The mother of a woman missing and believed abducted off a rural Georgia road last Tuesday made an impassioned plea on TODAY Monday for her captor to show mercy and release her beloved daughter.
Kristi Cornwell, a pretty, 38-year-old single mom, went for an exercise walk near her home in Blairsville, Ga., Tuesday evening. As she chatted with her boyfriend, Douglas Davis, on her cell phone, she said she had to wait a moment for a vehicle to pass. Davis then heard a struggle and screams over the phone line, and Cornwell shouting, “Please don’t take me.”
While the tiny, tight-knit community rallies around Cornwell through prayer circles and some 100 law enforcement personnel from 15 agencies search for her, Kristi’s mother, Joanne, gave TODAY’s Ann Curry a message for whoever may have taken her daughter.
“I just want to ask them to have mercy on her, to let her go, let her come back to us,” Joanne Cornwell said live via satellite from Blairsville. “She has a 15-year-old son that desperately needs his mother. Let her go.”
Choking back tears, Cornwell added a message to her daughter. “I would tell Kristi that we’re praying, and she’s praying I know; she’s a woman of faith. And we are, too. To hang in there, and her chance to be free will come. She will be able to get away.”
If anyone could be prepared for the horror of dealing with being abducted, it would be Kristi Cornwell. She has a degree in criminal justice, is trained in firearms, worked at a local prison and taught self-defense courses. She abandoned that career and was currently studying medical laboratory technology at Dalton State College, but her brother, Richard Cornwell, appearing with his mother on TODAY, told Curry Kristi could handle herself.
“She’s very well educated and well trained to deal with this situation,” he said. “I don’t think anyone would have a better set of tools than she does to get through this.”
Some leads have surfaced in the case that has rocked rural Union County, Ga., where another young hiker was murdered in January 2008. On Thursday, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found some of Cornwell’s personal belongings and signs of a struggle. And on Friday, a local man found Cornwell’s cell phone while mowing his lawn. The phone was found some 5 miles from where Cornwell was thought to have been abducted, with police believing whoever picked her up may have headed toward North Carolina.
In addition, reliable tips have come in reporting a white SUV and also a gold or tan compact car cruising in the area at the time of Cornwell’s abduction — vehicles that don’t belong to anyone living on the rural road. Still, the GBI has not nailed down a suspect. They have ruled out Cornwell’s boyfriend, her three ex-husbands, and a list of the registered sex offenders in the area.
“We don’t have a solid lead right now on who might have done this,” the GBI’s John Bankhead told NBC. “We don’t have any target suspects at this point.”
Reasons for hope
While the Cornwell family deals with its fear and dread about the safety of Kristi, her brother Richard told Curry he’s still at a complete loss as to why anyone would take their family member away.
Former FBI profiler and NBC news analyst Clint Van Zandt told Curry Monday that he sees hopeful signs in the investigation — especially the discovery of the cell phone. “If it’s a kidnapping, you may have that the assailant grabs the cell phone out of her hand and throws it out the window. Then we’ve got fingerprints and perhaps DNA to work with,” he said.
Van Zandt added Cornwell likely knew exactly what she was doing by screaming “Please don’t take me” into her cell phone at the time of her abduction.
“For her to say that, that tells her boyfriend this is no accident; this was a kidnapping, so in those few words she expressed what was going on, and how frightened she was,” Van Zandt said.