A lifetime of questions left unanswered
GAINESVILLE, Ga. – When a giddy Elaine Nix sprung through the door with her boyfriend and brother, she could hardly wait to tell her mom about what had happened at church that night.
The baptized and once-saved, pint-sized blonde had been rededicated into the church, absolving away all her sins.
Becky Nix will never forget that moment of sheer elation and glisten in her teenager’s piercing blue eyes. Knowing her daughter was forgiven is a peace of mind she clings to—because the hours that would follow would give her no solace.
The soft-spoken mother, whose Gainesville, Ga., home is plastered with framed scripture, carefully recollects the last moments she spent with her 18-year-old only daughter.
It was Sunday, Sept. 19, 1999.
“That evening when I got up, Elaine came to the table, telling me what she learned,” Becky, who was working third shift at the time, said.
When the preacher asked if anybody wanted to rededicate their life to God, Elaine had raised her hand.
“She told me the verse in the Bible and she was so excited… I think it was the one about God forgives you no matter what you do,” the now-59 mother remembered. “That's what gives me peace, to know that whatever sins she did from Sunday morning, 'til Monday night or whenever they killed her, God forgave her."
Elaine would have turned 37 on Dec. 17.
Instead, she has been dead for as long as she was alive.
Eighteen years ago, she went missing from a convenience store parking lot in Hall County and found nearly two weeks later, naked, dead and alone in the woods of an industrial park in Gwinnett County, just off Interstate 85.
No one has been charged in her murder.
Whenever Becky sees a frog or a smiley face, she grins and thinks of Elaine.
“She liked frogs; there were frogs everywhere,” she remembers fondly.
Standing just 5’2” tall and barely weighing over 100 lbs., Elaine, who was born and raised in Hall County, Ga., which encompasses a rural setting with many blue-collar workers—and is also known as the poultry capital of the world.
A spitfire in a small package, she was silly, bubbly and outspoken, Becky said about her daughter who wanted to be a nurse and have a family one day.
In 1999, she was a hostess at the Up the Creek restaurant; and while she had dropped out of school, she was getting her head on straight, her mom said, and was starting to take responsibility and making plans for the future.
Her best friend, Jennifer Boyd, says Elaine was a “fun-loving, spunky, little lady. She was like a little ball of dynamite. They say dynamite comes in small packages, she definitely did.”
“She had a very charismatic way about her. She could walk into a room and light it up without saying anything.”
Fast friends since they were 13 years old, when Elaine moved to East Hall in the sixth grade.
They were inseparable and did everything together—sleepovers, laughing, gossiping, singing.
The East Hall High School students, aka the black and gold Vikings, even entered the Miss Valhalla Pageant together at the last minute. Jennifer was 18, like Elaine, but year ahead of her in school.
PHOTOS | 18 years later: What happened to this girl?
Boyd smiles flipping through the photos of her and Elaine.
“Good memories… I just wish she was here to make more. She had a beautiful smile,” she said moving one photo behind the other to reveal the last photo in her pile of recollections.
Shaking her head, not understanding, why or how someone could do this to such a kind person.
"She didn't have any grudges against anybody. She didn't talk bad about anybody. I just miss her so much," Boyd said, tears welling up in her eyes.
“They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—that’s why I can’t give up. I won’t give up. I feel like, if she was here and this was me, she would do it for me.”
On Monday, Sept. 20, 1999, it’s as if time came to a squealing halt and stood motionless for nearly two decades.
"It don't [sic] seem like 18 years to us,” Becky said, holding a 1999 calendar she had back then, that she still possesses. The month remains flipped open to September.
The day following her exhilarating experience at church, Elaine was stuck in bed, sick all day.
Becky peeked into her bedroom and asked her if she was going to get up.
“You're going to sleep your life away,” she told her daughter.
So, the surly teen, still not feeling well, got up and the two made dinner together.
Her mother remembers that Elaine’s boyfriend, Billy Millwood's best friend called to talk to Elaine. She overheard her telling him, that no one would do all that she did for Millwood.
They were broken up for, likely, the hundredth time.
“They were in and out, you know, breaking up and getting back together. Her break up wasn't like mine. You break up, you just leave them alone. But they were still talking on the phone and going places and doing things,” Becky said.
Millwood's number had been blocked from their home phone, so he sent her a number message to decode to Elaine’s pager.
