The Disappearance of April Dawn Pennington (Connecticut)

When a 15-year-old girl snuck out of her bedroom window one night in May of 1996, it was like she vanished right into thin air with no leads. Years later, unsealed court documents revealed that police had a theory and a suspect from the earliest days of the case, but it would take over a decade to build a case strong enough for an arrest.

May 27, 1996

It was the evening of May 29, 1996 and 15-year-old April Dawn Pennington sat down for a dinner of sandwiches with her mother, Hazel, her father, Walter, and April’s grandmother at the Pennington family home on Orchard Drive in Montville, Connecticut. It was almost the end of the school year for April, who was finishing up her freshman year at Montville High School, and one of her younger brothers was graduating from elementary school that very night. After dinner the whole family was going to attend the ceremony… whether April liked it or not.

According to reporting by Ethan Rouen for The Day, April had complained about not wanting to go, but Walter quashed the conversation quickly. She didn’t have a choice in the matter. Despite her apparent displeasure with her father’s final ruling on the subject, Hazel remembers that April was actually in a pretty good mood that night. Once they finished supper, the Pennington family loaded up for an evening of celebration in honor of one of its youngest members.

When they finally got back home around 9:30 p.m. Hazel and Walter kissed their kids goodnight before turning their attention to the lingering household tasks. Hazel sat up in the kitchen paying bills for a while before checking on her children one more time. When she peeked into April’s bedroom, she could see the covers pulled up and April seemingly sound asleep in her bed.

Around 5:30 a.m. Hazel started the morning round-up, rushing through her own morning routine so that her kids would make the 6:10 bus in time for school. But as Hazel threw back the blankets and sheets on April’s bed, she froze on the spot. The silhouette she saw under the covers the night before turned out to be a haphazard heap of stuffed animals. She looked around the room to see that a window was left open but it wasn’t the breeze that gave Hazel a chill…Her daughter April was gone.

About April Pennington & Family

April was a good kid, albeit a good kid who was beginning a phase in her adolescence that some might describe as rebellious. The Penningtons moved frequently since Walter was in the Navy, which left April to start over making new friends in a new place, but she truly blossomed as she entered high school in Montville. She made close friends and had a boyfriend and spent hours on the phone talking to all of them.

With the new and exciting social scene she was part of, April seemed to lose focus when it came to her academics. In January of 1995, she came home with a bad report card which sparked an argument with her mother. In the heat of their disagreement, Hazel ripped the phone from the wall. No more long phone calls for April…But it was around this same time that her parents think April started sneaking out of the house.

When Hazel realized April wasn’t in her room that morning, a number of scenarios ran through her mind. Maybe she was out with friends or maybe she was upset about something. She and her boyfriend had recently broken up. No matter the reason April left though, she hadn’t come back yet and that had Hazel and Walter immediately concerned. They called Montville Police to report their daughter missing.

Early Investigation

Karen Florin reports for The Day that when Montville Police Corporal Scott Davis arrived at the Pennington house, he believed he might be dealing with a pretty common scenario of: teen sneaks out, teen turns up at a friend’s house later that day, teen gets grounded or whatever other consequences their parents have waiting for them back at home.

Hazel directed Officer Davis to April’s bedroom in the basement for him to take a look around. I think the word “basement” conjures up a dark, dungeon-y scene, but their home was built into the backside of a hill which meant they had a daylight, walk-out basement with standard-size ground level windows and an exterior door that led to the backyard. Officer Davis glanced around the room, making note of the open window and the stuffed animals lined up in a human-shape on the bed. April’s parents said nothing seemed to be missing from the room, except maybe a backpack and coat.

David interviewed Hazel and Walter about the last few days, likely asking about April’s mood, if there had been any arguments, if she was upset about anything that would make her leave home or if they’d caught wind of any parties or social events that she’d want to attend, but knew they wouldn’t let her go if she asked. April’s parents told the officer that April and her boyfriend had recently broken up, but other than that, things were pretty typical with April and they didn’t have any big fights or anything like that to report. Although the phone rang several times the night before with calls for April, that was also pretty typical.

