Search is on for killer of 7 year old Florida girl
Over 200 people have held a candle lit vigil outside of the Orange Park, Florida home where 7 year old Somer Thompson lived. The girl vanished on her way home from school Monday, and her body was found by police Wednesday night in a local landfill.
Local families are trying to make sense of the tragedy, and bring whatever comfort or aid they can to the family of the little girl.
Somer Thompson's face, with chubby cheeks and thick brown bangs, still smiled from missing person posters plastered on nearly every utility pole along the mile-long route from her elementary school to her home.
In front of a small church and in front of well-kept homes framed by tall trees with Spanish moss hanging from the branches, handmade signs implored anyone with information about the 7-year-old's disappearance on her walk home from school to call the sheriff's office.
The messages were left over from when the middle-class neighborhood held out hope she would be discovered safe until they learned her body was found Wednesday evening in a Georgia landfill some 50 miles away.
The next afternoon, authorities searched a vacant home a couple of blocks into Somer's daily route, just past a wooded area and across the street from a playground and baseball diamonds.
"It's crazy to think something like this could happen here," said neighbor 17-year-old Andrew Carlson as he watched investigators dressed in protective white suits go in and out of the empty house and comb through a construction trash bin outside. Construction crews had been working on the house, which was damaged in a fire several months ago, he said.
Authorities say Somer squabbled with another child Monday and then walked ahead of the group of kids and was never seen again. So far, the police have not made an arrest but have questioned more than 155 registered sex offenders in the area. State online records show 88 sex offenders live in Orange Park, a Jacksonville suburb of about 9,000 people just south of Jacksonville Naval Air Station.
At an intersection about halfway into her walk, where Somer would have crossed the street and turned right on the road that led straight home, a purple ribbon — which supporters and family members have been wearing — was tied to the pole of a stop sign.
On Thursday evening, a steady flow of people — many of them parents, clutching the hands of young children — walked down that same road toward Somer's house to support her grieving family with a candlelight vigil.
Around a tree across the street from the girl's house, supporters had created a memorial, leaving hundreds of stuffed animals, flickering candles, signs and balloons.
Diena Thompson, Somer's mother, came out with purple ribbons tied in her hair to thank the group who sang "Amazing Grace" and "You Are My Sunshine," then recited the Lord's Prayer.
"I wish I could hug every one of you," Thompson said. "I love every one of you."
Cries of support came from the crowd of about 200: "The community is behind you!" and "We're here for you. You're in our prayers."
After Somer vanished, investigators tailed nine garbage trucks from her neighborhood to the Georgia landfill, then picked through the trash as each rig spilled its load. They sorted through more than 225 tons of garbage before their worst fears were realized: Sticking out of the rubbish were a child's lifeless legs.
Sheriff Rick Beseler said the quick discovery of Somer's body, two days after she disappeared, may have saved precious evidence that could lead to her killer.
"Had we not done this tactic, I believe that body would have been buried beneath hundreds of tons of debris, probably would have gone undiscovered forever," he said.
Searching landfills is common when children disappear, but it is unusual to try to zero in on them more efficiently by tracking a neighborhood's garbage trucks, said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
An autopsy to establish the cause of death is done, but authorities would not disclose their findings. At a news conference, Beseler would not say if Somer had been sexually assaulted or answer other questions about the condition of the body.
"I fear for our community until we bring this person in. This is a heinous crime that's been committed," Beseler said. "And we're going to work as hard as we can to make this community safe."
The girl disappeared in a heavily populated residential area about a mile from a stretch of fast-food restaurants and other businesses. Investigators will presumably try to pinpoint the trash bin or garbage can where she was dumped, based on the trash around her and the truck's pickup route.
The sheriff said he had told Diena Thompson to prepare for the worst, and called her after receiving news her body was discovered.
"Needless to say, she was absolutely devastated," Beseler said. "It was the hardest phone call I've ever had to make in my life, and I hope I never have to make another one like that."