Ten years have passed since 18-year-old Elaine Nix made a call from a convenience store pay phone and was never heard from again.
Shortly after 1 a.m. on Sept. 20, 1999, the East Hall teen finished an hourlong conversation with her boyfriend, hung up the phone and disappeared, her 1986 Toyota Celica left parked outside Zack’s Food Rack on Candler Highway.
Nine days later, Nix’ lifeless, nude body was discovered in woods next to an industrial park in Buford, just south of the Hall County line. Her murder remains unsolved.
This Sept. 29, as they do every year, family members and friends of Nix will gather at her graveside at Memorial Park Cemetery for a candlelight vigil.
"The main thing is to let everyone know there is a killer out there, and that we’re not going to forget about Elaine and her case and what was done to her," said Jennifer Boyd, 28, a friend of Nix since their middle school days who has championed her unsolved case. "We want to let people know that we want justice, we want closure, and we want her to be able to rest in peace."
The cold case has stymied Gwinnett County and Hall County investigators for a decade and led the family to seek out help from private investigators and psychic Sylvia Brown on the Montell Williams television talk show. Nothing has provided more than a glimmer of hope.
Gwinnett Police Department spokeswoman Illana Spellman said there are no new leads in the case, but it remains active. A Gwinnett Police detective was unavailable to speak about the case last week.
No suspects, just rumors
Elaine Nix was at the pay phone outside the darkened convenience store because she couldn’t call her boyfriend, Billy Millwood, from her parents’ home, Boyd said. The call was long distance from her home, so she made the short drive to the closed store around midnight. She spent about an hour on the phone, according to records obtained by police.
Boyd said surveillance video recorded a dark-colored, small pickup truck drive into the area in front of the store as Nix spoke on the phone.
About an hour after the phone conversation ended, a law enforcement officer saw Nix’s unoccupied car parked outside the store and stopped to check it. The hood was still warm, the keys were in the ignition and Nix’s purse and cigarettes were in the back seat, Boyd said.
The next morning, Nix’s mother, Becky, found the abandoned car and called authorities.
The initial theory was that Nix had run off, Boyd said.
"It was pretty much, ‘she’ll be back in a few days, she has a history of running away and moving out,’" Boyd said.
Becky Nix drove her daughter’s car home, and days of anxious searching followed.
Nix’s parents, friends and boyfriend searched nearby woods, creeks and railroad tracks "pretty much daylight to dark," Boyd said.
Then Boyd got the dreaded call from Becky Nix: Elaine had been found in woods near an isolated industrial park on Verona Avenue, just past the Hall County line. The then-undeveloped area was frequented by truckers, some stopping to park to take breaks, and also was popular with illegal dumpers.
Nix’ clothes — khaki pants, a white shirt and white tennis shoes — never were recovered. She still was wearing her jewelry. Police identified the decomposed body through dental records and tattoos. She had been dead between six and nine days, police told the family.
How Elaine Nix died is as much a mystery as who killed her.
Boyd said the death certificate gives the cause of death as "undetermined." There were no obvious gunshot or stab wounds or signs of strangulation. The manner of death is classified as homicide.
Boyd said case has been endlessly frustrating, with few quality leads for police or private investigators to pursue.
"There’s never really been a good suspect named," Boyd said. "All we’ve gotten are a lot of rumors."
"Ten years later ... nothing"
Whenever Boyd hears about another missing persons case in Georgia, she feels the pangs of empathy. The cases of Meredith Emerson, abducted from Blood Mountain and murdered in Dawson County last January, and Kristi Cornwell, who remains missing after a presumed abduction in August from a rural Blairsville road, are achingly familiar to her.
"I think, ‘Here we go again,’" Boyd said. "Could it be the same person? My heart goes out to that family, because we’ve been there and we went through that and we are still going through it to this day, 10 years later, and still — nothing."
Boyd believes there are only two circumstances in which her friend’s murder could be solved now, and both are beyond her control.
"I think it will take someone just slipping up and saying something, or confessing," she said. "Because at this point, I don’t think there’s any physical evidence out there."
A $5,000 reward remains available for information that would lead to the arrest of Nix’s killer.
Boyd said she often thinks about what her friend would be like now.
"She has two beautiful nieces and a nephew she never got to meet," Boyd said. "She wanted children so bad; she wanted so much out of life. She’d probably be married, maybe with two or three kids, a cute little house.
"It’s a shame. Somebody just ripped that from her. And all of us, too. Ripped her out of our life."