By Judy Reed
A former Cedar Springs family received some bittersweet closure last week on a 30-year-old mystery: where was their son and brother, Chuck Cornell? And it was DNA samples from the family that helped police solve the mystery.
Charles Cornell, a 1974 graduate of Cedar Springs High School, was the son of Pastor Richard and Hattie Cornell. Richard was pastor at Calvary Assembly of God, then located in Rockford. According to Chuck’s sister, Rachel Valkeo, Chuck was the third child in a family of six siblings.
“He was quiet, liked baseball and nice cars,” remembered Rachel, who is a younger sibling. She said some might remember him working at Great Day while in high school.
After graduation, Chuck joined the U.S. Army in 1975, and received an honorable discharge in 1979. Eventually, Chuck moved to Battle Creek, where he found employment. Rachel said that he had a few friends from high school he kept in touch with, and that he also had a girlfriend in Battle Creek. But as time went by, the family heard from him less and less.
So, on Chuck’s 30th birthday, in April of 1986, his parents drove to Battle Creek to see him. But what they found was an empty apartment that looked as if it had been vandalized.
Rachel said that other news articles have reported that the last time they saw Chuck was at his 30th birthday party. “That party never happened,” she said. “They drove down to see him for his birthday—but he wasn’t there.”
Richard and Hattie reported the empty apartment and vandalism to police and that their son was missing. And for 30 years, the family thought police were looking for him, just like they were. But they weren’t. Instead, they found out that law enforcement thought he was voluntarily missing and had no record of his disappearance.
“My mom and dad believed they had filed a missing persons report. But in May 2016, we found out it was never actually filed. Police didn’t believe any disruptions in the apartment showed he should be missing,” explained Rachel.
Richard passed away in 1991, without ever knowing what became of his son. But Hattie, who is now 88 and resides in Rockford, and the others still searched. In May of this year, when D/Sgt. Sarah Krebs, of Michigan State Police Missing Persons Coordination Unit heard about Cornell, she encouraged his family to file a police report. A detective at the MSP Post in Rockford then investigated, according to a news release from the MSP.
Hattie and one of Chuck’s sisters submitted DNA that was tested in a national database of unidentified remains.
The samples pointed the MSP to a 1989 John Doe case out of Arkansas, almost 900 miles from Battle Creek. Cornell had been walking on the highway and was struck by a semi-truck and killed. Recognizable photos, medical and dental records and fingerprints were on file, but the cases were not connected until the crucial DNA was submitted.
“Cases like this highlight the importance of families of missing people getting their DNA on file in CODIS. It is never too late,” said Krebs. “Without that link, the Cornell family may have never known what had happened to Charles.”
The family was told about the match on Tuesday, December 27.
Rachel said both she and her mother have mixed emotions about the news. “We don’t have a lot of answers. We have the main answer, but we are still trying to connect the dots.”
One of the things they would like to know, is why was Chuck in Arkansas? “If there is anyone out there who knows why he ended up there, we’d like to know,” said Rachel. She said they were unable to locate the girlfriend. “She had children of her own, I don’t think it was a super serious relationship.”
Rachel said she is working with other agencies and authorities to work out exactly what occurred and with the coroner in Arkansas to get Chuck’s body home. They can then hold a memorial service.
Rachel is grateful for the support from law enforcement in finding her brother. “The authorities in Michigan—Det. Denise Bentley and D/Sgt. Sarah Krebs—and all the authorities in Arkansas, have been a tremendous help to my family,” she said.
The MSP said that the Cornell case marks the 67th identification that the MSP Missing Persons Coordination unit has made, and the 32nd one by DNA alone.
For information on how family members can contribute DNA or report a missing person, email MSP-MissingPersons@michigan.gov.