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After more than 24 hours, missing St. Petersburg woman found safe

ST. PETERSBURG — Jennifer Dunford's cell phone was shattered in pieces on the floor. The vacuum cleaner was overturned. A steak was thawing in the sink.

Police said the scene inside her home seemed to indicate a struggle. Dunford, 28, was gone, and it looked like foul play was a possibility.

Just minutes before her disappearance Tuesday night, Dunford had texted her boyfriend to report that she was being followed by an ex-boyfriend. She also had called 911, but the phone had cut off. Neighbors also reported seeing a suspicious lurker in an alley near her home.

Police called in bloodhounds and a helicopter to search. Television trucks camped out at the apartment complex at 1919 Dr. Martin Luther King St. N.

But late Wednesday, authorities called off the search after Dunford was found safe at a relative's home.

"Nobody abducted her, nobody assaulted her," police spokesman Mike Puetz said. "She's fine."

Police didn't release any other details Wednesday night.

But for more than 24 hours, police had considered Dunford's disappearance suspicious.

A call to 911 came from Dunford's cell phone at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, in which operators heard a female voice asking for help before the call was disconnected, police said.

No one saw or heard from Dunford after that. Police said she didn't have access to a car. Her keys and purse were still inside the apartment.

Her boyfriend, Douglas Fowler, told Bay News 9 that at 7:06 p.m., he got a text message from Dunford saying she was being followed by an ex-boyfriend.

He left work early and rushed home. She wasn't there.

Detectives interviewed Fowler and an ex-boyfriend who lives in the area and said both were cooperating. They called hospitals, spoke to neighbors and interviewed Dunford's friends and acquaintances, officials said.

Property manager Dennis Abbott, 37, who lives just a few doors down from the couple, said Dunford signed a one-year lease just a couple of weeks ago.

He said she was always friendly and would frequently stop for small talk — except for Tuesday night. Abbott said that when he saw Dunford return from walking her puppy at about 6:45 p.m., he said hi and waved.

"She didn't say anything back to me," he said. "She seemed nervous. Something was wrong with her."

About 20 minutes earlier, Abbott said he and his wife noticed a man pacing in the alley behind the complex. He only saw the man for a second, and didn't approach him.

Abbott and his wife went down to the police station and picked out a man from a photo lineup. They said police wouldn't tell them who it was or any other information.

Police dogs, a bloodhound from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and a helicopter with a thermal imaging camera were used to search the area. None turned up any trace of Dunford, police said.

Neighbors tried to help, too.

"We all kind of look out for each other," said Suzzanne Ogburn, 57, who has never met Dunford.

As detectives swarmed and searched the other apartments, someone started handing out flashlights. The male residents took off down surrounding alleys and roads to search. They checked garbage bins and bushes. The women stayed behind and prayed.

"Half the complex was down here looking for her," Abbott said early Wednesday evening. "It's been a long night, just wondering and wondering and wondering."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

After more than 24 hours, missing St. Petersburg woman found safe 12/21/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 21, 2011 11:35pm]
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