article

08.02.11

Child's Death Stuns Remote Town

Deep in the forest, 11-year-old Celina Cass vanished without a trace. Now her body has been found and police are searching for answers—but mainly finding more questions.

On the night of July 25, most people in the rural woodlands of West Stewartstown, were probably heaving a sigh of relief as the heat that had gripped the area for days finally retreated. In fact, the nighttime temperature was again dipping down into the mid-40s—not all that unusual for high summer in this remote hamlet of just under 1,000 hidden away in the Great North Woods of New Hampshire.

Among these residents was Celina Cass, an 11-year-old girl with a buck tooth and a fondness for basketball, described as "sweet" and "generous" by her father. Like most kids, Celina could be found on many nights tapping away at the family computer.

It was at that computer on this night in the home Celina shared with her mother, stepfather, and older sister that she was last seen. By the next morning, her parents discovered Celina had vanished from the house, which sits just a mile from the Canadian border and within spitting distance of the Connecticut River. And it was from that river that Celina's body was pulled on Aug. 1, her death ruled suspicious by law enforcement. "We have brought her home," said the state's Senior Assistant Attorney General Jane Young, "but not the way we wanted to bring her home."

By Tuesday night, medical examiners who performed an autopsy had still not determined how Cass died. "At this time, the cause and manner of death is still pending," Young told reporters, noting the need for further toxicology results and "further investigation." However, Young said, "a criminal investigation remains ongoing regarding the circumstances of her death." It is a suspicious death, she says, "based on a visual observation of Miss Cass's body, in the water and out of the water."

Two-and-a-half hours east of Montreal, Stewartstown isn't the type of place that normally makes the news. "This is New Hampshire, the safest state in the country," Young tells The Daily Beast. "We pride ourselves on our safety." While she would not say if there are any suspects or persons of interest in the case, she cautioned the public to remain vigilant—even while emphasizing that she "can't say there is a heightened alarm for the public."

Investigators have spoken to area registered sex offenders, says Young. "That was a facet we looked at." And according to court documents obtained by ABC News, Cass's stepfather, Wendell Noyes, was involuntarily committed to a hospital in 2003 because of schizophrenia and arrested for threatening an ex-girlfriend. A judge wrote that Noyes' mental illness creates "a potentially serious likelihood of danger to himself and others," according to the court documents.

"This is New Hampshire, the safest state in the country. We pride ourselves on our safety."

On Monday, Noyes was taken away by ambulance after lying down with his face in his arms outside a home where he had been staying, according to a local television station.

Cass's biological father, Adam Laro, hospitalized with a heart condition at the time of Cass's disappearance, has described his daughter as "very outgoing, very generous to people." "At least we know she's going to go in peace," he has said. "We can at least have that much." Monday night, scores of distraught neighbors, friends, and family turned out for a candlelight vigil. Some sent balloons with notes to her in heaven. "Right now the family is in mourning," Cass's grandfather, Walter Laro, told the AP. "Everybody's shook up real bad right now."

Additional reporting by Evie Salomon.