On the table is a frame holding the photo of a young woman, her husband and a beaming little boy.
Cook tries to fight back tears as she talks about her daughter, Carla Michelle Cook Fuqua, 28, whose body was recovered by investigators on Tuesday in the woods just two miles from her Piedmont home, more than three years after anyone who loved her saw her alive.
“She was a loving person. A lot of people loved Carla,” Cook says.
Acting on a tip, investigators Tuesday searched the woods a short drive south of Cook’s and Fuqua’s homes along Alabama 21 and found skeletal human remains. On Friday, Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson said dental records had revealed those remains to be Fuqua’s. He said his office had begun a homicide investigation, as it seemed clear foul play was involved in her death.
It’s been more than three years since Cook last saw her daughter, but the details were fresh in her mind Friday. Cook said they had a heart-to-heart that day, Oct. 29, 2009. Cook said Fuqua confided in her about the hard times she was facing. Fuqua’s husband had died after an all-terrain vehicle accident five years earlier. A year after that, Fuqua’s father also died.
She was raising her young son, Justin, now 10, with the help of her family. She was attending a court-mandated drug program, which her mother said she was one month from completing before her disappearance.
“She didn’t give up on her family, but she just didn’t know how to deal,” Cook said. “She wanted to find a way to deal with that, but she never found it, not in the way that she was searching.”
Fuqua lived in a trailer behind her mother’s home on Piedmont Springs Road. After that heart-to-heart talk, Fuqua left her home while Cook took her son to a fall festival. When they returned, Fuqua was gone. No one in the family knew where she had gone. Cook assumed she was visiting a friend, but she never came home.
“I never gave up hope. I knew I had to take care of Justin, I knew I had to get him to school,” Cook said. “We done the best we could and still do the best we can.”
Cook said through tears as she slumped in her wooden chair Friday that she would give anything for this to be a nightmare. She said she’s trying to be open with her grandson about his mother’s death. Cook said she’s encouraged him to ask questions after Piedmont police told the family that the remains recovered Tuesday were Fuqua’s.
Several days ago when Cook heard about the body being found so close to her home, she said she didn’t think it could be her daughter’s.
“I never really thought it would end like this,” Cook said. “In my heart I really didn’t think it would be her. It was a shock.”
Cook said she and her family kept hope alive with thoughts that Fuqua had decided to run away from her troubles. That thought gave them hope Fuqua was alive and well in another town.
Michelle Thacker, Fuqua’s cousin, said the family has found closure knowing they don’t have to wonder where she is anymore.
“I don’t have to wonder if she’s cold or if she’s hungry or if she’s got a bed to lay her head down,” Thacker said.
She placed a comforting hand on Cook’s knee as she talked about her family.
“She didn’t deserve this. I hope whoever did this, we find out who it is,” Thacker said. “They don’t deserve to be out here with us.”
Cook looked hopeful for a moment as she said “it’ll come together. God chose to work this one out and I don’t think he’ll stop now.”
Thacker said the family will never feel closure in its entirety until they have justice.
Amerson, speaking by phone Friday morning, said investigators are essentially starting from scratch in the investigation into Fuqua’s death.
“We’re going to do an analysis of the evidence we have and see where it leads,” Amerson said.
The sheriff said there are people that know facts and he needs those people to come forward.
“We were able to find this body thanks to information we’ve received,” Amerson said. “We know there are other people out there who can help us as well.”
“We have a great group of investigators with a lot of experience,” Amerson said. “We’re going to pursue this case and do our very best to close.”
In the wake of closure on her daughter’s disappearance, Cook is looking toward the future and the well-being of her grandson.
“We’ll make it. We will make it,” Cook said. “I’ll do everything I can to raise that baby the way she would want him to be raised, because he was her world.”
Staff Writer Rachael Griffin: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @RGriffin_Star.