When police told Richard Cornwell about the new leads in the case of his missing sister, he would go out to search for her, whenever he could find the time.
On Saturday, as some slept off a New Year's hangover or watched college football, Cornwell searched the rural north Georgia woods for several hours and made a remarkable discovery — skeletal remains hidden partially under leaves. Police on Monday confirmed the burned remains were his sister, 38-year-old Kristi Cornwell, who had vanished about 20 months earlier while taking a walk near their parents' Blairsville home.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents recently directed Richard Cornwell to the 2-square-mile part of a wooded area about nine miles from where Kristi was abducted, in part because cell phone records indicated that the primary suspect, James Scott Carringer, was there around 11:30 p.m. when Kristi disappeared. Investigators had only obtained the cell phone records in the last few months.
Investigators planned to search the new area this month, but Richard Cornwell didn't want to wait.
"We're thankful that Kristi can now have a proper burial that she deserves," Richard Cornwell told reporters at a news conference Monday, his voice cracking. He did not take questions.
Carringer, 42, killed himself in May after a standoff with Atlanta police who were trying to arrest him on charges 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.
There are no other suspects in the case, GBI director Vernon Keenan said.
"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."
Richard Cornwell had spent many hours diligently searching for his sister, scouring the Union County area, investigators said. At times, the searches also covered parts of North Carolina and Tennessee.
Mike Ayers, the 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.
"I was telling Mrs. Cornwell (Kristi's mother) 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."
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.
Cornwell was walking on a remote road and talking on her cell phone to her boyfriend when she went missing. Her boyfriend told police she said a vehicle appeared to be following her and he overheard a struggle. A few days later, her cell phone was found by a man mowing his lawn about three miles north of where she was last seen, but there was no trace of her.
Kristi Cornwell was a former probation officer with a teenage son, who took firearms classes, taught self-defense and enjoyed riding her motorcycle.
"We didn't want it to end this way. But that's the way it is. And we can bring her home now," said Kristi Cornwell's mother, Jo Ann, choking up. "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."