Hundreds of mourners gathered for a public memorial in Arvada, Colo., Tuesday night for 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway, who disappeared as she was headed for school and later found dead in a grassy field. Inside the Faith Bible Chapel, mourners were awash in purple—Jessica’s favorite color, and once a symbol of hope for her safe return.
The tribute underscored the brutality of what had happened to this joyful little girl. Jessica loved animals. She had two fish, two frogs, and a love for Disney. She was a budding entrepreneur. A prankster. She loved pistachio nuts. She also loved holidays, and had planned on being a zombie lifeguard on Halloween. Most of all, she was a “girlie girl,” Pastor Rick Long of Grace Church of Arvada said. “We will never forget sweet Jessica,” said her aunt Becca Ridgeway. “Jessica was my Mini-Me.”
With Jessica’s killer still at large, Westminster Police Chief Lee Birk told her family and the rest of the mourners, “I want to leave you with an assurance that law enforcement is working the case tirelessly and diligently, and we are committed until we have found justice for Jessica.”
The fifth grader disappeared on the morning of Oct. 5 during a two-block walk to meet friends on their way to Witt Elementary School in Westminster, a northwest suburb of Denver. Jessica, who was dressed in a black jacket and jeans and wearing pink-and-purple eyeglasses, never arrived. A week later, on the same day authorities ruled out her parents as suspects, her dismembered body was found in a park in the Denver suburb of Arvada, about seven miles from her home.
Police say they have received more than 4,000 tips since Chief Birk warned that a “predator” is at large in the community. But so far, they have not named a suspect in the gruesome death. “We are looking for more information to develop the case,” said Westminster police spokesman Trevor Materasso. “It has been several days, and it is a very traumatic event for our community. We are working every lead, every tip, thoroughly.”
Hampering the investigation is the lack of a physical description of the suspect or an eyewitness account. “We have not provided a sketch to the public and we are not providing one because we haven’t developed enough to approach the public with it,” Materasso said.
Although the police are keeping mum about the investigation, there are signs they are working feverishly to capture Jessica’s killer. Last Thursday, Melinda Bench, who lives in the neighborhood where Jessica’s backpack was found two days after her disappearance, said two FBI agents showed up at her home asking if her husband would submit to a DNA swab.
“They came to our door at 9 p.m., and we have two small children,” said Bench. “It was kind of frightening. They said it was the best time to get people to do this because it is the only time they were at home. My husband was fine with it. If this is what they needed to do he was fine with it.”
Bench said the FBI agents told her they were also collecting swabs from male residents who live near Jessica’s house, as well as near Pattridge Park, where her body was discovered by a road crew doing clean-up work. “They clearly have DNA coming from somewhere. They wouldn’t put in that much effort if there wasn’t any evidence,” Bench said.
FBI spokesman Dave Joly would not confirm that the FBI was collecting swabs, or whether law enforcement had collected a sample of the suspect’s DNA. “We are not able to comment about our investigative strategies or processes,” he said. Materasso said he wasn’t privy to “any forensic information” about the suspect. DNA collection is “really a standard practice,” he said. “We are looking at anything that will help us.”
Bob Pence, a former FBI special agent in Colorado, said the police should act swiftly, because the suspect will most likely strike again. “It’s an extremely violent crime, and from past experience offenders who do this type of thing are capable of doing it again. He may have done something like this in the past.”
Painting a profile of such a killer, Pence said citizens “need to be concerned about anyone who has suddenly changed his habits, left town suddenly or is acting differently. You need to be concerned about someone who has changed his behavior or is saying bizarre things he never said before.”
Police say they haven’t ruled out whether recent attempted abductions in nearby Arvada are linked to Jessica’s murder. On Oct. 4, the day before Jessica disappeared, two young boys told Arvada police that a man in a white van followed them as they walked home from school. Also, a white man with brown hair in his 20s or 30s driving a blue sedan attempted twice—on Sept. 9 and Sept. 12—to lure elementary-school kids into his car with candy. It was also reported that a suspicious white van was seen in Jessica’s neighborhood of modest two-story homes on the morning of her disappearance. In a separate case last year, a man jumped out of the bushes at a 12-year-old girl in a local park; that same man—who was described as a white male in his 50s or 60s with salt-and-pepper hair—approached another young girl at a YMCA and tried to lure her inside his gray sedan.
Although residents say they have noticed a larger police presence patrolling the neighborhoods, they still feel on edge. “We don’t know what we are looking for,” said Emily Bauer, who lives in nearby Superior, Colo. “You wonder if the [Arvada] cases are connected and no one is saying if they are. They are just saying, be diligent. How do I stay vigilant? We can’t keep our kids inside for two years.”
Bauer said she has set up a parent workshop with the help of the Front Range Center for Assault Prevention to teach parents how to talk to their kids about recognizing the danger signs of potential abductions, escape skills, and self-defense techniques. “I want to do something that actually seems like it is accomplishing a goal, instead of feeling so desperate and fearful,” she said. So far, she said, 50 people have signed up for the workshop.
Westminster resident Doug Brunner says Jessica’s death has made the community more cautious and suspicious. “We are looking at each other,” he said.
“We are getting a fair number of parents coming in with their children talking about their own fears and anxieties,” said Tom Olbrich, director of the Access and Emergency Services with the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, which is providing free grief counseling to the community. “Because in this instance the perpetrator hasn’t been identified, it does lead to a greater amount of anxiety in the community. It is sad for all of us here. You can’t see a picture of Jessica with her glasses and her face and not be affected by what happened to her.”
Memorials have sprung up at the park near Jessica’s house, in the field where she was discovered, and near the spot where her backpack was found. They are filled with cascades of purple balloons and stuffed teddy bears, all in honor of the little girl with the shoulder-length blonde hair and a gap between her two front teeth.