A body found in a suburban Denver park was identified Friday as Jessica Ridgeway, a missing 10-year-old girl whose father lives in Independence.
Jessica’s body was found Wednesday about 7 miles southwest of her Westminster home. Authorities said the body was not intact, and DNA was used to identify her.
“Our focus has changed from the search for Jessica to a mission of justice for Jessica,” Westminster Police Chief Lee Birk said.
“We recognize there is a predator at large in our community.”
Jessica began a short walk from her home to Witt Elementary School on the morning of Oct. 5, but never arrived. A massive search by hundreds of law enforcement officers did not start until hours later because Jessica’s mother, who works nights, slept through a call from school officials saying Jessica wasn’t there.
“The information we got is not the information we wanted to get by any means,” said Larry Moss, a great-uncle of Jessica who lives in Independence. “We wanted them to come back and say, ‘Sorry, this is not her.’ But we would not want to wish that on any other family also.”
Jessica’s family, Moss said, is going through heartache and sorrow. Jessica’s parents are Sarah Ridgeway, who lived with the girl in Westminster, and Jeremiah Bryant, of Independence.
Funeral arrangements are being made in Colorado.
“We want to get her poor little body laid to rest,” Moss said.
Family members were working on a website so people could donate to a fund for funeral costs and then to help fund a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of her killer.
Moss said he couldn’t think of anything to say to someone who would harm a child.
“If they can do that to another human being, especially a 10-year-old child, they just ain’t right. They’re not a person. They are a monster.”
Although he wants to see swift justice, Moss said he wanted to make sure everything is done legally so that Jessica’s killer can’t slip through a loophole.
“I want to see them prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Moss said.
Bryant, Jessica’s great-grandmother Donna Moss and grandmother Angie Moss were in Colorado this week, waiting with other relatives and the community for news of Jessica. On Wednesday night, relatives and friends from the Kansas City area held a candlelight vigil for her in McCoy Park in Independence.
The vigil was just ending when word came that a body had been discovered in the Denver suburb of Arvada and that authorities were not ruling out the possibility that it might be Jessica.
Friday’s announcement increased the anxiety of parents in the Denver area.
The FBI has warned residents that Jessica may have been abducted by someone they know and is asking them to be alert for people who might have suddenly changed their appearance or uncharacteristically missed work or appointments.
“It could be your boss, it could be your friend, and ultimately it could be your family member,” FBI spokesman Dave Joly said previously. “We suspect someone in the community knows this individual.”
Jim Yacone, FBI special agent in charge of the Denver division, said investigators would continue neighborhood searches. The U.S. Marshals Service, immigration officials and the state Department of Corrections have been reviewing registered sex offenders in the area, he said, without elaborating.
Investigators have received more than 1,500 tips from the public, roughly 800 of which have been covered, Yacone said. Authorities also have searched more than 500 homes and more than 1,000 vehicles, but still need the public’s help.
“We want you to look for changes of habits, patterns, peculiar absences of those around you and report it to law enforcement,” he said.
Signs of the tragedy have been everywhere in Jessica’s neighborhood of modest, two-story homes with single-car garages.
In the past week, officers have searched homes and yards. They kept guard at crosswalks and photographed cars entering the neighborhood. Mailboxes and trees were encircled by ribbons in Jessica’s favorite color, purple.
“I don’t feel safe for my daughter anymore, anywhere,” said Stacey Oppie, who lives in the neighborhood.
Two months ago, Oppie started letting her daughter play unsupervised with a friend at the park that Jessica customarily passed on her way to school. She doesn’t intend to do that anymore.
“We’re all a little bit on alert, but it’s not fear. We’re angry because this is a good neighborhood,” Oppie said.
Jessica’s disappearance hit close to home for Chelsea Bozsak, a senior at nearby Standley Lake High School, where Jessica’s cousin attends classes. Students there wore purple Friday in support of Jessica’s family.
“It’s so scary because you never think something like this could happen in your community,” Bozsak said.
Courtney Sullivan, also a senior at Standley Lake, said her father spoke to her and her younger brother about Jessica’s disappearance.
“He’s definitely talked to us about being more careful about our surroundings. You could see why,” said Sullivan, a cross-country runner who often uses neighborhood streets. “I’m running in places where there’s lights, busy roads, where I can get to someplace if I need to.”
Families in Arvada, near the park where the body was found, were already on edge over reports last month that a man tried to lure two young boys into a car in separate incidents. The cases remain unsolved.
“This person’s around here,” said Suzette Morgan, the mother of boys ages 13 and 8. “I would say that everybody around here is really freaked out.”
Retired FBI behavioral analyst Clinton Van Zandt told The Associated Press that tipoffs about the suspect could include someone suddenly growing a beard, getting a new haircut or other changes in appearance. Other clues might be out-of-character behavior, Van Zandt said.
The only substantive clue police have disclosed was the discovery of Jessica’s backpack and water bottle in Superior, about six miles northwest of her home, two days after she disappeared. Police won’t discuss what was found in the bag or test results involving it.
Law-enforcement leaders said they would not disclose further information publicly, saying it would either jeopardize or distract from the investigation.