The recent shooting death of an Atlanta-area kindergarten teacher, allegedly at the hands of her mother-in-law, has shocked her community and invited many questions.
Why did she die?
What role did a months-long divorce proceeding and custody dispute play in her death, if any?
Did she fight with her mother-in-law before the shooting? And if so: What about?
According to Sgt. Dana Pierce of the Cobb County, Georgia, police, investigators believe that on June 23, Elizabeth Wall shot and killed daughter-in-law Jenna Wall, who was in the middle of divorcing Elizabeth’s son, Jerrod.
Jenna, 35, was killed at her parents home, where she had been staying with her young sons during the messy divorce, Pierce tells PEOPLE. Prior to the shooting, police allege that Elizabeth, 63, took her grandsons from the home out to the driveway, where they heard the fatal gunfire.
At some point during the episode, police claim, Elizabeth called Jerrod, an investigator in a neighboring district attorney’s office and Jenna’s estranged husband. He arrived to find his wife’s body in the house — with his mother allegedly holding a gun to her head in the living room.
Jerrod allegedly then helped deescalate and de-arm the situation, both verbally and physically, such that Elizabeth was arrested at the scene without incident, according to police. It was Jerrod who first called 911, Pierce says.
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Elizabeth was “mostly non-verbal” upon her arrest, Pierce tells PEOPLE. She has remained in the Cobb County Jail without bond ever since, on charges of felony murder, aggravated assault, possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime and two counts of cruelty to children in the third degree, according to jail records.
Despite repeated attempts, PEOPLE has not been able to contact her lawyer, Jimmy Berry, for comment. Elizabeth has not yet entered a plea to her charges and will first appear in court at the end of the month, according to a magistrate court representative.
What Pierce will not comment on is where Jenna was shot in the house; if Elizabeth was on medications or was ill at the time of the shooting, and how that might or might not have affected her stability; and what connection, if any, there is between Jenna’s death and the legal battle she and her husband had been fighting.
Pierce says some details in the investigation will only come out in court.
He told PEOPLE recently that police were “still searching” for a motive. But he classified the shooting as a domestic-related homicide.
The community, meanwhile, searches for answers, with the Walls’ recent marital history drawing scrutiny.
A Crumbling Marriage
According to court documents obtained by PEOPLE, the Walls’ divorce was acrimonious but, in the context of divorces, not so unusual.
Jenna sought permanent custody of the couple’s two sons, with “reasonable periods of visitation” with Jerrod, according to her October divorce petition. In his answer, in November, Jerrod sought “no less than joint legal and physical custody,” and claimed Jenna had “demonstrated emotional and financial instability.”
Jerrod claimed Jenna had “denied [him] access and time with the children for no legitimate reason” and had been recording phone conversations between him and their sons.
In her February filing seeking a guardian ad litem — a legal third party to advocate for their children’s best interest in the custody dispute — Jenna claimed Jerrod may have been badmouthing her to the kids. She said she had “serious concerns that as a result of Defendant’s actions and statements to the Minor Children, they are being manipulated and influenced in an unhealthy manner.”
At the time of her death, it had been nearly nine months since Jenna filed for divorce — and two months since Jerrod’s April counterclaim, which alleged that Jenna had been having an affair with a former high school boyfriend. Jerrod’s divorce attorney, Suzanne Henrickson, tells PEOPLE that Jenna admitted to the affair in a deposition.
(Jenna’s divorce attorney, Stephanie Steele, declined to comment on the case, and her family could not be reached.)
Jerrod said in his counterclaim that Jenna kept the alleged affair from him, even when he confronted her: He “noticed an estrangement in the parties’ relationship … [and] was made to believe by Plantiff that he was the cause of the estrangement.”
In April, he sought to be the children’s “primary custodial parent,” with visitation for Jenna and the two sharing legal custody, according to the counterclaim.
Friends, neighbors and coworkers described Jenna to PEOPLE as a devoted mother, driven by the love for her sons. Alyssa Kent, a friend and college classmate, said she did not believe Jenna was having an affair.
For all of the accusations, there had been improved communication between the spouses and progress toward a resolution before Jenna’s death, Henrickson says. The court had appointed a guardian ad litem to sort out custody for them, but her work had only just begun when the shooting happened, Henrickson says.
The last filing in their divorce case came in early July: a notice to the court that Jenna was dead.
What Did the Mother-in-Law Know?
Shortly before Jenna was killed in June, she and Elizabeth allegedly had a conversation in Jenna’s parents’ home, Henrickson says. Sgt. Pierce says he was unaware of any altercation before the shooting, and he declined to say what statements Elizabeth has made in custody, if any.
But Elizabeth had not been involved in the divorce proceeding, Henrickson says, adding that she “was not even on the radar screen.”
“Jerrod’s mom was not a confidant of his,” she says, dismissing any allegation that Jerrod was either directly or indirectly involved in the shooting. He did not harbor “ill will or ill intent” toward his wife, Henrickson says.
Kent says that in the weeks before her death, Jenna’s car had had its tires slashed. Pierce confirmed that but tells PEOPLE police believe the incident is unconnected to her death.
“To think that Jerrod would want harm to come to Jenna is so outlandish and preposterous, because he loves his children to the extent that he would never want to inflict that type of harm to them,” Henrickson says.
Pierce says Jerrod — who, through Henrickson, declined to comment — has been cooperative in the investigation and is not a suspect. Jerrod has custody of his sons, and Henrickson says he is focused on moving forward following the tragedy.
Despite reports that Jerrod and his sons did not attend Jenna’s funeral, Henrickson says they were there, in a private room adjacent to the sanctuary. “Emotions were running high, and considering the cause of Jenna Wall’s death, the family didn’t want the children to be exposed to anyone having an emotional outburst,” she says.
In absence of all the answers, the community grieves: for Jenna, an admired teacher who died, and for her family, forever altered by the violence.
“She’s dead,” Kent says. “She can’t get her side out.”