CLEVELAND, Ga. – The brother of a woman who vanished while out for a walk more than a year ago found her burned, skeletal remains this weekend in the north Georgia woods after one of his many hours of diligent searching, authorities said Monday.
Kristi Cornwell, a 38-year former probation officer, disappeared in August 2009 while walking near her parents' home in Union County. Her boyfriend, who was talking to her on her cell phone at the time, told police that she said a vehicle appeared to be following her and he overheard a struggle moments later.
Richard Cornwell found his sister's remains Saturday while conducting his own search of a 2-square-mile area using information given to him by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said GBI Director Vernon Keenan. Investigators had planned to search that land this month because cell phone records indicated the primary suspect, James Scott Carringer, was there the night that Cornwell disappeared. Carringer later killed himself during a standoff with police.
"We're thankful that Kristi can now have a proper burial that she deserves," Richard Cornwell told reporters at a news conference, his voice cracking.
Kristi Cornwell's body had been burned, and the medical examiner could not determine how she died, Keenan said. A state forensic pathologist used dental records to identify her remains.
"Richard has been searching diligently for his sister Kristi since she disappeared," Keenan said. "He has spent many hours scouring the area in Union County trying to locate her."
GBI agents would tell Richard Cornwell where to look based on leads they had and he would go out searching on weekends, days off and whenever he could.
Mike Ayers, former special agent in charge of the regional GBI office in Cleveland, said the Cornwell family's devotion to finding Kristi was unlike anything he'd seen in his more than 20 years as an investigator.
"Without a doubt, I've never seen anything like this," he said. "I was telling Mrs. Cornwell today, actually, thanking her for ... what a pleasure it's been to be able to work with them because they've done absolutely everything we've asked them to do and more so."
On Saturday, as other people were sleeping off a New Year's Eve hangover or watching college football bowl games, Richard Cornwell headed out to a new area GBI had recently told him about. After searching for several hours, he found the charred skeletal remains hidden parially under leaves in a hilly, rural area.
Authorities said the case remains an open investigation, even though the primary suspect is dead. Keenan said they have no other suspects.
"We have no direct evidence that Carringer is the murderer of Kristi Cornwell," Keenan said. "He remains our prime suspect based on a series of circumstances that point to him. Because we have no direct evidence, this will remain an active and open investigation at GBI."
Carringer, 42, killed himself in May after a standoff with Atlanta police who were trying to arrest him on charges that he raped a teenager in Gilmer County. Police in Montgomery, Ala., said Carringer also likely tried to abduct a 10-year old girl during a church egg hunt there a few days earlier.
Investigators suspected that Carringer may have been involved in Cornwell's disappearance because he lived a few miles from where she was last seen and owned a silver Nissan Xterra, the same type of car spotted in the area the night Cornwell went missing.
Cornwell's disappearance confounded local authorities. Soon after she vanished, investigators found her cell phone about three miles north of where she was last seen, but there was no trace of her.
Authorities were flooded with dozens of tips in December 2009 after investigators released a sketch of a possible suspect. Last January, North Carolina authorities received an anonymous letter from a woman who said the sketch of the suspect looked like her grandson. That woman has not been located.
Kristi Cornwell's mother, Jo Ann Cornwell, choked up as she spoke about the discovery.
"We didn't want it to end this way. But that's the way it is. And we can bring her home now," she said. "I know in my heart she's in heaven and we'll see her again, so that's what's going to make me be able to go on."
(This version CORRECTS Corrects that Ayers the former special agent in charge in 8th paragraph. AP Video.)