Originally created 05/21/05

Cousin recalls disappearance



Cousins Tiffany Nelson and Georgia Kelly did everything together as children.

The girls, then 9 and 10, pretended they were wrestlers, biked around their neighborhoods and played basketball.

Family members jokingly called the pair "firebugs" because they once set a relative's mattress on fire.

"Me and Tiffany was best cousins," Ms. Kelly, now 21, said Friday. "You couldn't separate us. When you see her, you see me."

But something - or someone - did separate the best friends.

After a bike ride June 6, 1994, Tiffany stopped to fill the tires of her red 10-speed bike at a convenience store at Lumpkin and Richmond Hills roads.

Then she vanished.

Now, after nearly 11 years, authorities might have found her.

When a relative called Ms. Kelly this week and said police thought the remains found Monday in Burke County could be her missing cousin, she panicked.

"I froze up," Ms. Kelly said. "I was hoping they'd say it's not her."

Burke and Richmond counties sheriff's deputies suspect the child-size skull, teeth and bone fragments are Tiffany's.

Burke County Sheriff Greg Coursey said Friday it could take up to a week for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab to positively identify the remains.

But Ms. Kelly said she knows it's Tiffany. The blue and white Air Jordan sneaker and the white sock police found in the grave match the kind Tiffany was seen wearing the day she vanished.

"That's how we knew it was her," she said. "They want a positive ID, but we know."

Inside Ms Kelly's small south Augusta home, two framed photos of a 9-year-old Tiffany sit on a table. A ceramic angel adorns a shelf, and the religious poem Footprints in the Sand hangs on the wall.

"Sometimes I wish it was me and not her," she said wistfully. "If I'd been there, I believe Tiffany would still be alive today."

The day before Tiffany disappeared, the cousins spent the night together. The next day Ms. Kelly went with her mother to church.

When she returned home, family and neighbors were gathered in the front yard to search for the 9-year-old, who had mysteriously disappeared.

If she had not gone to church, Ms. Kelly believes she would have been riding her bike with Tiffany.

If Tiffany's bike had a flat, they would have walked together to the Getzen Street home Tiffany shared with her aunt Ora Parrish, who took her in when her mother died in 1992.

Or they would have ignored or fought off whoever persuaded Tiffany to take a ride with them, the circumstances that Ms. Kelly believes led to her cousin's death.

"She was a baby. She couldn't defend herself," she said. "But, she was a fighter. I know she didn't go down easy."

She is grateful to the men who found her cousin's remains.

If the remains are Tiffany's, Sheriff Coursey said Richmond County investigators will take the lead in the homicide case. Richmond County homicide investigator Sgt. Richard Roundtree has been in Burke County since the discovery of the remains.

"I believe if we find out it was definitely her, I'm confident with Richmond County and Burke County and the GBI authorities working it, the person or persons responsible will be caught and brought to justice," Sheriff Coursey said.

For Ms. Kelly and Tiffany's relatives, it's the end of more than a decade of wondering.

"We been searching 11 years," she said. "We never gave up hope. We never gave up praying."

Reach Kate Lewis at (706) 823-3215 or kate.lewis@augustachronicle.com.