Finding my mother
Searching for answers about who she was and where her body might be
On Halloween night, 1983, Nancy Penner’s friend invited her to celebrate. Nancy didn’t show. Weeks later, her brother called to invite her to Thanksgiving. He couldn’t reach her. As Christmas neared with no word from Nancy, a missing-persons report was filed.
I was 4 at the time. Today, my mother is still missing.
Over the past few months, however, thanks to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office and some compassionate women at the Victim/Witness program, more people care about bringing Nancy’s story to a conclusion now than ever.
Is she still alive, you might ask? Considering a consensus by her friends and even her foes that she would never abandon her children—Yana Jeffries, my half-sister; and Omar, my name as a child—no, I don’t believe so.
Her remains are thought to be somewhere in the Sierra Nevada foothills surrounding Paradise or Cohasset. I’ve known this for decades. What I’ve not known is who my mother was, or who Jeff Jeffries was, aside from the fact that he was suspected of her murder.
The search for answers began four months ago.
While acting in the Chico Cabaret production of Masquerade at the Moulin Rouge, a story about a man whose life was about to be shattered, I had a good old-fashioned meltdown of my own. Unlike the character in the play, however, I went to therapy.
I sat with Rebecca Lenahan, a marriage and family counselor, in her downtown Chico office experiencing an upwelling of intense fear. Nancy’s story soon surfaced.
“When I was 4, I saw my mother shot,” I said. “She ran out of the house and that’s about all I remember.”
The memory might as well have been a dream. To Lenahan, however, it marked the beginning of a very real journey.
“This is very old material you’d been called to unearth,” Lenahan said. “It hadn’t reached an emotional level for you.”
Coincidentally, I’d recently chosen to go back to my birth name, Omar, which I’d changed to Daniel when I was adopted after Nancy disappeared. It seemed Omar was back in more ways than one.
“Have you heard of a program called Victim/Witness?” Lenahan asked, handing me a phone number to close our session.
Victim/Witness helps victims of, or witnesses to, any crime with a threat of violence. Victim/Witness’ benefits include aiding with the trial process, funeral costs, and monetary compensations—in my case, therapy.
I spoke to Van Woods, a hopeful and helpful Victim/Witness advocate who said the first step, especially on a case as old as Nancy’s, was to get proof there had been a crime.
A couple of calls and bingo: Butte County Sheriff’s case #C83-18738. All my life I’d wondered so much, and there’d been a file sitting in Oroville the whole time.
Curious as to what that report contained, I called the sheriff, leaving an embarrassingly eager message. I suspected the deputies had better things to do than dust off a 27-year-old file, which they did, but before long I got a call from Detective Dan Angel and we set up an interview.
I was thrilled. Maybe I’d get some answers to some old questions, like what happened to Jeff, and some new ones, like—because my car wasn’t available—how would I get to Oroville?
“I’ll pick you up,” Angel said. “Give me 25.”
I was pretty sure he meant minutes, and not dollars for gas.
As we drove, Angel listed some of his qualifications: Marine sniper, SWAT-team member, reconstructor of underwater crime scenes, and, until this October when his five-year tenure as detective ended, head of the Sheriff’s Office’s missing-person’s division’s alarming 121 cases.
“I have five guys in my bureau,” he said, letting me do the math.
Angel led me into a “hard” interview room, apologizing that the “soft” room was being remodeled. He started a recorder and placed a three-quarter-inch thick file between us, but before opening it he asked me to tell him what I knew.
OK, Nancy Ann Penner was my and my half-sister Yana’s mother. Yana’s father was Jeff Jeffries. I’ve never known my birth father. Jeff was supposedly an ex-Navy Seal. He and Nancy grew pot and lived in Paradise.
My last memory of my mother was one night when Jeff for some reason had his arm behind the toilet. Yana was crying. Then Jeff was shooting at Nancy. She ran out of the house holding her arm and I never saw her again.
Not long after, Jeff flew with Yana and me to Hawaii. He eventually flew us all back and dropped me with family, disappearing with Yana. I was adopted and lived a fairly normal life in Durham.
Opening the file, Angel said that everything I had stated was “spot on” with what was inside.
He said detectives found a bullet lodged in the bathroom cabinet at Nancy and Jeff’s Paradise residence, and on Dec. 22, 1983, three days after a missing-person report was filed for Nancy, Jeff Jeffries, Yana Jeffries and Omar Penner departed the Chico airport headed for Kona, Hawaii.
“That would have been Nancy’s birthday,” I said absently. “What happened to Jeff?”
I’d always heard Jeff died, but there are many stories of how: that he’d gotten his face blown off, that he’d died in prison, or that he’d been dumped on an FBI lawn, shot and wrapped in plastic with drugs stuffed in his mouth.
“Jeff took his own life,” Angel said, watching me.
He shot himself in the heart with a .22-caliber handgun on Sept. 28, 1986, in West Plains, Mo., Angel continued, adding that Jeff had left a note citing a breakup with a woman.
