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Search area narrows in Georgia landfill evidence hunt

Investigators looking for clues in disappearance of Joleen Cummings

CHARLTON COUNTY, Ga. – Investigators combing through a Charlton County, Georgia, landfill for any clues in the disappearance of a Nassau County mother have begun zeroing in on a more narrow search area, the FBI announced Monday.  

FBI agents and Nassau County deputies resumed their meticulous search Tuesday morning through millions of pounds of garbage at the Chesser Island Landfill -- a Waste Management facility.

For four days, they have been shifting through millions of pounds of trash in hot, dangerous conditions, hunting for any possible evidence in the case of Joleen Cummings, a Nassau County woman last seen the day before Mother's Day.

The search, which began Saturday, is expected to run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for seven days, but the FBI said that time frame will be evaluated as the week goes on. 

FBI Special Agent in Charge Charles Spencer said landfill searches don't typically yield positive results, but investigators are hopeful because they've been able to narrow the scope of the search.

Spencer said they've found trash related to the area and date they're looking for, which has helped them zero in on finding what they're looking for: trash that was dumped by Cummings' former coworker Kimberly Kessler.

PHOTOS: Investigators dig through landfill | VIDEO: Landfill search area narrows 
SKY4: Aerials of Tuesday's landfill search

Kessler has been charged with stealing Cummings' SUV and is the prime suspect in Cummings' disappearance.

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Landfill search

  • 7 days, 7 a.m.-7 p.m., barring inclement weather
  • Searching 2,700 tons (5.4 million pounds) of trash
  • 25 search members on scene, plus administrative, medical staff
  • 8 units represented during search: FBI evidence response team; FBI Jacksonville; FBI Atlanta; FBI Jackson, Mississippi; FBI Tampa, Florida; FBI Boston; FBI Washington D.C.; Quantico lab
  • With extreme heat a concern, cooling tents, medics available to searchers
  • Hazard unit on scene to monitor potential dangerous conditions

Authorities said they obtained video of Kessler appearing to put a white trash bag and emptying the contents of a trash can into a dumpster about the time of Cummings' disappearance. The Sheriff's Office asked Waste Management to hold 5 million pounds of trash received May 14 so it could be searched at a later date.

On Monday, Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper revealed that the trash bag and trash can were average sized.

Leeper said they waited to search the landfill because they wanted to exhaust other leads first.

That search began Saturday as crews geared up in full body suits, gloves, masks, safety glasses and steel toed boots for protection. 

Leeper said the search is making progress and remains on track, "but we're not there yet."

MORE: Deputies believe Cummings 'not alive'

The sheriff detailed the tedious process. Investigators put trash in a dump truck; take it to a secure, flat area; spread it out; sift through it; collect any potential evidence and set it aside.

Spencer admitted the search conditions have been difficult for investigators, who are dealing with extreme heat. He said medical staff are monitoring investigators, and there have been no injuries so far.

"We have experts from our lab division who have come down, that are experts in safety, that review the material before we go through it and search it for any obvious hazards. We're doing air-quality monitoring on the site," Spencer said. "Anything that can be done to ensure the safety of our personnel and the success of this operation to help us with the Sheriff's Office investigation is being done."

Cummings' mother, Anne Johnson, gave a statement Monday afternoon thanking the investigators who have been working tirelessly to find any clues that would bring her family closure and making another impassioned plea for anyone who has information in the case to call Crime Stoppers.

WATCH: Joleen Cummings' mom still awaits answers

She noted that it's been 58 days since Cummings disappeared, and said she never imagined she would be standing outside a landfill hoping for clues that could lead to her daughter's body.

"(It's) a place of filth. Dead animals' carcasses, feces and the heat make it smell even stronger," Johnson said. "This not a place I ever thought we could find evidence or even fear that my daughter could be."

She said her life and the lives of Cummings' three children are "void" and they need closure.

"My heart is literally pounding outside of my chest for the recovery of my daughter," Johnson said. "When people ask how am I doing, my grief is like the weather -- it’s a devastating storm that makes me feel angry, exhausted, raw and empty. I wake up in the morning and I ask myself, 'Am I even alive?'"

Johnson asked for continued prayers for her family, including her three grandchildren. 

"I remain hopeful that they are looking in the right place for our beloved Joleen. I feel in my heart that we are close to finding her and close to getting the justice she deserves," said Brooke Harley, a friend of Cummings for nearly 20 years. "Joleen has this unbelievable strength that I know now she gets from her mother. Please continue to pray for the family, friends and the law enforcement searching for her."

Longtime friend Alma Powers told News4Jax that Monday's update on the search was encouraging.

"It felt good to hear that they feel that they are getting close," Powers said. "I really feel that they are gonna find the evidence they are looking for and we will get justice for Joleen."

Cummings was last seen May 12 at her job at Tangles Hair Salon on State Road 200 in Yulee.

READ MORE: Who is Kimberly Kessler?

Kessler, who was seen on surveillance parking Cummings' SUV and stepping out of it, was arrested in May and is behind bars in the Duval County Jail, after being moved there following a hunger strike in June.

Leeper said Kessler has not been cooperating with the investigation.

Chesser Island is the same landfill where the body of 7-year-old Somer Thompson was found in 2009.