Leaving the Pennington home, Officer Davis made a call to Montville High School to see if April went to class that day, but attendance records showed she was absent. Police also checked April’s locker at school to see if that contained any clues to her intended destination when she left that night. But there was nothing helpful there – the only contents were a backpack and coat, the same ones April’s parents thought she might have taken with her. It meant April left home with no bag, no clothing, and no money. Other than the open window and pile of stuffed animals, April left no trace either.

It was quickly becoming clear that this was not the common and benign scenario Officer Davis thought he’d be dealing with that day. He issued a teletype alert with the missing persons report while Hazel and Walter waited for their daughter to return home. But she didn’t show up that night, or over the weekend. The first few agonizing days left both her parents and local law enforcement worried for April’s safety.

Montville Police interviewed the Penningtons several more times during the early investigation, trying to glean additional details about what their daughter could’ve been planning that night when she slipped out the window undetected. Officer Davis returned to April’s bedroom and collected several items, including a few handwritten notes and poems. He also checked the caller ID for the night of May 29. Reports state that at least five calls came in from the same person on the night April disappeared; a classmate of April’s named Patrick Allain, who went by P.J. Officer Davis tried reaching out to P.J. but couldn’t seem to track him down at first.

About a week into the search for April, on June 5, Hazel got a call from a woman who said her granddaughter knew where April was hiding out and she said that April would call or show up or somehow be in touch that coming weekend. When police went to talk to the girl, she admitted it was just a prank. She didn’t actually know where April was.

A few days later on June 8, the phone started ringing again at the Pennington household and when Hazel picked up the receiver an operator announced it was a collect call from someone named April. She quickly accepted the charges only for the line to go dead before ever hearing a voice on the other end. Police couldn’t trace where the call came from and it was assumed to be another cruel prank.

Between the hoax phone calls, Montville police followed up on reported sightings. One tip said April was hanging around Howard T. Brown in nearby Norwich, so police conducted surveillance there. They never saw April, though. As conversations with April’s friends and classmates continued, police learned that there may have been a party April was trying to attend on the night she disappeared, but the details were nebulous and didn’t turn into any real leads as to her whereabouts.

Based on the news coverage during the first few weeks of the case, April was regarded as a runaway. There wasn’t any talk, at least not publicly, about anything nefarious or suspicious about April’s disappearance.

But as the days dragged on without any legitimate tips or sightings, police began to consider other scenarios, including the possibility that April could have harmed herself. The letters that Officer Davis found in April’s room seemed to suggest that she was very upset about the breakup from her boyfriend and a friend would later say that April once talked about taking her own life if that relationship ever ended. But there was no evidence to suggest that was what happened.

Montville Police stayed on the case for about three months until it was turned over to Connecticut State Police. I don’t know exactly why the investigation became a state police case when it did, but reporting by Karen Florin in The Day suggests it was a matter of resources. In the months following the change of hands, police searched the woods and waterways surrounding Montville and neighboring towns, they used search dogs and boats to perform detailed surveys of secluded areas where someone might hide, or be hidden. Reports of sightings continued, but again, none panned out.

There was little left for police to follow. Leads in April’s case dried up. From an outside view, progress seemed to screech to a halt. That is, until several years later when Hazel called a long lost family friend… And what she told Hazel tilted her world completely upside down.

April’s story continues on Dark Downeast. Press play to hear the full episode wherever you get your podcasts.