A woman? Was it Nancy, I wondered?
Angel said he could see a weight had been lifted in me.
He was right. Suicide made Jeff forgivable, at least to me. He’d always been the bad guy in my story, though Yana—whom I reconnected with in the 1990s—speaks of him as a caring father. I realized how little I knew about this man Jeff Jeffries.
“Hmm, ‘check mine shafts,’ ” Angel read from the report.
“Oh,” I remembered. “Supposedly Jeff owned some remote property up past Cohasset. Some of Nancy’s family thinks she might be in an abandoned mine shaft up there.”
I asked who had last worked the case.
Detective Perry Reniff, Angel said, incidentally the best investigator he’d ever met.
It appeared Reniff, who recently retired as sheriff, hadn’t known about the property, so why did he write ‘check mine shafts,’ I wondered. And did anyone ever do that?
I told Angel I didn’t really know if the property existed, but he said any lead in a case this stale is significant.
“We’re on a new road, you and law enforcement, to solving this case,” Angel said, handing me his personal phone number.
He said we’d do a DNA test on me soon, and if Nancy’s unidentified remains had ever turned up anywhere in the country, they’d pop up.
I left Angel to his other 120 cases. In the meantime I had to talk to Reniff, who I learned was a local legend in the field of missing persons. Ironically, right then he was nowhere to be found.
I was about to move to Portland, Ore., at this time. So when Victim/Witness called me into the Chico police station for an application interview, I arrived in a stuffed 16-foot Penske truck.
After the swift application process, Victim/Witness advocate Shelly Miller sent me away to await the state’s response. With that, I drove the 500 miles north to Portland, leaving behind some major unfinished business.
“Why are you doing this?” many people have asked me.
It’s been a tough question to answer, but I was starting to realize it wasn’t really about finding Nancy’s remains. I was starting to discover that sharing Nancy’s story with Victim/Witness and Detective Angel had made her more real to me. The truth is I’ve always wanted to care about Nancy more than I actually did. I don’t remember her, so how could I love her? And by that rationale, I don’t remember Jeff, so how could I hate him? This was becoming a discovery of feelings through the gathering of facts.
When I picture my mother, I think of Jenny from Forrest Gump. In Nancy’s younger years she was blonde, beautiful and feisty. As life wore on, her hair darkened, and her feistiness seemed to sour to anger. She drank, smoked, and toward the end had a strong cocaine habit. The assumption behind my memory of Jeff with his hand behind a toilet is that Nancy flushed his drugs because she was trying to “dry up her habit,” as was stated in the case report.
I’d just turned 31, and let me tell you, it’s a strange feeling knowing you’re older than your mother ever was. Now, hundreds of miles north, wondering if Angel was finding time to do some legwork, I reviewed what I knew.
In 1995, Yana and I were reunited as teenagers. I learned then that after leaving me in California, Jeff and Yana had continued to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he left Yana with his stepsister Deb Wernimont.
I tracked Wernimont down on Facebook. She asked to not be quoted about Jeff’s alleged suicide but said that he indeed had been a Navy Seal and had fought in Vietnam. (The National Archives confirmed that he did serve, from 1970-74.) Wernimont said she’d sometimes have to wake Jeff from reliving his war experience in his dreams.
When asked about Nancy’s disappearance, she reflected that Jeff said he had come home one day, there was blood in the house, and Nancy was gone—that’s it.
She then gave me the number of their stepmother, Carolyn, the one who identified Jeff’s remains. I made the call.
The straight-shooting Midwestern woman recalled that once, while babysitting 3-year-old Yana, they went to see some fireworks. She said Yana covered her ears at the popping sound and “screamed bloody murder.” Carolyn believed this to be evidence that Yana had witnessed gunshots.
On a roll now, I checked in with Victim/Witness and got a funny-you-called response. My case had just been accepted by the state. Within hours my therapist was notified and a check for $720 was in the mail. So, with funding and some reporting to do, I hopped a train back to Chico.
Almost as I arrived I got a call from Detective Angel. I laughed when he told me he was in Oregon, but not at the reason why. He was recovering from surgery due to an injury during a training accident. The two months he had remaining until he rotated back down to deputy would be spent laid up in a cabin.
After a wave of disappointment, I asked Angel how much investigating I could realistically do on my own.
“I deal with family in cold cases that do just as much work if not more than me, which in my personal opinion is the only way law enforcement can function,” he said. “By no means do I mean putting yourself in harm’s way. Your mom’s gone; why put yourself in the position to join her?”
With that, off-duty Angel lined up the DNA test at the Sheriff’s Office, which was perfect; while in Oroville I could visit the Butte County Recorder’s Office to look for Jeff’s mysterious property.
