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 police, said Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. 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 at the news conference. "He has spent many hours scouring the area in Union County trying to locate her."
Authorities said the case remains an open investigation, even though the primary suspect is dead.
Carringer, 42, killed himself after a standoff with Atlanta police in May. 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 two 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."