It was the numbers spelling: F-U, B.
“That made her mad so she went up to the store, because she could go to that store and call Cleveland for a quarter and talk as long as she wanted to, and it wasn't long distance,” Becky remembered.
Millwood, also 18, lived in Cleveland with his mother, about 30 miles away. The two had been dating off and on for their entire time in high school.
It was Elaine’s routine to drive the 2 ½ miles to Zack’s Food Rack, located at 2052 Candler Road, in Gainesville, to use the payphone in the convenience store’s parking lot and call him.
She threw on some clothes, a white T-shirt, khaki pants and white and blue gym shoes, and left her quiet suburban home, enveloped by trees and woods, around 11 p.m., to call Millwood.
She drove the winding country roads—her headlights dancing off the treetops and double yellow line, as she took each curve on the two-lane highway. Five minutes into her drive, she reached Zack’s—which now includes a Citgo gas station, a Mexican-American café serving up hot biscuits and gravy, alongside a strip of empty storefronts. The convenience store was already closed for the night when she pulls into the gravel parking lot.
The call at the payphone—also a once-popular spot for semi-truck drivers to pull in for some shut-eye—lasted about an hour, until just after midnight—but what was said between the two of them, only Millwood knows.
“He would only tell us that he loved her, and she loved him,” Becky said.
That is the last time anyone is known to have spoken to Elaine.
A few hours later, a patrolling officer spotted Elaine’s dark blue, 1986 Toyota Celica in the Zack’s parking lot. While the hood was still warm, according to what Becky was told, Elaine, nor anyone else, was around.
Becky said, that officer left the scene with nor further examination of her daughter’s car.
When the sun came up that fall morning, beaming down in the mid-60s, and Elaine was not in her bed, Becky didn’t become alarmed.
Since Elaine was fiercely independent, and had a tendency of running away; her mom didn’t worry about her at that point. She would often stay with Millwood or friends for days at a time.
But the next day would shed light on something more troubling for her.
She didn’t show up for her shift at the restaurant. So, her parents went searching for her—and that’s when they stumbled upon her car, parked at Zack’s next to the pay phone.
“I got in it and the keys were in the initiation,” Becky recalled about her daughter's keys, which included a frog keychain. “I cranked it, and I thought, 'Well, it cranks, it's got gas in it. Where is she?”
Looking around, she noticed that her daughter’s purse was still in the backseat and her pack of Marlboro Lights was sitting on the passenger seat—seemed particularly odd to her.
“If you smoke, you don't go off and leave your cigarettes,” Becky said.
The mother investigated the scene for herself.
She pushed open the doors of the convenience store, walked to the counter and inquired with the clerk about how long the car had been there and if there was anyone near it all night.
But, to no avail.
Elaine’s car, according to the female clerk, was there when she showed up for work that morning.
The police did not take Elaine’s car into evidence, so Becky drove it back to their house—possibly contaminating any potential evidence that could have led to answers about what happened to her daughter.
“I just got in the car; and I don't remember if I left the seat up or not. And I drove home. And, my husband, he was following me, and he said by the time I pulled into the driveway, and when I got out of the car, he said I was just white as a ghost. And, I knew then that something was wrong with this picture."
When bewildered mother and father arrived home with their now-missing daughter’s car, they called Hall County Police Department. According to Becky, they told them that they don't normally file a missing persons report until she has been missing for a certain amount of time.
But, she said, the officer gave her a case number.
However, when 11Alive requested that missing persons report, we were told there was no missing report for her filed with Hall County from 1999.
Becky and David immediately created a handwritten missing persons flier and began posting it to stop signs near the store and every light pole they could find along the way.
But as quickly as the posted the fliers, they were ripped down, David said.
Furthermore, in an effort to find her, family and friends, including Boyd, congregated at Zack’s to do a search for Elaine that weekend.
They retraced everywhere they knew she had been in those last moments.
"It was really hard, especially when we were going by the lake—there's a trailer park right next to Zack’s Food Rack, and there's railroad tracks everywhere and then the lake,” Boyd said. “But, just coming across, maybe a garbage bag, and it possibly looking like something could be in it and then poking, just to see if... I mean, we all wanted to find her, but we didn't want to find her that way. So, that was the scariest part—when you would see something that could possibly be, and then checking it out and hoping it's not.”
