Police suspect the skeletal remains of a child found in Burke County could be those of a little girl who disappeared on a red bike 11 years ago.
The apparent age of the child and the condition of the remains give law enforcement reason to suspect the bones belong to missing Augusta 9-year-old Tiffany Nelson, Burke County Sheriff Greg Coursey said.
"It's the one case that came to my mind originally. I remembered this one," the sheriff said.
Up until this point, Tiffany's case has been treated as a missing person case, but Sheriff Coursey said Wednesday the discovery of the bones makes it a homicide investigation.
Tiffany was last seen June 6, 1994, filling the tires on a red 10-speed at a convenience store at Lumpkin and Richmond Hill roads.
Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength said his homicide investigator, Sgt. Richard Roundtree, has been in Burke County most of the week to assist with the investigation.
Tiffany is the only child listed on the Richmond County Sheriff's Office's missing persons list.
Two men found a human skull and a few bones Monday while walking in a wooded area off Farmers Bridge Road less than a mile from the Richmond County line.
Sheriff Coursey said teeth were also found in the grave along with a child's tennis shoe that appeared to be white, with a sock inside it.
Tiffany was said to be wearing blue-and-white Jordan tennis shoes at the time of her disappearance.
The remains and other evidence are now with Dr. Rick Snow, a forensic anthropologist with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Sheriff Coursey said.
"We're still hoping to get something from the dental records and some DNA data," said Sheriff Coursey.
"We have to make a positive ID. At this point it's all speculation, but a possibility."
Even though the identity is yet to be confirmed, authorities have contacted Tiffany's family about the Burke County discovery, Sheriff Strength said.
Tiffany lived with her aunt and guardian Ora Parrish on Getzen Drive in south Augusta.
The child's mother died in 1992.
Ms. Parrish still lives in Augusta, Sheriff Strength said.
On Thursday night, a few residents of Getzen Street remembered Tiffany's disappearance, but said her aunt left the neighborhood years ago.
Michael Reilly, 59, is a 17-year resident of Getzen Street. He said he hasn't forgotten the child.
"I remember a skinny little black girl who rode her bike around the neighborhood. My kids played a couple of blocks over," he said.
Since the days when search parties were organized to look for Tiffany, Mr. Reilly said, an influx of homebuyers has upgraded the neighborhood.
"At the time, we figured it was probably a family member or something," he said about the girl's disappearance. "We'd like to see some closure, but not in this manner."
Perry O'Keefe lived next door to Tiffany and her aunt.
On Thursday night, he said he remembered being stunned by the incident.
"When it came out in the paper, I was incredulous that it happened on my street," he said. "It was very shocking, because it's not like we live in the middle of Hell's Kitchen or anything."
Across Lumpkin Road from where Tiffany was last seen, Sam Bryant worked behind the counter at Island Seafood on Thursday night.
It is the same place he worked 11 years ago, when the child went missing. He remembers fliers with Tiffany's photo hanging in the store window.
He said it was shocking "for a little girl to take missing and nobody know anything."
Sheriff Strength said his agency has never forgotten the case.
"We've never given up. We were always open-minded on open homicides. We never stop investigating them," Sheriff Strength said.
Staff writers Kate Lewis and Lisa Kaylor contributed to this report.
Reach Timothy Cox at (706) 823-3217 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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