Police have launched a nationwide search for a murder suspect accused in the Easter Sunday morning fatal shooting of a 26-year-old mother who police say was an “innocent victim” in the “wrong place at the wrong time.”
Jonathan Kelly, 28, is wanted in the killing of Jenni Howe McGruder, who was shot outside of a bar in Galesburg, Illinois, police said in a press release. Police obtained the warrant for Kelly’s arrest on Tuesday, April 3.
Kelly and McGruder are both Galesburg residents, but police have said there is no connection between them. McGruder, her husband, Michael McGruder and their friends were leaving the Seminary Street Pub about 1:30 a.m. on April 1 when the shooting occurred, but they were not the targets of the gunfire, Galesburg Police said in a statement. Investigators have not said if Kelly fired the fatal shot, and have not released many details about the shooting. There was a fight inside the bar before the shooting, police said.
“She’s walking away and she gets hit with a bullet. She was not involved,” Galesburg Police Captain Rod Riggs told the Peoria Journal Star, adding that McGruder, had “zero affiliation with the people at the bar.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. McGruder, Who Was Celebrating Her Birthday, Was the ‘Victim of Gun Violence’ After a Fight Inside the Bar Spilled Out Into the Parking Lot, Police Say
Galesburg Police said a fight broke out at the Seminary Street Pub while the McGruders and their friends were there, but they were not involved. Police said the fight spilled into the parking lot and someone pulled out a gun and fired the shot that struck Jenni McGruder. Police responded to the area for a call of shots fired at 1:37 a.m.
McGruder’s husband, Michael, told the Galesburg Register-Mail that he and his wife, a mom of two young children, had been with friends at the bar and were leaving about 1:30 a.m. when shots rang out. Jenni McGruder, who was not the target of the gunfire, was struck by a single gunshot wound and died at the scene, police said. Michael McGruder said his wife rarely went out, but wanted to spend time with their friends who were in town for a baby shower.
“Jenni didn’t go out much. She worked and liked being home with Ryleigh and and Ryker (their daughter and son). This was just a chance for her to cut loose a little bit, to go out with our friends and have some fun,” Michael McGruder told the newspaper. “It had been Jenni’s birthday on March 28. She wanted to just celebrate everything — the baby shower, having friends back and her birthday.”
Her friend, Graham Archer, told WEEK-TV, “I read Galesburg girl killed, and when she said the name I instantly fell to the ground. An innocent girl lost her life, celebrating her birthday with her friends on holiday weekend and doesn’t get to go home to her two kids. That kills me.”
Captain Rod Riggs of the Galesburg Police Department echoed those thoughts.
“She was just an innocent victim. She wasn’t doing anything, but out with her husband celebrating her birthday,” Riggs told WQAD-TV. “She’s leaving, and there’s gun fire. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, just a victim of gun violence.”
Lee Poulson, who was working at the Seminary Street Pub, told WHBF-TV , “It’s just a tragic event that she lost her life over something that you know, she probably had no control over. There’s no way you can get back to it, there’s no way to give this girl back her life, or give back this family their daughter or mother.”
Michael McGruder told The Register-Mail that he and his wife had spent the day at a baby shower and were happy to have friends in town they hadn’t seen in awhile.
“We got there early. And after the baby shower, Jenni took (3-year-old) Ryleigh and (1-year-old) Ryker to the baby sitter’s and then we continued spending time with our friends,” he told the newspaper. They then went to a restaurant in Galesburg. “We ordered pizza and some other food, and by that time I was really tired. I started asking Jenni if we could go home. I just really wanted to call it a night. Jenni wanted to stay out. And so did my friend in from out of town. He was giving me a hard time for wanting to go home at 11.”
Michael McGruder told the newspaper he went to his car to rest while she stayed in the bar with her friends.
“I guess there was some talk in The Pub that someone was going to go get a gun and ‘shoot up the place.’ That’s what my friend told me later. And he went around and tried to get our friends to leave and Jenni was the only one who would leave with him,” McGruder told the newspaper. She came out with her friend and they began walking to another parking lot. “We were going to get a rid. I was a little out of it, but I remember passing a guy who was, like, crying. Like he was really angry. And then I remember passing a group and they seemed really mad. They were yelling and cursing.”
