COLUMBIA, S.C. — It's unknown how long investigators would have gone without any information on a missing 18-month-old South Carolina boy if his mother hadn't crashed her car Christmas Eve.
Zinah Jennings, 22, and her son, Amir, were reported missing by the boy's grandmother, who hadn't seen either of them since Thanksgiving.
The mother didn't turn up until police responding to the single-vehicle accident learned she was listed as a missing person.
She is now in jail, charged with lying to authorities about where the boy is, prompting a search by local, state and federal authorities spanning the Carolinas, Georgia and beyond.
Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott said Jennings immediately began giving conflicting statements about where the boy was.
"First it's, 'He's with my sister in Atlanta. Oh no, I'm sorry, he's with my friend in Charlotte,'" he said. "It's all over the place. ... Everything she's telling us is just lies."
Police don't know if the boy has been harmed, but they haven't ruled out foul play.
"I'm trying to stay optimistic about this," Scott said. "But short of being optimistic, this case bothers me."
Amir's grandmother, Jocelyn Jennings Nelson, called Columbia police Dec. 8 to report that she hadn't seen the boy or her own daughter, Zinah, in several days.
That sort of behavior wasn't unusual for the young mother, according to relatives, who told investigators the one-time student at Winthrop University had become erratic and depressed since her son's birth and had begun disappearing for days on end, with the boy, since he was born.
"The grandmother told me specifically that, when she was in school, she was a very good person, a very good student," the police chief said. "But once the baby was born, the conduct kind of changed."
Relatives had previously filed missing-person reports for her. The grandmother was more concerned this time because her daughter had gotten into a separate car accident several days earlier and made "cryptic phone calls to other family members indicating her ongoing fight with depression is continuing," police said in a report.
The mother and son were unaccounted for until Dec. 24, when Jennings wrecked her Dodge Neon in a one-car accident near her house in Columbia. Authorities learned that Jennings was reported missing and they say Jennings began giving shaky stories about her son's whereabouts.
They also spoke with Amir's father, who told them he had seen the boy during Thanksgiving but generally has had little contact with the boy. The father was not identified by police.
Police spent the next several days trying to verify anything Jennings told them. But nothing led them to the boy, and Scott said investigators made another run at Jennings on Dec. 27.
After chasing down yet another false lead from the mother, this time that the boy was with a friend in Columbia, Scott said authorities had enough to arrest Jennings. On Dec. 29, the mother was arrested and charged with unlawful conduct toward a child for lying to police. She remains jailed on a $150,000 bond.
Scott said officers hope a tip line and media exposure will lead to more information.
"I want someone to call us and say, 'We just saw this on the news, we have Amir, we're sorry, we didn't realize this was going on,'" he said.
The police chief said he did not know if Jennings had an attorney. The number listed for both Jennings and her mother was not working, and the grandmother did not immediately return a message left on her work number.
At this point, Scott said investigators have two theories.
"It's either A: Zinah has given Amir to someone. Or Zinah has, in some way, shape or form, harmed Amir," Scott said. "Until we have something more on Amir, I do not rule out foul play. And in my mind, there's already an air of foul play, because no one will tell us where Amir is at. Foul play doesn't have to mean that someone is deceased. Foul play is lying to police."
Scott said he's struggling to remain optimistic that Amir will be found unharmed. He would not discuss any evidence police have collected from the mother's home or car.
"It's the way this whole case is playing out," Scott said. "It's more than just that the child is missing. The mother is lying about the whereabouts of the child."
There was no answer Wednesday at the blue, two-story home where police say Jennings, her mother and son live, its door and front porch still festooned with Christmas decorations. The house, just a few blocks from one of Columbia's busiest thoroughfares, is on a quiet, tree-lined street of other one- and two-story homes, some with fenced- in yards and porches.
"We see each other and speak and say hello," said Selwyn Young, who lives across the street from the Jennings family and said he recalled seeing Jennings pushing the baby around the neighborhood and walking the family's dog. "Hopefully they find him. Hopefully they get it right."
SC Crimestoppers: http://www.sccrimestoppers.com/
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP .