Strip Search

Jennifer Marcum's path ends and begins at Shotgun Willie's.

Nobody wants to talk about Jennifer Marcum. Not the girls who stripped with her at Shotgun Willie's. Not the man with whom she was living. Not the men she may have testified against. Not the father of her child. Not her incarcerated ex-boyfriend, who was the last man to see her alive.

No one except her father and mother.

Marcum has been missing for more than three years; if she's alive, she turned 29 in June.

The cold case is nearly frozen, but Marcum's father, Bob, is still pressing on. He pulled together $20,000 for a reward, and on Thursday, June 29, he'll unveil a billboard high above Shotgun's that features his daughter's face and asks: "Jennifer, where are you?"

Jennifer Marcum was born in Denver but grew up in Springfield, Illinois. She dropped out of high school, got married in 1996 and moved back to Colorado with her military husband. The couple later divorced, and Marcum got involved with another man, with whom she had a son in 1997. That relationship didn't last, either, and in 1999 Marcum started stripping at Shotgun's so she could make enough money to provide for her son.

She also got involved with Steven Ennis, whom the Drug Enforcement Administration was monitoring. In December 2001, the two were on one of their frequent trips to New York, where Marcum also stripped under the name Francesca and Ennis met up with associates from his ecstasy business. On this trip, the man he used was wearing a wire.

Ennis was taped saying that he needed to flee the country because he thought he was being investigated. He was right: Federal court records show that thirteen phones related to his ecstasy ring were tapped at the time. Ennis said he hoped to go to Amsterdam, where 80,000 bought-and-paid-for ecstasy pills were awaiting his arrival.

DEA agents had first caught on to Ennis a few months earlier, after one of his drug mules, Ed Gleason, got popped coming into the country with 18,000 hits of ecstasy. Gleason told authorities that he'd stuffed about 6,000 pills under his clothes the first few times he made the run from Amsterdam to Denver, adding a few thousand more each additional time. Ennis had then distributed the drugs in Denver and in New York, he explained.

Ennis was arrested, and authorities found $60,000 in his storage locker after they'd already found $20,000 and 18,000 tabs of ecstasy in Gleason's possession, along with several firearms. The DEA's investigation concluded that Ennis had moved at least 350,000 pills and made at least $500,000. Ennis pleaded guilty and was sentenced to ten years in prison in October 2002.

In December that year, Marcum's mother, Mary Willis, received a phone call from her daughter, who was crying hysterically. Marcum told her that she'd gone from stripping to prostitution and had been beaten up along the way.

"She just wanted to keep talking to me, and she just kept crying hysterically," remembers Willis, who wanted to call the police but couldn't get her daughter to say where she was. "Whoever she was with, whoever had a hold on her, she couldn't leave, I don't know if they had her drugged up or if she had herself drugged up, but she couldn't leave."

When they next heard from her, Marcum was couch-surfing, spending time at her baby's daddy's house -- where her son was now living -- and friends' places in Denver. In February 2003 she landed in the Lakewood apartment of an acquaintance, Scott Kimball, who had recently been released from prison.

Marcum's parents called her cell phone in February, April and May, but they never heard back from their daughter. They assumed that she didn't want to talk. "She changed her phone before when she didn't want to talk to somebody, but she'd call you eventually," Bob Marcum says. "One time she had two phones at the same time. She'd decide which one she was going to answer and when."

But when Marcum's phone was no longer in service at the end of May, her parents grew concerned. They talked to some neighborhood police that they know, but didn't pursue any other action. A year later, they were still wondering if maybe their daughter just didn't want to talk, but they decided to ask the police if she was in prison.

The cops concluded that wherever Marcum was, it wasn't prison.

The day after they got that news, Marcum's parents say, they received a call from an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, telling them that their daughter's car had been found more than a year before. The FBI wouldn't explain why so much time had passed before they contacted the family, saying only that the agent who originally opened the investigation is no longer with the Denver office. But the car, which was registered to the father of Marcum's child, had sat in the impound lot for some time and had gone through forensic testing.

"Essentially, she dropped off the face of the earth on February 17," says FBI special agent Nick Vanicelli, who is now handling the case.

Although Marcum never appeared in court and was never subpoenaed, she was a potential witness in the DEA's case against Ennis and a couple of his ecstasy associates, Vanicelli says. Her disappearance could be related to prostitution, it could be random, or it could have been a way to prevent her from testifying, which is why the FBI is handling the missing-persons case. So far the agency has chased down 199 leads, but they have no suspect, and without a body, Vanicelli says there's no murder case.

The FBI set up a meeting between Marcum's parents and Kimball, who said he saw her on the day she disappeared. They say he told them that she'd had a suitcase with her and was leaving for the airport, but he didn't know where she was going. Kimball, who is back in prison, refused Westword's request for an interview.

Ennis also refused an interview with Westword, but prison records show that Marcum visited him often, including on the day she disappeared. Guards told the FBI that she'd had an altercation with Ennis that day, and that the visiting room had to be evacuated. Although her car was found at the airport, there is no record of Marcum's ever having gotten on a plane.

With all of their leads dead-ending, the Marcums turned to Families of Homicide Victims & Missing Persons, a Colorado-based nonprofit started by Howard Morton, whose eldest child went missing in 1975. In 1996, Morton put together a poster of 71 murder victims and saw that 30 percent were unsolved. Five years later, he started the organization with sixteen victims on the roster. It's since grown to 243, including Marcum.

The group's mission is to find, support and empower families and friends suffering from a loved one's unsolved murder or longtime disappearance. The nonprofit has worked with a criminology class at the University of Colorado at Boulder to document more than 1,200 unsolved homicides in Colorado. It also helped secure the new billboard featuring Marcum's smiling face.

"I don't care if Jennifer was involved in drugs, and I know that she was, and I don't care if Jennifer was somebody's whore, and I know that she was. Nobody deserves to be murdered," says the 75-year-old Morton. "There's guilt in all of us that have lost a child."

But Marcum's parents are still hoping the real guilty party will be brought to justice.

"Jennifer fell through the cracks; she wasn't important enough. She was a dancer, she was an escort -- she wasn't important enough, and I don't think the FBI cared, period," Marcum's mother says. "It's all got to do with drugs and money."

Bob Marcum struggles with whether or not he should even be looking for his daughter, because if she's alive, she may be safer if she's not found. "I keep hoping and praying -- that's about all I can say," he concludes.

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