Hardworking Ala. Waitress Goes Missing

Authorities fan out over Knoxville, Tenn., searching for missing Alabama woman.

September 23, 2008, 12:31 PM

Sept. 23, 2008 — -- The search for a young restaurant employee from Alabama who has been described as hardworking and wholesome intensified this week after Tennessee authorities began a "grid search" of wetlands near the Knoxville hotel where she was last seen.

Jennifer Lee Hampton, 21, of Florence, Ala., was last seen at 9 p.m., Friday, Sept. 19, by a co-worker just outside her hotel room at a Days Inn in Knoxville. Hampton was in town with three other employees to help set up a new branch of the Mama Blues Southern Cafe, a buffet restaurant based in Alabama where Hampton works.

Police said they suspect foul play.

A 911 call from one of Hampton's co-workers was made Saturday after Hampton didn't show up for work and was not in her hotel room, according to Knoxville Police spokesman Darrell DeBusk.

"Officers briefly looked into the room and thought what they saw was suspicious," DeBusk told ABC News. "We believe that she was a victim of foul play."

Police declined to say what evidence in the room made investigators suspicious, but Mama Blues owner Steve Barnhill told ABC News that he understood there was no forced entry into the hotel room and sheets were ripped off one of the beds.

According to Barnhill, Hampton expressed concern to a boyfriend she was talking to on the phone before she went to bed about two men outside her room.

DeBusk declined to confirm or comment on these assertions.

Hampton's cell phone was also left in the room, police said.

Since Saturday, police have searched for Hampton both in the hotel and in the surrounding area.

"Saturday night through Sunday we used a search-and-recovery team to search the immediate area. We also used tracking dogs," DeBusk said. "Yesterday we used more than four dozen of our officers to 'grid search' in a wetland area that was near the hotel."

Police have questioned family, co-workers and friends but said they did not have any suspects yet.

"We have conducted numerous interviews," DeBusk said. "We have re-interviewed several individuals."

Those who knew Hampton described her as hardworking and kind.

"She was real sweet," a co-worker who worked with Hampton for three years but did not want to be identified, told ABC News. "She didn't smoke, didn't drink, didn't party. ... She was always working."

Search Intensifies for Missing Waitress

Barnhill, who is offering a $5,000 reward for information regarding Hampton's whereabouts, said his employees in Alabama were concerned.

"She was real well-liked down in Florence Ala., her home restaurant," Barnhill told ABC News from Knoxville. "[Employees] are calling up here once an hour wanting to know more."

According to Barnhill, Hampton was devoted to her family, speaking or texting with her mother and twin sister several times a day. Barnhill drove her mother, stepfather and two sisters to Knoxville to help with the investigation.

"She was real tight with her family. She would never leave her cell phone in her room," he said. "She would never leave with anybody."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events