December 9, 2019 | By Paola Castillo-Malave
This story is part of a collaborative project between Project: Cold Case and a University of North Florida Journalism class. The student credited above wrote this story as a class project.
Jessica Shane Lankford loved her children and going to the beach. She had dreams of being a backup dancer.
Jessica spent most of her life living in sunny Daytona Beach, no matter how many times her sister Melissa tried to get her to move back home to Alabama.
Daytona felt like home.
When the sisters lived together in Daytona, going to the beach to watch the sun rise and set while talking about their dreams was their favorite activity.
Those happy memories ended on September 9, 2008, when Jessica died after two cars hit her as she was walking across the street. She was 39 years old.
Her hit-and-run death has never been solved and Melissa still thinks about the injustice every single day. “The hardest part is all the unanswered questions,” she said. “She was someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, and someone’s mother. No one deserves to die like that and just be forgotten.”
Jessica Lankford was born on January 7, 1969, in Leakesville, Mississippi. The youngest of four kids, Jessica was known as the baby of the family. When she was a year old, her parents divorced, splitting up the family. But she and Melissa remained close.
When she turned 18, Jessica moved to Daytona Beach. She loved spending ever day close to the sea.
As a young woman, Jessica underwent hip replacement surgery due to a rare degenerative disease. Afterwards, she felt heartbroken, knowing her dream of being a dancer would never come true. The realization led her to a downward spiral and she became addicted to drugs.
“Our family didn’t agree with the lifestyle she lived, so they weren’t as close to her as I was,” Melissa recalled. But Melissa never stopped loving her sister or reaching out. “That’s my baby sister,” she cried.
In the early morning hours on September 9, 2008, Jessica was crossing Nova Road on foot, heading west near LPGA Boulevard in Holly Hill, Florida. As she stepped in the street, she was struck by one vehicle. Then run over by another.
Melissa received the call from her mother with the news of Jessica’s death. That was the worst day of her life, she says.
Just the day before, Jessica had called. Melissa didn’t answer. A voicemail was left just letting her sister know that she had gotten a new phone.
“If I could go back in time and answer the phone, I would,” Melissa said. “She’s gone.”
There continue to be a lot of unanswered questions over Jessica’s death. Witnesses say they saw her arguing with a man the day of her death. They say she didn’t look scared or trying to run away from him. Running would have been difficult since Jessica now had both hips replaced.
Jessica’s car was found two blocks from the scene, but, according to the family, it was never processed for evidence. Instead, it was cleaned and taken to the dealership, supposedly by an older man with whom she was close.
Over a decade since the incident, Jessica’s belongings are still at the police station as well, due to the case being open. Melissa was told that the case had been classified as a cold case, creating more confusion for the family.
Every year, on Jessica’s birthday and the anniversary of her death, Melissa goes to the beach and lays flowers down in the sand in memory of her sister. The beach was their special place, where all their memories were sweet and full of love and laughter.
It’s the one place she feels closest to Jessica. It’s a tradition she intends to keep.
Melissa wrote a poem about Jessica and their love of the beach. She read it at Jessica’s memorial service on the beach in Daytona.
It’s called “Sand and Sea:”
The most beautiful sound in the world,
made just for us sister girls.
I’ll always feel you in the sand and sea,
Waiting there patiently for me….
In the beautiful sand and sea!!
If you have any information on the unsolved murder of Jessica Lankford, please call the Holly Hill Police Department at (386) 248-9475.
Research and Impact
One of the more common themes Project: Cold Case addresses when offering services to families impacted by a cold case homicide is the family’s acceptance, as well as interpretation, of the terminology.
For many, “Cold Case” conjures images and connectivity to popular entertainment and social trends. Yet, for the family impacted with a traumatic homicide that eventually is labeled as a “cold case,” the need to understand and accept the varying usage of the term by investigative agencies can be confusing.
Oftentimes, the impression of a case being labeled as a “cold case” can imply that not enough was done by those responsible to investigate.
While Project: Cold Case works to educate families on the term “cold case,” the need for further explanation is evident. To date, there is no universal definition for “cold case” or which case qualifies for the distinction.
The National Sheriffs’ Association cautions the use of the term from law enforcement officials, acknowledging that the word could be insensitive for survivors. The add that the lack of collective acceptance from law enforcement in how many years should elapse before a case is considered “cold case” also causes confusion and pain.
For Project: Cold Case, we work towards ensuring that the public is informed on cold case homicides by generating public engagement for those lost. Our Faces of Unsolved Homicides campaign includes a picture of the loved one, the city, and date of death.
For a family to submit their loved one for consideration, our criteria states that a year must have elapsed since the murder, allowing law enforcement opportunity to investigate.
Please consider using the buttons below to share this case in hopes that someone, somewhere will come forward and give this victim and family the answers they need and justice they deserve.
If you have a loved one that is the victim of an unsolved homicide, please submit their case here for consideration in a future Cold Case Spotlight post.