Unfortunately, it yielded no sign of Elaine.
Treated like a runaway
From the moment their daughter disappeared, her parents believed she was treated as a runaway and wasn’t really being looked for, because of her history of leaving home.
In fact, Becky remembered, the sheriff at that time insinuated to them that she probably ran off to Florida with friends, or left to become a stripper.
"Hall County didn't get on it like they should have," Becky said.
"Once they interviewed a lot of her friends, they didn't have a good... from 15-18 you do a lot of mistakes... and they just put that in their mind, 'Well, she was just trouble.'"
According to the Nixes, police conducted road blocks and questioned people, but it didn’t feel like enough to them.
“The information they gave them, they didn't really follow up. And, even now, that Gwinnett has it, I think maybe if somebody calls in Hall County, Hall County don't forward it to Gwinnett County. And I think that's a lot of the miscommunication," the still-mourning mother said.
But because of Elaine’s history for leaving home, including an extended stay at Boyd’s grandmother’s house, Becky was optimistic that they would find her alive and well and doing her own thing as usual.
Wednesday, Sept. 29, 1999
Nine days later, still believing their daughter would be found alive, Becky prayed.
"I had prayed: Lord, whatever the case be, let us find her."
Becky was off work that warm autumn day.
The Nixes had a preacher and some cousins at the house.
An ominous overcast settled over Gainesville that morning. Rain was spitting outside when the doorbell rang. It was Hall County Police detectives.
They led them into the living room and sat down with the desperate parents nearly falling off the edge of the couch with anticipation. But what came out of their mouths was the last thing they expected.
“’Well, we found your daughter, but, she's dead.’”
PHOTOS | Cold case: Who killed Elaine Nix and why?
Their 18-year-old daughter was found tossed like a piece of garbage into the woods.
After smelling something “dead” in the woods for days, an Industrial Cutting Die employee investigated the industrial park’s grounds seeking out the undeniable odor.
The industrial park, just off Buford Highway, is lined with heavily wooded areas and bordered with no outlet streets. An easily concealable, dark and ominous final resting place for a murder victim.
That’s when he discovered Nix’s nude body along the tree line in Buford, Ga.—six miles off I-85 and 17 miles from her hour-long phone call with Millwood, according the Gwinnett County Police report from the day she was found.
No more than a mile from where she was dumped was the Hall and Gwinnett counties’ line on GA-13.
"It was shocking. We were in shock,” Becky said, who was told that Elaine was curled up in a fetal position when she was found.
"They say she wasn't shot; she wasn't stabbed. And she didn't have no drugs. It was either asphyxiation or suffocation—but they couldn't tell us,” Becky said.
Because she was so badly decomposed, Elaine had to be identified by her dental records, and what remained of her frog tattoo on her ankle and butterfly tattoo on her lower back.
And while she was found nude, her jewelry, a black beaded necklace, was still around her neck and a promise ring from Millwood on her finger.
"From then on it kind of spiraled," Becky said.
"It's like no detective wants to get into it because there's so much happening in the world, they don't have time to go backwards; they can only go forwards."
In the days that followed, they were just "numb."
Her funeral was a closed casket because she was too-far decomposed to view. They laid their daughter to rest at Memorial Park in Gainesville.
But for the years that followed, they saw Elaine everywhere they went.
"Every time we'd go down the road, we'd see her... her color hair, it was her."
And they saw a suspect in everyone’s eyes.
“Everybody you look at, in the back of your mind your thinking, 'Did they do it?'" Becky said.
But whoever did this to their daughter, Becky and David believe with everything they have that she didn’t go down easily.
"Whoever did this to her, I can't help but believe, that she fought. She put up a fight," Becky said.
The grieving parents were told that where she was found was considered a partying spot, because of its secluded atmosphere.
Her father, David Nix, 61, a man of few words, believes that Elaine saw something she should not have seen while she was at Zack’s. He thinks she witnessed a drug deal and was snatched up to cover a crime in progress.
They've done their own investigation—noodling around off-the-beaten path locations, talking to people who say they know something—anything they can do to find out what happened to their only daughter.
"We have had family, neighbors, their kids, have told us their daddy done it. Because, I don't know if they hate him; I don't know if he actually done it; but they said that he threatened them if they told that he would do her like he did Elaine. But the detectives don't believe it."
