Searchers looking for clues into the disappearance of Tiffany Nelson uncovered more bones Saturday that might belong to the 9-year-old girl who vanished 11 years ago.
But whether the fragments unlock the lingering mystery of Tiffany's slaying or turn out to belong to an animal, Richmond County Sheriff's Sgt. Richard Roundtree says scouring the woods where part of her remains were found in May was well worth it.
"Even if we don't find anything useful to the case, we have succeeded in the cause of bringing the community together," he said over a microphone Saturday morning. "Just the effort was significant."
The organized search began with 50 volunteers gathered at Hephzibah Elementary School as early as 7 a.m., ready to scrape away more than a decade of pine straw and branches.
It ended five hours later with all 50 united in a cause larger than themselves.
Members of the little girl's family who have scattered since Tiffany was last seen leaned on one another for strength as they picked up rakes and combed away debris.
Tiffany's cousin Benita Bass came straight from her night work shift, arriving with no sleep and much coffee in her system.
"It's not hard to be out here; we want a resolution," she said while working. "It's dragged on for so long that we're just hoping for answers."
Ms. Bass' fondest memories of her young cousin were when Tiffany read stories to her then-3-year-old daughter at sleepovers and the way she acted like a tomboy, riding her bicycle while wearing the prettiest dresses.
Tiffany's father, Vernon Cryer, drove an hour from his home in Girard, Ga., to be a part of the search with his wife, Viola, whom he married a year after Tiffany went missing.
"I'm a little woozy, upset," he said early in the long day. "But I feel a little better participating."
Although Tiffany never lived with him, Mr. Cryer saw his daughter once or twice a week when she visited him in the Augusta home he shared with his sister.
"We'd go shopping or have a cookout," he recalled. "Whenever Tiffany needed something, I would get it for her. She was just so sweet and kind."
Cousin Stephanie Nelson drove hours from Statesboro, Ga., where she just started her freshman year at Georgia Southern University, so she could show how much she loved Tiffany.
"I would hang out with her like we were sisters," the 18-year-old said. "We were all wishing she was alive, and now we just want to find out who did this to her."
GETTING TO THE ROOT OF what happened to Tiffany was the heart of the matter Saturday, according to police, themselves searching the woods for clues.
Columbia County officers rode ATVs, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime-scene specialists gathered up bones as they were spotted, bagged them and tagged the area with an orange flag. Members of several Richmond County sheriff's departments led the teams of volunteers.
It was truly a collective search like no other undertaken regionally, according to Richmond County sheriff's Major Ken Autry.
He spoke of a significant search for one of convicted serial killer Reinaldo Rivera's victims, but nothing "this great."
By the end of the day, the eight teams had cleared away at least a sector apiece and then gone back over the sectors in detail so that the whole area was canvassed.
With the discovery of several unknown bones, GBI Special Agent Gary Nicholson said technicians will test the findings to determine their origins.
"After that, we don't know," he said.
FOUR YEARS AGO, Maria Albert-Brayboy spent her birthday in the worst way imaginable - picking out her son's casket.
Just two days earlier, a speeding driver had run over 15-year-old Brandon as he walked along Deans Bridge Road, killing him almost instantly.
Ms. Albert-Brayboy said the fact police arrested the driver within days and her neighbors came to her aid got her through the trauma.
Those were the motivations for the Augusta mother of three to participate Saturday.
"My son died tragically, and this is definitely a tragedy," she said while cooling off under a mist-spraying tent. "I know how waiting three days made me feel, so I can only imagine how they feel after 11 years. ... Being here was really the least I could do."
Although they had only met that day, Ms. Albert-Brayboy and Tiffany's cousin Tracy Adams spoke like old friends, with Ms. Albert-Brayboy advising that "whatever you do, stay on your knees and look to the Lord."
"It's just a blessing," Ms. Adams said about part of Tiffany's remains being discovered in May. "Some families don't even get this."
Others from the Augusta area and beyond came to help, not out of shared grief or a familiarity with Tiffany's relatives but out of pure compassion.
"I had to do it," Augustan Anna May said of volunteering. "I felt bad ever since I heard of her disappearing. It was like I was watching this on a TV show, not that it was happening to real people."
Every day when Ms. May passes by the spot where part of Tiffany's skeleton was found, she's reminded of the little girl's death and the notion that "somebody has to find something," she says.
"It's a perfect day to look for her," Ms. May said before boarding a bus to the search area.
George Sharpton, too, explained that Tiffany's killing had grabbed hold of his heart and inspired him to assist the family.
"I remember when it first happened. I had a daughter about that same age," he said. "And it's always bothered me."
Hope of finding any new pieces of evidence kept residents going, with many pointing out how plentiful and diverse the herd of assembled volunteers was.
"You've got black, white, young, old, thin and not-so-in-shape people that are willing to get out there," said Doretha Stewart, the owner of a Hephzibah-based personal care home. "The temperatures might hit 100 degrees, but they're not even worried about that."
The swell of support spurred emotion in Ms. Adams, who fought tears as she thanked the volunteers along with her other family members.
"It's amazing to see that people remember and care, not just about Tiffany, but any missing child," she said.
Reach Dena Levitz at (706) 823-3339 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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