Episode Source Material

  • State v. Leniart, Appellate Court of Connecticut, June 14, 2016
  • State v. Leniart, Supreme Court of Connecticut, September 10, 2019
  • State v. Leniart, Court of Appeals of the State of Connecticut, June 30, 2020
  • Uncasville girl, 15, missing since Wednesday, The Day, 01 Jun 1996
  • No sign of Montville runaway after 3 weeks, The Day, 19 Jun 1996
  • State police looking for tips on 4 unresolved cases by Tracy Gordon Fox, Hartford Courant, 19 Dec 2002
  • Montville girl’s family predicts no happy end by Adam Bowles, Norwich Bulletin, 23 Mar 2003
  • Ten years and no answers: Where is April Pennington? By Ethan Rouen, The Day, 26 May 2006
  • Parents still hope daughter alive after disappearance, The Chronicle, 27 May 2006
  • Missing persons cases haunt families and police by Karen Florin, The Day, 04 Mar 2007
  • Police make arrest in 1996 cold case, AP via The News-Times, 01 Apr 2008
  • After 12 years, man in charged with murdering Montville teen by Karen Florin, The Day, 02 Apr 2008
  • Pleasant Garden mom ‘shocked’ at Conn. arrest, AP via News and Record, 04 Apr 2008
  • Not-guilty plea in 1996 case, Hartford Courant, 16 Apr 2008
  • Affidavit: Suspect bragged of killing by Tracy Gordon Fox, Hartford Courant, 18 Apr 2008
  • Defendant is also a witness by Karen Florin, The Day, 04 Jun 2008
  • Accused killer will not be prosecuted in unrelated case by Karen Florin, The Day, 20 May 2009
  • Leinart to go on trial in January for 1996 murder, The Day, 21 Jul 2009
  • Defense will challenge missing body at trial by Karen Florin, The Day, 05 Jan 2010
  • Lawyers are set for battle in cold-case murder trial by Karen Florin, The Day, 07 Feb 2010
  • Missing girl investigation detailed at Leniart trial by Karen Florin, The Day, 10 Feb 2010
  • Witness says he and defendant sexually assaulted missing girl by Karen Florin, The Day, 12 Feb 2010
  • Leniart witness refuses to testify by Karen Florin, The Day, 17 Feb 2010
  • Ex-wife: Leniart mum about missing girl by Karen Florin, The Day, 18 Feb 2010
  • Jailhouse informants tell of alleged confessions by Karen Florin, The Day, 19 Feb 2010
  • Defense lawyer, informant tangle once again at Leinart murder trial by Karen Florin, The Day, 20 Feb 2010
  • Rape victim testimony called key to Leniart murder trial by Karen Florin, The Day, 23 Feb 2010
  • Closing arguments set at Leniart murder trial by Karen Florin, The Day, 25 Feb 2010
  • Replay of testimony in Leniart murder trial sought by jurors by Karen Florin, The Day, 26 Feb 2010
  • Detectives take case of missing teenager to heart by Karen Florin, The Day, 27 Feb 2010
  • Leniart convicted of murdering missing girl by Karen Florin, The Day, 03 Mar 2010
  • Parents disagree over missing daughter’s fate by Jennifer Fernandez, News and Record, 05 Mar 2010
  • Teenager accepts plea deal in rape case by Karen Florin, The Day, 13 May 2010
  • April Pennington’s friends say time is right for closure by Karen Florin, The Day, 17 May 2010
  • Murder victim’s friends celebrate her life by Patricia Daddona, The Day, 30 May 2010
  • Man gets life for killing teen, AP via Hartford Courant, 24 Jun 2010
  • Youth associated with sex predator gets 4-year term by Karen Florin, The Day, 23 Jul 2010
  • A mother wonders: ‘Is it my daughter?’ by Izaskun E. Larrañeta, The Day, 21 Mar 2012
  • Convicted killer fights back from prison by Karen Florin, The Day, 25 May 2014
  • Jury quick to rule in favor of law enforcement, The Day, 19 Feb 2015
  • Missing tape surfaces in Leniart murder appeal by Karen Florin, The Day, 11 May 2015
  • Appellate court hears ‘no body’ murder case by Karen Florin, The Day, 09 Oct 2015
  • Conn. court overturns 1996 murder conviction, Kennebec Journal, 07 Jun 2016
  • State Supreme Court to take up Leniart murder appeal by Karen Florin, The Day, 08 Oct 2016
  • Montville cold case reaches state Supreme Court by Karen Florin, The Day, 03 May 2018
  • Decision will keep killer Leniart behind bars by Karen Florin, The Day, 07 Sep 2019
  • Two cases, no body; Supreme Court decision recalls crime with parallels to Dulos by John Nickerson, Connecticut Post, 15 Sep 2019
  • Leniart loses latest appeal by Karen Florin, The Day, 27 Jun 2020
  • State Supreme Court denies Leniart 2nd appeal by Karen Florin, The Day, 27 Nov 2020
  • Convicted Montville killer seeks new trial by Greg Smith, The Day, 25 Mar 2023