To her amateur sleuth parents, it seems highly implausible that someone robbed their daughter since her jewelry was still on her body when she was dumped.
"Whoever did this to Elaine, they didn't take her jewelry. They gave me back the jewelry that she had on. I have it in my safe; I've never touched it."
Becky keeps her daughter’s jewelry in the evidence bags they were given to her in and keeps them in a safe. She has never opened the two clear bags, in hopes that one day that jewelry might be related to new evidence that could point the finger at who did this to Elaine.
Gone but not forgotten: A best friend’s quest for answers
It feels like a lifetime ago, Boyd said, but... "some days it feels like it was yesterday."
"We all have to somewhat move on, move forward... But I don't want her case to die," said Boyd, who went on to graduate from college and is now working in accounting.
While she has moved on with her life, she has never given up on finding out who did this to her friend.
“There is a killer still out there; her case is unsolved; and we're not going to give up," she said, wearing a white T-shirt with Elaine’s photo and the words: “Forever Friends.”
All of her friends are still close, but it's not the same without her there.
"There's a void there. There's a part of you that's kind of gone. We'd love to have her here."
"They've robbed the world of a fun-loving, spunky, little lady, who absolutely loved children, wanted a family of her own, wanted to go to college—wanted to be something someday."
"And now, all we can do is wonder, what would she be now? Where would we be now if she was here? What would be different?"
There is a $5,000 reward for information leading to the killer and Boyd said, that’s only the beginning.
"We are not going to give up; we're going to keep fighting. Her murder is unsolved and there's a killer out there, somewhere. And just needs to be served."
And, she has a message for whoever did this to Elaine.
"Whatever you did was very selfish. You took a beautiful, young life and just destroyed not only her life but family's life, her friend's life, everyone she had affected. I hope you are suffering every day knowing what you did, and not coming forward and least giving the family closure in some way."
"I want them to pay the consequences," Boyd said.
Quiet celebrations, memorials and no more Christmases
Every year, Elaine’s family and friends get together in September to remember her and to say a little prayer that someone who knows what happened to her will come forward. They’ve all moved on, without a choice.
Peewee football and cheerleading photos tacked on the Becky’s fridge and a freshly used “No. 1 Grandma” mug on the counter, indicate two nieces and a nephew, Elaine will never meet.
Her parents’ house exudes good memories of their daughter. Curios and shelves are bursting to the brim with Elaine’s favorite thing: frogs.
Framed photos of the tiny-but-mighty blonde are strategically placed throughout the living room and front sitting room, including an 8x10 frame hanging by the front door—a haunting smile that reminds you her case is still unsolved.
“Just not knowing,” Becky said is heartbreaking.
Time came to an abrupt standstill. Their loss is so fresh for them, it feels like yesterday.
"It don't seem like 18 years to us," she continued.
But it has been—an eternal absence from their lives, their hearts and their celebrations.
In that time, they’ve only decorated a handful of Christmas trees over the years. And those were for the grandkids.
"It ain't Christmas," Becky said through her tears, her voice further softening to a whisper.
"It's hard to have a Christmas,” David said quietly. "She ain't here… You've got that thought in your head, what would it be like with her here, you know?"
The couple lived in their house for another five years after Elaine’s death. Her room was left untouched. But because of financial reasons and too many memories, they moved out of that house and boxed up her things. They sit in a back room in their new house—never opened again.
Over the years, Millwood, who was the last known person to speak to her, has been in and out of jail numerous times, racking up a lengthy criminal rap sheet including charges like battery, simple battery, possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute and domestic dispute, stretching throughout Hall and Gwinnett counties and spanning nearly 20 years, according to police records.
Becky said that each time he is released from jail, he calls her.
“I feel like he's wanting to tell me something, but then he gets right back out in the world and doing whatever he does to get back in jail,” she said. “I think he knows something, because they talked on the phone for an hour.”
Becky fears that police are waiting for someone to admit to her daughter’s murder.
"They're waiting on this person to say, 'I did it.'"
“That ain't gonna happen,” David argued. “After 18 years... no. If you can live with yourself for this long, kill a little girl like that, you're pretty bad. It didn't bother them a bit."
Becky is optimistic that police may know who the culprit might be.
“I can't help but think that they do know something and they're waiting for that something to come out of somebody's mouth."
