SEARSBURG — When police announced in mid-September that the remains of a woman found in a gravel pit here died from a homicide, it had been 3-1/2 years since Bennington County had seen a homicide.
The victim was identified as Jessica Hildenbrandt, 43, a New York resident who’d spent a significant time in Bennington County. Authorities don’t yet know when, where or how she was killed. But they’ve determined it involved foul play.
On Sept. 17, 2019, someone out and about in the abandoned gravel pit — the area attracts hikers and campers — apparently stumbled upon what looked like the remains of a human jawbone. Vermont State Police were called to investigate, and they reported discovering more human remains at the site.
It took state police almost a year to identify Hildenbrandt, a process that involved DNA analysis, said Detective Lt. John-Paul Schmidt of the VSP Major Crime Unit.
“There are many factors that impact that turnaround,” he said, “unfortunately real life forensics only vaguely resembles how it is depicted on television and in the movies.”
Although Hildenbrandt was a resident of Ballston Spa, N.Y., Schmidt said she had some “close connections” throughout Vermont, particularly in Bennington County. Ballston Spa is about 45 miles west of Bennington.
Whether investigators believe Hildenbrandt knew her killer was among the details the detective declined to discuss, citing the need to preserve the integrity of the investigation.
State police said they told the public she was a homicide victim once doing so wouldn’t harm their investigation. “Once we were in a position to safely do that and not damage some of the steps we’re already taking,” Schmidt said.
BENNINGTON COUNTY HOMICIDESHildenbrandt is the first known homicide victim in Bennington County since January 2017, when 81-year-old Helen Jones was fatally stabbed at her home in Arlington.
Timothy Butler, a Sunderland man who’d done yard work and odd jobs for Jones, pleaded guilty to killing Jones on the same night he burglarized her home. Butler, 35, is serving a prison sentence of 30 years to life for second-degree murder.
There have been seven other homicides in the county since 2010, according to Vermont death records, but Hildenbrandt’s is the only one among them in which police don’t know where she was killed.
Within the past 10 years in Vermont, only three other killings took place in unknown locations.
Hildenbrandt’s remains were disposed of in an old gravel pit, located off Somerset Road and not far from the Searsburg Reservoir. One afternoon in early October, the gravel pit was partly filled with water and was dotted with pieces of worn out tires, a wheel rim caked with rust and what appeared to be the plastic back cover of a television set.
“I’ve been with the VSP for 21 years, I don’t remember ever seeing anything like that in Bennington County,” Schmidt said of how Hildenbrandt’s remains were found. “It’s a relatively rare event, especially for Vermont.”
It’s not uncommon for perpetrators to hide, discard or destroy the bodies of their victims in an effort not to get caught, he said. “It takes a certain mindset to devalue a human life and do these kind of things, and that is something we consider in investigations.”
MOTHER, DAUGHTER, SISTERHildenbrandt was also known as Jessica Bidot and “Red.” Her obituary describes her as someone who loved to spend time with family and friends at The Great Sacandaga Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. Her survivors include a son, her mom, dad, stepmom and brother.
She used to do office work in the automotive industry, according to her death certificate.
Police said she was last in touch with family in July of 2019, the month before her remains were discovered. Her last Facebook post was made on July 7, 2019.
Since state police began asking for public assistance on Hildenbrandt’s case in September, they said some people have gotten in touch to offer information. Investigators are continuing to look for leads.
“We’re always looking for people to talk to us,” Schmidt said. “If they have information, we’d love to hear from them.”