LaFAYETTE, Ga. - For more than three years, Theresa Parker's family just knew she was dead.
They suffered through months of fruitless searches for her body. They watched as the national media descended on her North Georgia neighborhood. They sat in court during the trial that convicted her husband Sam Parker of murder.
But because her body was still missing, they kept hearing the same thing from friends and others in the community: Maybe she just ran away from an abusive relationship. Maybe she's alive. Maybe.
On Wednesday, the maybes came to a crashing halt when police announced that skeletal remains pulled from the Chattooga River were Parker's.
"This kind of makes all our fears a reality," said John Wilson, Theresa Parker's brother-in-law. "It just brings all the hurt back. This is all just a shock to us. We don't even know what to do next. We don't even know when she'll be turned over to us."
Now, Wilson said, there's no question that Sam Parker, a former LaFayette police officer, murdered his estranged wife, who worked as a 911 dispatcher for Walker County.
"At the trial everyone said Theresa ran away," he said. "This lets people see the truth. She definitely didn't deserve being placed where she was. She was such a good, caring soul. She didn't deserve her fate."
After three years of local and state police combing four counties in Northwest Georgia for Theresa Parker's body, her remains were discovered Monday by a farmer in Chattooga County, Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson said. They were found next to a cornfield, about 100 feet from the Chattooga River near the Alabama state line.
"It's just a miracle that he stumbled upon it," Sheriff Wilson said at a news conference Wednesday evening.
The spot where her remains were found was about 10 miles from where Sam Parker grew up in Trion, Ga., a place where he went to fish and knew well, Sheriff Wilson said.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation investigators, along with the Walker sheriff's office, have not stopped looking for Theresa Parker's body since she went missing in March 2007, said GBI special agent Jerry Scott.
"The river has been a concern since Day One, but that general area was not part of it," Scott said.
Sam Parker, who is serving a life sentence at the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, filed a motion for a new trial last year. David Dunn, the public defender who represents Parker, said he needs the transcripts from the first three-week trial before they can move forward with the appeal.
He said the appeal was filed within a month of the trial, but he's still waiting for the transcripts.
Dunn said he didn't want to comment about the fact that Theresa Parker's body was found.
During his trial, part of Sam Parker's defense was that his estranged wife had run away to Mexico or was hiding from him, said Assistant District Attorney Leigh Patterson, who prosecuted the case.
"I think we proved that wasn't true at trial," Patterson said. "She would never put her family through that kind of turmoil and suffering."
After a GBI forensic test identified the remains as Theresa Parker through dental records, word began to spread Wednesday afternoon among Walker County public safety officials.
Theresa Parker began working at the Walker County 911 Center in 1992 and was known and loved throughout the staff, said David Ashburn, Walker County 911 director.
When told her body had been found, he called in extra dispatchers before breaking the news to his employees, worried their reactions would be intense, he said.
He was right. Several dispatchers became so upset they had to leave their radios when they were told, Ashburn said.
"It's a great day because we have an answer," he said. "It's a terrible day because we didn't get the answer we wanted."
The next step is to find out how she was killed and then her remains can be returned to her family, Sheriff Wilson said.
"We can send her back home and let her family give her a proper burial, a proper memorial service that she so desperately deserves," he said.
John Wilson said family members had always hoped Sam Parker would admit to where he had hid her remains. Now that her remains have been found, he has only one question for the convicted murderer.
"I would like to know why," he said. "That's what I would like to know."
Follow Joy Lukachick on Twitter by following this link.