The Georgia Bureau of Investigation wants the public’s help in finding a man who may be involved in the August disappearance of a Blairsville woman.
The man was involved in an incident with a woman in Ranger, N.C., nine days before Kristi Cornwell disappeared in Union County, GBI Special Agent in Charge Mike Ayers said during a news conference Monday in Cleveland.
Ayers would not conclusively link the two cases, but he said there are a number of similarities between the two incidents.
The man is described as a white male in his mid-20s with dark hair. He is believed to be driving a silver, late-model Nissan Xterra.
Ayers said authorities could not positively place the Xterra at the scene of Cornwell’s disappearance, but they want to talk to its owner just in case.
More than 10 members of Cornwell’s family attended the news conference. Each wore a button with Kristi Cornwell’s photo on it. Her brother, Richard Cornwell, stood with Ayers during the news conference.
Ayers said the family’s spirit had never wavered during the investigation, which is now nearly four months long.
The timing of the incident in Ranger and the description of the vehicle indicate a possible link to the disappearance of Cornwell several days later. Ranger is about 25 miles from the site of Cornwell’s disappearance.
On Aug. 2, nine days before Cornwell’s disappearance, a woman was walking along a road near the Ranger Community Center at approximately 9 p.m. A vehicle pulled up behind her and knocked her to the ground.
A man got out of the car and approached the woman, but another car drove up and the man left. As he drove away, the victim saw his profile because his window was rolled down.
The woman contacted the North Carolina State Patrol about the incident, but the agency did not file a report, Ayers said. When the woman heard media reports about Kristi Cornwell’s abduction, she contacted the GBI.
The incident caused the GBI to expand its investigation into Cornwell’s disappearance to roughly seven counties in North Carolina, Ayers said. Investigators have interviewed all the registered sex offenders in the area, and approximately 400 to 500 vehicles matching the description are registered in that area of North Carolina, Ayers said.
Kristi Cornwell was reportedly abducted Aug. 11 while walking near her parents’ home in Union County.
Cornwell was walking for exercise along Jones Creek Road, a rural two-lane road off the Zell Miller Mountain Parkway. At around 9 p.m., Cornwell was talking to her boyfriend on her cell phone when he heard the sounds of a struggle and the call ended.
Authorities later found undisclosed personal effects at the site of the abduction. About three miles away on Nottely Dam Road, Cornwell’s cell phone was found.
Monday, Ayers said law enforcement officials are pursuing the case with the assumption that they will find Cornwell alive.
“I will tell you that it is my firm belief that you never abandon hope, that you maintain hope until you’re proven otherwise,” Ayers said. “It will always be the policy of this office and the other law enforcement agencies involved in this investigation that Kristi Cornwell is still alive and we will do everything we can to bring her home.”
In a flyer touting the $50,000 reward for information, people are asked to pay close attention to a car being cleaned “more than typical, especially one being cleaned with strong chemicals.”
The flyer also advises that people should look for recently burned, sunken or wrecked vehicles being disposed of.
In the four months since her disappearance, Cornwell’s family has launched a massive media campaign, distributing thousands of flyers, mailing out 33,000 postcards, erecting three billboards and taking out quarter-page ads in newspapers across a three-state area. They’ve given dozens of news interviews and created a Web site with regular updates on their efforts.
Her family auctioned their lakefront vacation home over the weekend to raise money to continue the search.
“We’re hopeful that if we can find the suspect in this Ranger incident then that suspect may lead us to Kristi,” said Cornwell’s brother, Richard Cornwell. “...There’s just no way that you can give up hope in this situation, and we’re going to continue to treat Kristi’s situation in such a way that we’re going to bring her home alive...”
Ayers asked that anyone who recognizes the man and the vehicle in the sketch released Monday to call the GBI tip line at 1-800-597-8477. Already, the GBI has investigated more than 1,600 leads in the Cornwell case.
“Right now we don’t have any definitive information that this vehicle was on Jones Creek Road on the night of Kristi’s abduction, but certainly, we don’t have anything that says that it wasn’t,” Ayers said. “And because the similarities between the two events are so close, we think it is critically important to identify this individual and that vehicle.”
Staff writers Ashley Fielding and Stephen Gurr contributed to this report.