Co-worker charged in murder of Chesapeake woman

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Officials have confirmed they charged a man with the murder of Brianna Armstrong.

Virginia Beach police took 38-year-old Justin Keith Cornell into custody late Tuesday night, after a joint investigation with Chesapeake police.

According to Macie Pridgen, with the office of the Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s attorney, Cornell was charged with Armstrong’s murder and appeared in a video arraignment at 2 p.m. Wednesday.

Armstrong, 43, of Chesapeake, was last seen May 7, and her remains were discovered May 31. The following day the medical examiner’s office used dental records to identify the remains as those of Armstrong.

WAVY.com spoke to a regional manager of Knuckles ‘N Knots, who confirmed Cornell and Armstrong were co-workers. Mark Harris said Cornell worked mostly at the Virginia Beach location and Armstrong worked in Chesapeake, but sometimes the two worked at the same location.

Harris said Armstrong and Cornell were close friends, but that he doesn’t believe their relationship was romantic.

“We knew they were close friends, but he never really crossed our minds as a possible suspect,” Harris told WAVY.com.

WAVY News spoke to Armstrong’s husband, Corey Creek, while she was still considered missing. At that time, he said he and Armstrong were having marital problems, and that he believed there could be another man in the picture. He did not specify who the other person might be.

Police have not made any comments about how Armstrong and Cornell might have known each other.

Harris said Cornell began working for Kunckles ‘N Knots in March 2014 and that he was well-liked and highly requested by clients. It was not until around the time of Armstrong’s disappearance that things changed.

“There was an incident on May 1 where he didn’t show up to work. That’s before Brianna was missing. We did suspend him for a few days, as per policy,” Harris explained. “We promoted someone here to a management position that he didn’t like. He sent me a message that he wasn’t happy about it, and given that, I just decided that it was time for him to move on.”

Harris told WAVY.com Cornell was let go May 12 — that’s five days after Armstrong was last seen or heard from and one day before police found her vehicle abandoned in a parking lot a half-mile from Cornell’s front door.

WAVY.com found what appears to be Cornell’s Facebook page. On May 3, Cornell shared a post that said, “I loved her not for the way she danced with my angels, but for the way the sound of her name could silence my demons.” That post was “liked” by a Facebook account that appears to be Armstrong’s.

On May 11, Cornell “tagged” Armstrong in a post that said, “I don’t understand your specific kind of crazy, but I do admire your total commitment to it.” On May 14, he “shared” a news story about Armstrong’s disappearance.

Cornell posted nothing specific on social media, but the posts are noteworthy, considering he is now charged with her murder.

According to search warrants, Armstrong may have been kept alive for several days before her death. Her remains were found along a bike path at the Great Dismal Swamp in Chesapeake May 31. Police say the remains were found in multiple trash bags.

“All of us are looking back and thinking, ‘is there anything that could have indicated that this was a possibility? Is there anything that we could have done?’ It’s especially terrible for us, because finding out that she was still alive for so long, you know?” Harris said.

“Our thoughts are, ‘could we have tried harder?’ We organized a search party after they found her car, but could we have tried harder to find her? Could we have prevented this? So yeah, our heads are just spinning, spinning on the whole thing,” Harris continued.

Cornell’s neighbors are also now questioning if they ever saw anything suspicious. They told WAVY.com they don’t remember seeing Armstrong at Cornell’s apartment complex off Baker Road, near Newtown Road in Virginia Beach. They said he mostly kept to himself.

“I say he was a gentleman who was quiet. He came and went. If you had him in a lineup, I wouldn’t be able to recognize him because he just kept to himself,” neighbor Cecelia Loch explained.

Lock said she watched Chesapeake and Virginia Beach police investigate outside her front door Tuesday night. Neighbors weren’t sure how long Cornell lived at the apartment on Peak Court. According to court documents, he moved to the area two years ago, and spend many years before that in the Tampa, Florida area. Paperwork shows he has two previous DUI arrests, but no other criminal record.

“[Police] had him sitting in his car for a while,” Loch said. “There was a police car on the side watching him, and around eleven o’clock they came out from inspecting his unit and they put some trash bags in their forensics unit car. The police came out, touched the man up and down, put handcuffs on him, brought him over here, took him away.”

“It’s creepy. I got a murderer across the street, you know?” neighbor Carol Jensen said. “Literally right across the street that I’ve spoken to. Who would ever have thought?”

Jensen, Loch, and Harris all want to know what could have prompted Cornell to commit such a terrible crime.

“It’s a shame. It shouldn’t have happened. I want to know why it happened, why? If he did it, why did he do it, why? What did she do to you that was so bad you had to take her life?” Jensen said.

Cornell is being held at the Virginia Beach City Jail. He has hired an attorney and has a bond hearing scheduled for Friday. That’s the same day a family friend said Armstrong’s family is planning a private memorial service.

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