“(James) Scott Carringer is our primary suspect and has been for a long time,” said GBI agent Mike Ayers, who initially led the search for Kristi Cornwell.
On the night she went missing, Carringer’s mobile phone pinged a cell tower in Union County around 11:30 p.m., providing information investigators – and ultimately, Richard Cornwell – used to pinpoint her remains.
Carringer, who has been linked to several other abductions in Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia, killed himself in April when Atlanta police cornered him with an arrest warrant for kidnapping and raping a Kennesaw State University student. Although Kristi Corwell's death has been ruled a homicide, authorities said Monday that evidence has not definitively linked Carringer to her death, and the case remains open.
Investigators said they believe Carringer took great lengths to cover his tracks, from altering and selling vehicles consistent with the description of the one seen the night of her disappearance, to burning her body and possibly even sending a bogus anonymous tip letter.
If that is true, he was ultimately foiled by a man who worked even harder to uncover what he sought to conceal. Richard Cornwell quit his job as an engineer to look for his sister, and the family embarked upon a grand-scale crusade: offering a $50,000 reward from the website www.kristicornwell.com for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for her disappearance.
They sold their lake-front vacation home to fund the search, paying for airplane and helicopter flights and mailing 80,000 fliers with information throughout Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Ayers said of the Cornwell family’s efforts Monday afternoon at the GBI post in Cleveland.
Working with the GBI and using every lead they gave him, Richard Cornwell searched in every spare moment, using a meticulous system.
"He had a set process where he had to walk every foot of the area he was looking in," GBI spokesman John Bankhead said Monday. "He walked every square foot of an area."
Saturday, that area was the two square miles that cell tower data had identified as the site where Carringer was the night Kristi Cornwell disappeared, Bankhead said.
Richard Cornwell learned about the location a week before he found his sister's remains, but weeks before the GBI planned to canvas that area, GBI officials said. There, about 75 yards from Moccasin Creek Road, just south of the North Carolina border, Richard Cornwell found the partially covered, burned skeleton, authorities said.
"It's always in the place you wish you'd looked," Ayers said.
Other evidence was found nearby, but investigators refused to characterize it or say where it might lead them.
“We didn’t want it to end this way,” Jo Ann Cornwell said Monday, wiping away tears and holding Richard Cornwell’s hands. “I know in my heart that she’s in heaven. That’s what’s going to help me to go on.”
The discovery brings some closure to one of Georgia’s most high-profile murder investigations of recent years. Cornwell’s disappearance received attention from national media outlets, including a feature on “America’s Most Wanted.”
On the night she vanished, Cornwell was walking on Jones Creek Road, an unmarked crossroad, and talking by cell phone to her boyfriend. The 38-year-old mother told him that a car was following her. The boyfriend, Douglas Davis of Carrollton, told investigators he heard a scuffle and then heard her say, "Don't take me!"
Her shoes, eyeglasses and cell phone earpiece were found at the place where she was abducted and her cell phone was found discarded a few miles away.
Last summer, nearing the anniversary of Kristi Corwell's disappearance, authorities received an anonymous letter alleging to be from a woman who suspected her grandson of the abduction.
But when authorities made public requests for the mysterious woman to come forward, no one responded. They now believe Carringer may have written the letter.
"The envelope address was in purple ink," Ayers said, noting that investigators found several purple ink pens at Carringer's home after his death, along with several calendar entries from him made in the same purple ink.
He was already being considered as a suspect in the Cornwell case, the GBI said.
He was also wanted in the kidnapping and sexual assault of a 19-year-old relative, and was suspected in the kidnapping of a 10-year-old Montgomery, Ala. girl and the botched abduction of a Ranger, North Carolina woman. In each case, reports of a light-colored Nissan Xterra surfaced, the same type of vehicle reported near the scene of Kristi Cornwell's disappearance.
Gilmer County authorities issued an arrest warrant. But when Atlanta police approached him at a Buckhead Mellow Mushroom restaurant, he barricaded himself inside his SUV and fatally shot himself.
Investigators learned that the former home appraiser and builder at one point owned three different Xterras, and removed the brush guard from one of the SUV's soon after Cornwell went missing.
But Ayers still needs more to close the case.
"I would give anything to have had 30 minutes to talk with him," Ayers said.
Still, Kristi Cornwell's brother said he feels some satisfaction.
“I’m thankful that Kristi can now have the proper burial that she deserves,” Richard Cornwell told reporters Monday.
Crossover Community Church in Blue Ridge, where Kristi Cornwell was active, will hold a prayer service for her and her family Wednesday.
Rev. Renny Ryder, who Baptized her about four years ago, said Cornwell always spoke about her family.
“It was just a little country family,” he said. “There’s a tremendous brokenness there.”
The finding of her remains, he said, has become “a renewing of all the grieving.”
“We will pray that God reveals the evil that did this,” he said. “Ultimately no one gets away with these things.”
AJC reporters Christian Boone,Katie Leslie and Craig Schneider contributed to this article.
James Scott Carringer is suspected in the following crimes.
• The Aug. 2, 2009, attempted abduction of a woman in Ranger, N.C.
• The Aug. 11 abduction and slaying of Kristi Cornwell near Blairsville, Ga.
• The April 4, 2010, attempted abduction of a 10-year old girl from a church Easter egg hunt in Montgomery, Ala.
• The April 6, 2010, kidnapping and rape of a 19-year-old relative, a Kennesaw State student, in Ellijay.