He said, “And then I heard shots. I checked myself, kind of in my head determined I wasn’t hit and then I looked back at Jenni. She was lying on the ground, face down, and I thought she was just scared. I approached her and told her to get up, and I didn’t see any blood.”
McGruder said someone ran past him and he said he smiled at him.
“I couldn’t see his face. And as I started to look back down at Jenni, I think he kind of pulled that gun from behind his leg — like he was showing it to me,” McGruder told the newspaper.
He said he checked his wife and she wasn’t responding and he saw blood. He called 911.
““It was chaos back there. It was just chaos and people were screaming,” he told the newspaper. “I just can’t believe what happened. I don’t know what happened. Nothing seems real, but my children didn’t have their mother on Easter morning.”
2. Kelly, Who Will Be Held on $1 Million Bail When Arrested, Recently Spent Time in Jail for Cocaine Possession & Also Has Been Arrested on Domestic Battery & Obstruction Charges
Police said a $1 million bail has been set for Jonathan Kelly for when he is taken into custody. A nationwide warrant for three counts of murder was issued on Tuesday, April 3, according to a Galesburg Police press release. The Knox County State Attorney’s Office told WQAD-TV that McGruder is the sole victim in the case, but the multiple charges relate to different statutes in state law.
Kelly, 28, of Selden Street in Galesburg, has a criminal record in Knox County, including a recent case that was resolved in January, online court records show. Kelly pleaded guilty to possession of less than 15 grams of a controlled substance (cocaine), a class 4 felony, on January 10 and was sentenced to two years of probation, along with 34 days in jail, with credit for 10 days already served. He began his jail sentence on February 15. It is not clear when he was released, but if he served the maximum sentence, he would have been let out on March 10.
As part of that plea deal, other charges of manufacturing or delivering less than 15 grams of cocaine, a class 1 felony and domestic battery/bodily harm, a misdemeanor, were dismissed.
Kelly was previously arrested in January 2015 in Knox County on a charge of obstructing a peace officer. Prosecutors dropped that case in May 2015. He was also charged in 2015 with obstructing identification, but that case was also not prosecuted. Details of those arrests were not immediately available. It was also not immediately clear if Kelly has an additional criminal record outside of Knox County.
Michael McGruder told WHBF-TV, “We’ve never been in these situations for the violence to even come to us, but it’s there. It’s living within this community.” He added that justice will find itself, saying about Kelly, “Whatever happens to him, he’ll get what he deserves.”
McGruder’s family member, Joanna Dixon, told WQAD-TV, “All I`m asking for this community is to find the guy that did this and stop this gun killing. You don`t know what it`s like until it`s your family and so young of age just stop all this.”
3. McGruder Wrote a Heartbreaking Final Facebook Post About Getting Older & How Important Her Friends & Family Were To Her
Jenni McGruder wrote a heartbreaking final Facebook post on March 29 about her birthday, getting older and how important her family and friends were to her:
The older we get, the harder it becomes to stay connected with friends and family. As adults we get buried with work, bills, and trying to raise tiny humans to be good people! I get stressed and overwhelmed with the scary word…adulthood! As a young lad I couldn’t wait to grow up. I was crazy for wishing to grow up so fast! Yesterday I hit the big 2-6, I am a tired mom with two kids, I have wrinkles, and I am in bed by 9. I may be a grandma-ish mom. (But I’m a cool mom)!! I wouldn’t trade it for all the blue moon in the world!! The the older I get the more I value my life, my family and my friends! I want to say thank you to all those near and far who wished me a happy birthday! I have love for you all!! 🖤
According to her Facebook page, McGruder worked for her family at Howe Overhead Doors Inc., and was a Galesburg native.
Jenni McGruder was part of a local organization, Walk for Baby Feet, which was started by her older sister, Jamie Dunker. Her sister was nominated for the Jefferson Awards, which celebrates local heroes, for her efforts, and McGruder spoke glowingly about her in an interview with a local news station.
