FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Cumberland County authorities and the State Bureau of Investigation are investigating the discovery of a set of human remains found Wednesday, which could be those of a Lee County woman who has been missing since January.
Karen Riojas, the mother of Michelle Bullard, told WRAL that the remains were found in an old cemetery near the Cedar Creek community in Fayetteville. Residents who live in the area said the remains were found by a hunter.
Authorities have said that Bullard, who was 23 at the time, was kidnapped on Jan. 2 while visiting friends. They said a masked gunman entered the home where Bullard was staying, robbed them and took Bullard at gunpoint.
Riojas told WRAL that she received a call from Lee County authorities on Wednesday telling her that the remains could be those of her daughter. The remains were found close to where Bullard's wallet and purse had been found in an earlier search.
Cumberland County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Debbie Tanna said the remains were found near the intersection of Tabor Church and Johnson roads at about 1 p.m. Wednesday. Investigators have not been able to positively identify the remains and have not been able to determine whether they are those of a male or female.
Forensic experts and medical examiners were at the scene Thursday afternoon investigating, and DNA tests will determine whether the remains are those of Bullard's.
For months, investigators and volunteers from more than a dozen agencies have searched for Bullard in several counties. Investigators have also followed dozens of leads, none of which have turned up much information about her disappearance.
"We've never given up on finding Michelle," said Jackie Cox, director of the North Carolina Missing You Foundation, an organization that headed the previous search in which Bullard's belongings were found. "It's bittersweet. The family needs some closure."
The past 10 months have been an agonizing time for Bullard's family members, who have organized searches and vigils in hope of finding clues to Bullard's whereabouts.
"I won't give up any hope until I'm told differently," Riojas told WRAL during a prayer vigil for her daughter in February. "We have not lost hope. We are still very, very hopeful that Michelle will have a safe return back to us."
Riojas would not comment publicly on the latest developments but described the past 10 months as a nightmare and the past day or so as nothing short of a torture.
Authorities have not named any suspects in the case, but earlier this year, they did identify a Lee County man as a person of interest who they said loosely fit the description of the home-invasion assailant.
That man, David Wilson, committed suicide along a Harnett County road hours after Bullard was reported missing. The two incidents occurred within six miles of each other. The remains found Wednesday were discovered on land near property owned by Wilson's brother.
Early in the investigation, detectives took surveillance video from a local convenience store to examine whether it showed Wilson and Bullard inside the store the night before Bullard's disappearance, but authorities have never connected him to Bullard.
Wilson's relatives have said that circumstances surrounding Bullard's disappearance and Wilson's suicide were merely a coincidence and hope the latest developments in the case will clear Wilson's name.
"I'm hoping they can find out what happened to her, and they can get some DNA and figure out my brother didn't have anything to do with it," said William Wilson, David Wilson's brother.
Bullard is 5 feet 2 inches tall, weighs about 125 pounds and has brown hair and brown eyes. A $10,000 reward is being offered to anyone who has information leading to her recovery.
Anyone with information that may help investigators solve the case is urged to contact the Lee County Sheriff's Office at 919-775-5531 or local law enforcement.