Kristi Cornwell: Brother finds sister’s remains, lead suspect killed himself
ATLANTA, Georgia — Since August 2009 Kristi Cornwell’s brother has devoted his life to finding his sister who vanished while she was out taking a walk and talking on her cell phone.
Kristi and her boyfriend, Douglas Davis of Carrolton, were talking while the 38-year-old mother walked. Kristi told him someone was following her in a car. He then heard a struggle and Kristi say, “Don’t take me!” The phone then went dead.
Richard Cornwell has searched by helicopter, all-terrain vehicle, and on foot the wilderness of North Georgia and nearby North Carolina for any remains of his sister Kristi.
Finally on New Year’s Day he found her about nine miles from where she’d disappeared. Her body was partially buried by debris.
By Monday a Georgia Bureau of Investigations medical examiner had confirmed that Richard’s discovery was indeed the remains of 38-year-old Kristi Cornwell who vanished Aug. 11, 2009, near Blairsville in Union County, Georgia.
Police focused one on suspect. The problem has been that the suspect, too, is dead.
“(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.
It was ultimately a cell phone ping on Carringer’s phone the night Kristi went missing that provided investigators – and ultimately Richard – the information they needed to pinpoint her remains. The call placed him in Union County around 11:30 p.m. the night she went missing.
Carringer has been linked to several other abductions in Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia. When Atlanta police cornered him with an arrest warrant for kidnapping and raping a Kennesaw State University student, he killed himself.
While Kristi’s death has been ruled a homicide, her case remains open. Authorities said Monday evidence they have has not definitively linked Carringer to her death.
Police believe Carringer was very careful in covering his tracks, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, 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.
But nothing stopped Kristi’s brother, Richard, who quit his job as an engineer to look for his sister. His family sold their lake-front vacation home to fund the search that included paying for helicopter and airplane flights, printing and mailing 80,000 fliers, and offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction of the person responsible for her disappearance.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Ayers said of the Cornwell family’s efforts Monday afternoon at the GBI post in Cleveland.
Richard Cornwell used every spare moment of his time to search for his sister. He worked with the GBI and used every lead they gave him.
“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.”
The week before finding Kristi’s remains, Richard learned about the location of Carringer’s cell phone ping. The GBI had planned to canvas the area in a few weeks, but Richard couldn’t wait.
About 75 yards from Moccasin Creek Road, just south of the North Carolina border, Richard found the partially covered, burned skeleton, authorities said, that he later would learn were his sister.
“It’s always in the place you wish you’d looked,” Ayers said.
Investigators found other evidence nearby but refused to discuss it or say where it might lead their investigation.
“We didn’t want it to end this way,” Kristi’s mother, Jo Ann Cornwell said Monday. She wiped away her tears, holding Richard’s hand, and said, “I know in my heart that she’s in heaven. That’s what’s going to help me to go on.”
Kristi’s was one of Georgia’s most high-profile murder investigations of recent years, receiving attention from national media outlets, including a feature on “America’s Most Wanted.”
Kristi’s cell phone earpiece, her shoes, and eyeglasses were found at the place where she was abducted, and her cell phone was found discarded a few miles away.
Last summer, around the one-year-mark of Kristi’s disappearance, police received an anonymous letter from a woman stating she believed her grandson was responsible for Kristi’s disappearance. When authorities made public requests for the woman to come forward, no one responded. They now believe the letter may have come from Carrington.
“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.
Carringer was 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, Alabama girl, as well as the botched abduction of a Ranger, North Carolina woman, The AJC reported.
In each case reports of a light colored Nissan Xterra surfaced – the same type of vehicle that was seen near where Kristi disappeared.
Gilmer County authorities issued a warrant for Carrington’s arrest, but when Atlanta police approached him at a Buckhead Mellow Mushroom restaurant, he barricaded himself inside his SUV and fatally shot himself.
Ayers said, “I would give anything to have had 30 minutes to talk with him.”
Carrington was, at one time, a home appraiser and builder. He owned three different Xterras, and had removed the brush guard from one of the SUVs soon after Kristi went missing.
Ayers says he still needs more to close the case, but still, Richard Cornwell says he feels some satisfaction in finding his sister.
“I’m thankful that Kristi can now have the proper burial that she deserves,” Richard Cornwell told reporters Monday.
Kristi was active at the Crossover Community Church in Blue Ridge. They will hold a prayer service for her and her family Wednesday. Rev. Renny Ryder baptized Kristi about four years ago and said she 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.”
The AJC provided the following information:
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.
Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution