WESTMINSTER, Colo. (Reuters) - A small dismembered body found in a Colorado park was identified by authorities on Friday as that of 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway, who disappeared on her way to school a week ago, prompting an exhaustive search.
The remains were discovered on Wednesday in the northwest Denver suburb of Arvada, about 10 miles from Jessica’s home in Westminster. They were identified as those of the missing fifth-grader through DNA analysis, police said.
“Our focus has changed from a search for Jessica to a mission for justice for Jessica,” Westminster police chief Lee Birk told a news conference. “There’s a predator at large in our community.”
Police said previously that Jessica’s parents were not considered suspects in her disappearance and that the case was being investigated as an abduction.
“This is an unthinkable end to an unthinkable crime in our community,” Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said in a written statement. “It is with a profound sense of sorrow that we learned of Jessica Ridgeway’s death. On behalf of all of Colorado, we offer our deepest sympathies to her family and friends.”
Jessica, who was 4 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 80 pounds (36 kg), vanished last Friday after leaving for school.
Her mother, Sarah Ridgeway, said she last saw her daughter when the girl left home on the short walk. A night-shift worker, Sarah Ridgeway said she sleeps during the day and did not hear a phone call from the school reporting Jessica absent.
Jessica’s father, Jeremiah Bryant, lives in Missouri and came to Colorado when he learned his daughter was missing, police say.
Hundreds of police officers assisted by bloodhounds and scores of volunteers scoured the girl’s neighborhood for clues.
Investigators got their first break on Sunday when a man in Superior, Colorado, 6 miles from Westminster, found Jessica’s backpack on a sidewalk near his home. On Wednesday night, police said a body was found in a park in Arvada.
Earlier on Friday, the FBI issued a statement from its Behavior Analysis Unit advising members of the community to be alert to possible suspects in their midst.
The FBI said the offender may be revealed through changes in behavioral patterns, including missing work or other commitments, suddenly leaving town, expressing intense interest in the case or altering appearance.
Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Mary Slosson and Peter Cooney