Locally, and if they ever make it this far south before other convictions and prisons claim them, Willis and Senning face charges comparatively lighter than those they do further north: a second-degree felony charge of burglary, and three third-degree felony charges of grand theft and criminal mischief. The case’s local significance may end up having more to do with the detailed investigative skills behind it, which led to its clearance, than its disposition in court.
“This entire case is a prime example of Law Enforcement professionals, both sworn and civilian, from multiple agencies, in multiple states, focused on catching criminals,” Doughney said in the release. “Simply put, this case is about ‘Working Hard, Working Smart and Working Together’ and I couldn’t be prouder of this collaborative effort.”