Gwinnett County Police Sgt. John Richter is now investigating the cold case.
Inside the veteran homicide detective’s cubicle at the Gwinnett County Police Department, one wall is dedicated to Elaine, her case and potential perpetrators. It’s a puzzle missing the pieces to create a full picture of what happened and by whom.
While he won’t divulge many details, he points at several of the probable suspects over the years and calls out “dead, dead…” indicating that the cold case’s suspect list is dwindling.
No one has been charged or named a suspect, but Richter said, “Everybody is a suspect.”
Her case remains unsolved and her cause of death was ruled undetermined.
When Becky looks back at the lifetime she has spent without Elaine, she still holds tight to the last night they were together—because with “undetermined,” “unsolved,” and sans justice for her daughter, it’s all she has.
“She was telling me how excited she was about what she had learned. She was telling me about how proud she was to know that God will forgive you no matter what you do—forgiving her for her sins and she was just all happy,” Becky said.
“That's the only peace I have, is that I know she was forgiven for whatever she'd done. That's the peace that gets me through,” she said.
“I know I'll see her again one day.”
As Becky wipes away the tears underneath her glasses, the now-grandmother to three, thinks about what she would say to her only daughter today.
"It's hard to think about the past tense, you know? 'Cause you're always wondering,” she said.
“Look what you missed...” she said she would say to Elaine. “Grandkids are asking about her all the time. She would've really loved them. She would have been one character.”
A solitary tear plummets down her father’s weathered face, traveling through each wrinkle like tiny tributaries.
“I miss her smile all the time. I keep that smile in my mind. She had one of those sneaky grins,” he said with a grin on his face.
But his smile fades when he thinks about the evil who did this to his little girl.
“I wish they could feel the pain we've been through. I don't want another person to have to go through this, but they need to know how it feels. A person's life... they screwed our whole life up. We'll never be the same,” David said. “We're trying to pick up the pieces.”
“It's like you don't believe she's gone—just waiting on her to come home,” he said crying and swiping tear after tear from his cheeks. His other hand is balled up, resting on his forehead, held up by his elbow on the dining room table.
In the living room, just one room over, a family portrait from Elaine’s brother’s wedding in May 1999. It’s the last time they were all together for a photo.
And nearby, a gold frame is placed on one of the wooden shelves of the entertainment center adjacent to two angel figurines.
Inside, a photo of Elaine is adorned by her name and the dates of her life and death. To the left of her photo, is a poem.
Don't grieve for me, for now I'm free
I'm following the path God has chosen for me.
I took His hand when I heard him call;
I turned my back and left it all.
I could not stay another day,
To laugh, to love, to work or play.
Tasks left undone must stay that way;
I've now found peace at the end of day.
If my parting has left a void,
Then fill it with remembered joys.
A friendship shared, a laugh, a kiss;
Oh yes, these things, I too will miss.
Be not burdened with times of sorrow
Look for the sunshine of tomorrow.
My life's been full, I savored much;
Good friends, good times, a loved ones touch.
Perhaps my time seems all to brief;
Don't lengthen your pain with undue grief.
If you have any information about Elaine Nix’s disappearance or murder, call Gwinnett County Police Department, at (770) 513-5300.
For more of Georgia's cold cases, visit 11Alive's Cold Case page.
HOW WE DID THE STORY |
Gone Cold is an ongoing series, where 11Alive Journalist Jessica Noll investigates some of the most infamous and lesser-known cold cases in Georgia. She's digging for answers for the still-grieving families who long for them, and for the victims who have never found their justice.
11Alive Journalist Jessica Noll spent several days interviewing law enforcement and family to journalistically gather every aspect of the story possible. She investigated the cases, sifting through public records, court documents, police reports and photos.
This story is written in a narrative-style, long-form and was methodically reported in order to obtain each detail of the Kuria case—revealing what happened to Jane Kuria, her two daughter, son and nephew on Aug. 1, 2007.
CONTACT THE REPORTER |
Jessica Noll is a multimedia journalist, who focuses on in-depth, investigative crime/justice reports for 11Alive's digital platforms. Follow her on Twitter @JNJournalist and like her on Facebook to keep up with her latest work. If you have a tip or story idea, email her at jnoll@11Alive.com or call, text at (404) 664-3634.