Northeast Iowa residents who have been holding out hope that two young cousins missing for five months might be home for Christmas were grappling Thursday with the news that hunters likely found the girls' bodies.
Autopsies by the state medical examiner's office were still under way, but the remains are believed to be those of Lyric Cook and Elizabeth Collins, who were 10 and 8 when they did not come back from riding their bikes July 13, Black Hawk County sheriff's Capt. Rick Abben said.
The girls' families were stunned by the news that two bodies were found, family friend Sara Curl, who has organized community events to support the families, said Thursday night.
"To be honest we have been trying to keep the positivity going so much this 100 percent blindsided us and it absolutely did them as well," she said. "I don't think that when they were called down there yesterday that they expected to hear the news that they did. so it's really going to take some time to process."
Curl helped organize a vigil for the families Thursday night around a Christmas tree decorated to honor the girls, hoping they would be home for the holiday.
Tammy Marvets, whose husband, Randy, came up with the idea, said her 7-year-old son went to school with Elizabeth and rode the same bus.
"He's pretty upset. He says, 'Mom, I just want to cry.' I said, 'It's OK to cry, honey,'" Marvets said.
Hunters found the bodies Wednesday in a rural wildlife area in northeastern Iowa, about 25 miles from Evansdale, the city of 4,700 where the girls were last seen. Authorities found their bikes and a purse near a recreational lake in the city, and their disappearance sparked a massive search and kidnapping investigation involving the FBI, state and local police.
Abben said at a news conference Thursday that investigators were "confident" the bodies were Lyric and Elizabeth based on evidence found at the scene and a preliminary investigation. He said the bodies were smaller in stature and authorities "have no one else that's missing in this area."
Abben said investigators were leaning toward reclassifying the case as a homicide investigation, but would wait for information from the autopsies before proceeding. He declined to say whether the bodies were concealed, or how long investigators thought they had been there. Relatives have not gone to see the bodies and "there's no reason for them to do so," Abben said.
Officers from several agencies scoured fields, woods and ditches near the Seven Bridges Wildlife Area for any possible evidence in the case. Deer hunters apparently stumbled on the remains Wednesday in the secluded area, which is intersected by the Wapsipinicon River and is a popular spot for hunting and fishing.
Abben said investigators would continue combing the area for clues for several days and the park would remain closed to public access until at least Monday. "We will gather whatever is out there," he said.
The news of the girls' likely deaths hit hard throughout northeastern Iowa, which had rallied behind the girls and their families in the five months since they disappeared. Some residents in Evansdale, which is 90 miles northeast of Des Moines, had been holding out hope that they would be found alive.
"We are all grieving. We hurt for the families and believe me it touches the community deeply because it is a small community," said Jeff Rasanen, pastor of the Faith Assembly of God Church in Evansdale. "It's a sad time. We were just praying for a much better outcome."
In a posting on her Facebook page Thursday, Heather Collins, Elizabeth's mother, said it was not the outcome the family wanted but now "we know our girls are dancing up with our savior." Collins thanked the community for an outpouring of support.
At the girls' schools, additional counselors were made available Thursday for students and others, according to Sharon Miller, the Waterloo schools spokeswoman. Lyric would have been in fifth grade at Kingsley elementary in Waterloo and Elizabeth would have been in fourth grade at Poyner school in Evandsale.
The two were being watched by their grandmother at Collins' home in Evansdale when they went for a bike ride on a Friday summer afternoon. Surveillance footage and witnesses have confirmed that they were riding nearby. After they didn't return, relatives reported the girls missing hours later. A firefighter soon found their bikes near Meyers Lake, and a search that involved hundreds of volunteers and several police agencies ensued.
An FBI dive team brought in special equipment to search the lake days later, and the case was reclassified as an abduction after no sign of the girls emerged. Months passed — as did each girl's birthday — without any news as police chased thousands of tips and explored theories about what could have happened. Volunteers held prayer vigils and hung pictures of the girls. An anonymous donor last week pledged $100,000 for information leading to their return and the conviction of those responsible for their disappearance, on top of the $50,000 authorities had announced.
Authorities had asked hunters to look for the girls in remote woods and fields this fall. Jennifer Lancaster, chief law enforcement official for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in northeastern Iowa, said she believed deer hunters happened to come upon the bodies and called police.
"I think it's the first time someone happened to be in that particular spot," she said. She said she believed anyone who saw the remains would have reported them immediately because "that is certainly a case that has tugged the hearts of many people around northeastern Iowa."
Foley reported from Iowa City, Iowa.