Faith helps family of missing Blairsville woman

Kristi Cornwell never strayed far from her mountain home and family in Blairsville.

“Dalton is the farthest away she has ever lived,” said her mother, Jo Ann Cornwell, of the town 78 miles away where her daughter had attended college to pursue a second career. “She had four weeks off and she was back with us while she waited to go back to school. ”

Her mother described the type of tight-knit family typical of Blairsville, a hamlet of 720 people in the North Georgia mountains. Jo Ann Cornwell said her daughter visited during the first week of August — having the conversations, meals and outings that keep families close.

Her mother never would have expected her to vanish.

“I don’t know why anyone would target her — I just don’t understand that,” said Jo Ann Cornwell, 60. “I can’t believe it would happen in our community. We’ve always thought it was a pretty safe place to live.”

The mystery of what happened to Kristi Cornwell has only deepened since she disappeared Aug. 11, puzzling both authorities and relatives.

The 38-year-old was out for a night stroll on Jones Creek Road — where her mother said she often walked for exercise — chatting on her cellphone with her boyfriend when authorities believe she was kidnapped.

So far her family has received no word whether she is living or dead — despite offering a $50,000 reward for her information leading to her safe return — and has thrown itself into calling attention to the search.

Church prayers

Last weekend the family appeared on “America’s Most Wanted,” and the show got a tip for searchers to focus on woods near King Mountain, N.C. About 40 searchers, aided by cadaver-sniffing dogs, found nothing.

Meanwhile the family tries to find stability in routine. Last week, Kristi Cornwell’s 15-year-old son, Brody, went back to band practice, and his friends have been keeping him busy, Jo Ann Cornwell said. Kristi Cornwell shares custody of Brody with one of three ex-husbands. Kristi’s father Harold told a TV interviewer that some family members have been operating on as little as one hour of sleep a night.

“He is doing as well as can be expected,” Jo Ann Cornwell said of her husband. “He can’t believe it happened and he is just dealing with it the best he can, just like the rest of us are.”

On Sunday the couple were greeted with hugs, prayers and encouraging words when they went to their small church, New Union Baptist, down the road from where their daughter disappeared.

“It made us feel really good to be with our neighbors and the ones who care for us,” she said. “We just felt the love being poured on us by them.”

She counts on prayer to provide for her daughter’s safe return, and she has plenty of help. Over in Blue Ridge, nearly 200 members of Crossover Community Church also bowed their heads Sunday to ask the Lord to protect Kristi Cornwell, said the Rev. Renny Ryder, senior pastor of the church, who baptized Kristi Cornwell.

“We have prayed for her now for two straight Sundays and also at our midweek prayer services,” Ryder said. “There are people praying for her, covering almost every hour of the day.”

More than 7,000 people have joined a “Pray for Kristi Cody Cornwell” Facebook site, and the family also has a Web site,, to raise donations and provide pictures and videos of Kristi.

“We’re trying to get this reward fund built up,” a brother, Richard Cornwell, told WSB-TV. “And we want this awful predator or predators put behind bars.”

The family says Cornwell, a former probation officer, is a strong woman and that her history in law enforcement — she also worked for a sheriff’s office — will help her survive.

“We’re optimistic,” Jo Ann Cornwell said. “We feel she is out there somewhere maybe constrained and can’t get away yet, but we feel like she is going to and we’re going to get her back.”

Intense emotions

While the North Carolina tip didn’t pan out, Keith Hogsed, a cousin and family spokesman, said it was better than no tips at all. “We are just happy that there are leads that investigators can pursue,” he said. “If there weren’t things coming in, we would just be sitting here.”

As days grow into weeks the waiting is more nerve-wracking, with high anger plunging to deep sadness, Hogsed said.

“Added on top of that is the exhaustion of doing everything one can to help with the search,” he said. “When you lay down and try to rest you have all these things going through your head so it’s really difficult.”

The case has perplexed everyone involved.

Cornwell’s boyfriend, Douglas Davis of Carrollton, told authorities he was talking with her by cellphone as she walked down the isolated road at night when she reported that a car was following her and that she became nervous when it stopped. Investigators said Davis told them that he heard a scuffle and Cornwell shout, “Don’t take me.”

Davis, who was in Atlanta at the time, called Jo Ann Cornwell and told her to call 911. The mother said the two had only recently started dating.

“I couldn’t believe what he was telling me, but I knew it was real,” Jo Ann Cornwell said. “He was very excited and I knew it was urgent.”

Authorities, including Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents who were in the area working on another case, converged on the scene. They say they found signs of a struggle but few other clues.

Witnesses reported a white SUV and a gold subcompact car on the road about the time Cornwell went missing. Her cellphone was found in a yard along a state highway a couple of miles away.

“It is totally strange and weird,” said Ryder, pastor of the Blue Ridge church. “A lot of times when something goes wrong in a person’s life, it has to do with the atmosphere that he or she lived in. That was not the case with Kristi at all.”

More leads to follow

The GBI has ruled out Davis and Cornwell’s ex-husbands as suspects, said GBI spokesman John Bankhead. Investigators interviewed sex offenders and checked into convicts Cornwell supervised as a probation officer but found no leads, Bankhead said.

Cornwell had worked at Home Depot in recent years and was pursuing a degree in medical laboratory technology at Dalton State College, although, according to the college, she had not enrolled for the fall semester. Those connections so far have not brought investigators closer to solving the case.

As of Tuesday, GBI spokesman Bankhead said, agents were still doing interviews and continued to believe Cornwell was grabbed by a stranger familiar with the area, if not known to her.

“We’re prioritizing our tips now and going with the most reliable ones,” he said. “Nothing has panned out but we do have leads to follow.”