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Bullard's Mom: Investigators Didn't Initially Take Case Seriously

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SANFORD, N.C. — The mother of a Lee County woman whose remains were discovered last week criticized investigators, saying they did not take it seriously when her daughter was apparently abducted almost 10 months ago.

DNA tests confirmed Saturday that human remains found in a rural area of Cumberland County last week were those of Michelle Bullard, 23, of Broadway.

Bullard, authorities said, disappeared in the early hours of Jan. 2 when a masked assailant entered the residence where Bullard was staying, robbed the occupants there, tied them up and left with Bullard.

"My life is changed forever by this tragedy that, I think, the outcome could have been avoided, had it been taken seriously the morning of Jan. 2," said Karen Riojas during a news conference Monday afternoon with Bullard's father, Julian Bullard, and other family members.

Riojas said three other victims of the home invasion had been interrogated for hours and that even they pleaded with investigators to look for Bullard.

She said she thought missing person alerts could have been issued sooner and that she and her family felt resistance from authorities when they asked for information about the case.

"We felt continually blocked from the investigation," Riojas said.

A spokesman with the Lee County Sheriff's Office said late Wednesday afternoon that his department spent more than 3,000 hours working on the case and that investigators did the best job they could have done.

For months, law enforcement authorities from 12 different agencies and hundreds of volunteers searched for Bullard but received very few leads in the case. Those they did get turned up empty.

Bullard's disappearance also attracted national media attention when Riojas appeared on syndicated talk shows, such as The Maury Povich Show, and network news programs such as CNN's Nancy Grace.

Last Wednesday, a hunter stumbled across Bullard's remains in an old cemetery near the Cedar Creek community in Fayetteville, nearly five miles from where some of Bullard's belongings had been recovered during a prior search.

Test results Saturday confirmed the remains to be those of Bullard, but medical examiners have not yet determined a cause of death.

"Even though the general public will not be able to comprehend this, I am actually relieved that Michelle was found," Riojas said. "That was always my want, my wish. … I recognized in the beginning the odds that we were facing. Michelle loved her family, her home, her job, her cat -- Michelle was loved."

Riojas also said she hoped that her daughter's death was quick. She described the past months as torture and said that finally knowing the fate of her daughter is bittersweet.

"I woke up yesterday for the second day of the year, knowing where my daughter was," Riojas said, referring to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Chapel Hill. "Even though we wish the outcome would have been differently, I'm hoping something good and positive can come from something so bad. My heart is not bitter."

Riojas said that she and her family hoped to establish a memorial fund or foundation in her daughter's name so that Bullard's memory could live forever.

"When people lose a loved one, they don't want their loved one to be forgotten," Riojas said. "It's not about drawing attention to the tragedy, it's about remembering the person."

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