Her husband, Michael, wrote his own Facebook post after his wife’s death, paying tribute to her:
First of all, I never claimed to be perfect and you knew that. You stuck by my side through all of our lows, and never gave up on me. I’ve put you through some terrible times, but you stayed on top of me to get better and you expected the best out of me. We knew you were our rock and you kept the foundation strong. As we stood next to each other going home, why you? There’s nothing worse then what I experienced last night. We will miss you, but we will not give up. We will use your guidance and motivation to reach our maximum potential. Thank you for staying next to my side when you had every reason and opportunity to kick me to the curb. You are the most beautiful blessing that anyone has encountered themselves with. We will miss you and thank you making me the person I am today.
Michael McGruder told WHBF-TV, “She embraced everyone, she loved everyone and everyone loved her. When you’re encountering yourself with Jenni you’re in your happy place for that moment, and that’s what she did for everyone.”
He told the news station that before they were married and had children, she was a loyal friend. They had known each other since they were in high school.
“I was at home, I didn’t have a job, I wasn’t in school, any of that, 19 years old, and every single day she was by my side,” he told the news station. “Everything can be taken from me in this world that I ever had, but she showed me that she would never leave. She was right there on my hip. And even her last day she was right there next to me. I want her to be here, but I’m thankful that her last moments were with me.”
He added that his focus will be on their children, Ryleigh, 3, and Ryker, 1.
“I hope they remember how happy and how loving she was. I hope they can be able to find their inner love and be able to portray that same image she did,” Michael McGruder told the news station. “I hope Jenni can live through them.”
4. While Police Search for Kelly, McGruder’s Friends & Family Is Planning to Hold a Vigil in Honor of the Woman They Called Their ‘Rock’ & Have Started a GoFundMe
As the search for her accused killer continues, Jenni McGruder’s family and friends will be holding a candlelight vigil to celebrate her life on Wednesday, April 4. It will be held at 7 p.m. in the Galebsurg municipal parking lot. Her funeral will be held Friday at Bethel Church.
Her family and friends told the Galesburg Register-Mail that McGruder was there “rock.”
Scott Howe, her father, told the newspaper, “I think about the day she was born. I think about a girl who never knew a stranger. I think about a competitive athlete, even when she was young. I can still hear her laughter.”
He said he called her Monday morning, even though he knew she wouldn’t answer.
“I just wanted to hear her voice. I told her again that I love her. I told her that this wasn’t goodbye,” he said. “I told her that I would see her again.”
“Jenni was a Wife, Mom, Sister, Aunt, Friend & a Warm smile to everybody she met,” Thomas Dunker wrote on the GoFundMe page. “Jenni constantly strived to bring people together. She saw your heart and never the wrapper. Jenni drew the best out of everybody and everything. Her mission to improve the lives of her family and everyone around her was tragically cut short. We establish this fund to provide assistance to the health and welfare of Jenni & Michael’s 2 beautiful kids. She he will forever be remembered and missed.”
5. Police Have Asked for Anyone With Information About the Shooting or Kelly’s Whereabouts to Contact Them & Say the Investigation Into the Shooting Is Ongoing
The investigation into the shooting is ongoing. It is not clear if police think anyone else was involved in the shooting or if anyone else could be charged. Police said the manhunt for Jonathan I. Kelly is nationwide.
“Any person with information on the whereabouts of Jonathan Kelly are urged to contact the Galesburg Police Department (309)343-9151 or Galesburg Crime Stoppers (309) 344-0044 / 1-888-266-0044 or text a tip – text the word ‘Galesburg’ + your tip to 274637,” police said in a press release.
“We do have a person of interest. We know multiple people probably saw this happen,” Galesburg Police Captain Rod Riggs told WQAD-TV. “We know multiple people saw a gun in the hand, saw someone fire the weapon. We need that person to contact us. We know what happened. We pieced it together. Now we need someone to come forward to talk to us.”
Riggs added, “Do the right thing.”