After sifting through thousands of microfiche, I came up only with Jeff’s discharge papers, no property. However, while researching a map, I noticed the Butte County line was just a few miles past Cohasset; then Tehama County began. A quick call to the Tehama County recorder, whose computer records go back to the ’70s (sparing me a microfiche adventure in Red Bluff), and the unbelievable surfaced.
It was a 160-acre property bordering the Ishi Wilderness Area 18 miles northeast of Chico as the crow flies, owned not only by Jeff, but Nancy, too, and a Floyd E. Green. A few phone calls, and there he was—he’s a teacher in Corning.
“Are you Omar?” Green asked. “I remember you. You had blond hair.”
Green still owns the land and said Nancy used to pack me up there while Jeff, she and I actually lived on the property for about six months. He stated—to my amazement—that there were still cans lying around their camp.
“Are there mine shafts there?” I asked.
He said there weren’t. Good news, but it stopped there. Green said he seriously doubted that Jeff would have taken Nancy’s remains up there.
“It’s rough,” he said. “Man, it’s rough. I’ve covered every foot. Used to be you had to take a horse in.”
Nancy had owned a horse.
Green said it was funny I called because for the last 30 years he’s been building a three-mile road into the property, which is 20 feet from being done.
I called Angel with the news.
“In the criminal investigator world, you go out kicking rocks,” he said. “You kicked the right rock.”
I met Reniff at a spot overlooking the Feather River. He’d just returned from vacation. Despite that, and being retired, this lawman of 38 years said that, while enjoying his trip, he’d popped in on a suspect from a 30-year-old case—apparently he still works some, despite being retired.
“Regardless of how old the case is, it’s extremely important you work it,” he said while perusing my notes on Nancy’s case. “It lets that person know you haven’t given up.”
He remembered working the case right away, so I asked him why he’d written, “Check mine shafts.”
“It’s always on the to-do list,” he said. “In Butte County, with missing persons, any time it comes to foul play it almost always comes to a mine shaft.”
I was curious if anybody had ever followed through with that. He said probably not, that the shafts are dangerous, often inconclusive and expensive to look in.
He said when Jeff came up dead, that pretty much closed the case on Nancy.
The feeling I got from Reniff, though he didn’t say it, was that her body could be absolutely anywhere and that further search was simply not the best use of the department’s time, then or now. And this hard truth came from a man who understood what drove me, that until I knew everything, I couldn’t stop.
“It’s so basic it’s unbelievable, Dan,” he said. “That’s your mother.”
Ironically, I reached a sort of conclusion there, looking out at the Feather River after Reniff left, and if nothing else, it’s poetic. If this tenacious, deeply caring lawman with an absolute knack for solving cases still had time and resources to do so and didn’t feel it was worth it, there probably wasn’t much more to be done.
But one question remained, one I saw very little discussion about in the case report. What really happened in that bathroom?
I’ve not had the chance to discuss this with either Angel or Reniff, but cold-blooded murder seems really just an assumption, one story. Was it possible that Nancy’s death was an accident? It was time for the tough questions.
Sources who knew Nancy personally said she had a temper, that she was “pissed off” and even got in bar fights. According to her own brother she’d shot out the tires on Jeff’s truck once. Floyd Green even said she had a nickname, “Nancy the Knife,” given to her after she once went after a boyfriend with a blade.
Perhaps Nancy flushed Jeff’s drugs, he flew off the handle, Nancy got scared, got a gun (which she was obviously capable of) and there was a struggle. Jeff could even have killed her in self defense. Since Jeff grew pot at the house and probably had cocaine in his blood, he had a motive to avoid telling the police.
He could have packed Nancy across town and up to the remote property and laid her to rest even with some measure of love. Or maybe he took her to someplace in Paradise’s Feather River Canyon and disposed of her there. Maybe he despised every minute of it. After all, three years later he took his own life, citing a breakup with a woman.
I know this could be far from the truth, but if Reniff, seemingly the best detective the county has ever seen, couldn’t figure out what had happened, why should my mind be set on cold-blooded murder?
I decided that rather than choosing to think of Jeff as the villain, I’d instead think of him as the guy I see in the pictures I have of him, in Yana’s stories of him before he took his life: that at the very least, he loved me and Yana.
My conclusion to Nancy’s story, I admit, is a little more complicated. Search and Rescue has agreed to look over the property for Nancy’s remains, using the challenge as a training exercise if nothing else. And Victim/Witness is working with the state to pay for her funeral despite not having any remains.
Regarding those remains, yeah I want to find them, but in the meantime, which might be the rest of my life, I’m finding what remains of her.
In December, Green has agreed to take me and Yana up to Nancy’s old property to go camping, fulfilling in a small way her dream to raise us there.
With that, a new story begins. I’m back up north, making a slower transition into the name Omar. And incredibly, via a little P.I. work and inspired by the investigation of Nancy’s death, I found my birth father alive and well and spoke to him for the first time. He and Nancy were high school sweethearts, and I’m excited to learn what else he can tell me about her.
My wife and I fly to Los Angeles to meet him the day this article comes out.