The search for missing Colorado 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway took a tragic turn today when police identified a dismembered body found in a park just miles from her home as that of the fifth-grader. The death marked the end of a massive search involving hundreds of state, local and federal authorities that began one week ago when she vanished during a two-block walk to a park to meet friends.
“Our focus has changed from a search for Jessica to a mission to find justice for Jessica,” said Westminster Police Chief Lee Birk at a late afternoon press conference at the Westminster Public Safety Center. “We recognize there is a predator at large in our community.”
So far, police have not named a suspect in her gruesome death, and it is unclear if three abduction attempts in the last month are related. In one case, a white man with brown hair driving a blue sedan attempted twice—on September 9 and September 12—to lure elementary school kids into his car with candy. Then, on October 4, the day before Jessica disappeared, two young girls told Arvada, Colo., police that a man in a white van followed them as they walked home from school. It was also reported that a suspicious white van was seen in Jessica’s neighborhood of modest, two-story homes on the same morning of her disappearance.
The sad story began Oct/ 5 at 8:30 a.m., when the girl with shoulder-length blonde hair and a gap between her two front teeth set off from her home in Westminster, a northwest suburb of Denver, to meet friends at a park about a block away for their walk to Witt Elementary School.
But the fifth-grader, who was dressed in a black jacket and jeans and wearing pink and purple eyeglasses, never arrived. It was a route she took daily, but this time she didn’t show up.
“She didn’t make the first connection with friends,” said Westminster police spokesman Trevor Materasso.
When the 4’10”, 80-pound Jessica didn’t arrive for homeroom period, school officials phoned her house and left a message with her mother, Sarah. Sarah, a night shift worker, didn’t hear the message until she woke up eight hours later. She called her daughter’s friends and checked the park before she called police at 4:30 p.m. to report her daughter missing.
The police response was intense. Thirty-five law enforcement agencies participated in the massive search. Police officers were bussed in from nearby cities and counties to help with door-to-door canvasses as well as searches of the more remote areas of the counties. “Everyone wants to help out and assist, especially when you have an endangered child,” said Adams County Sheriff Department Sgt. Terrance O’Neill, whose department sent out 50 deputies to assist in the search. “Anytime a child is missing, obviously the concerns are very heightened not only for the safe return of the child but for the families involved.”
On Sunday afternoon, the search for Jessica moved 6.4 miles away to Superior, Colo., when a man discovered a backpack containing a water bottle with Jessica’s name on it on a sidewalk in front of his home. He didn’t recognize the name, so his neighbor emailed a message to the town’s Listserv with a headline that read: “Children’s Back Pack Found.” The message listed the location where the backpack was found and that the water bottle has “‘Jessica Ridgeway’ name on it. Come and get it.”
A person reading the listserv responded to the message and called 911.
The following day, Westminster police insisted to the community they had no “reason to believe a person is going around abducting children.” Two days later, the police ruled out Jessica’s parents as suspects after they searched her father’s home in Missouri, and then announced they believed the girl had been abducted.
“We do believe it was an abduction,” said Materasso, the police department spokesman. “We don’t have any description of a suspect at this time. We don’t believe the parents were involved.”
The investigation took a grisly turn late Wednesday afternoon when a road crew doing clean up in Pattridge Park, an open space area near a number of abandoned coal mines in the Denver suburb of Arvada, discovered the dismembered body of a small person near the road. The body was found about seven miles from Jessica’s home. Federal and police officers swarmed the area looking for additional clues. Later that night, the body was taken to the coroner’s office on a stretcher.
Several hours later, the Westminster Police Department tweeted: “Process is complicated because the body is not intact.”
Jill McGranahan, a spokesperson for the Arvada Police Department, the jurisdiction where the body was found, said that because the body wasn’t intact they would have to make the identification through DNA analysis. That identification came yesterday, when investigators determined that the body they had found was, indeed, little Jessica’s.
“This is not the news we wanted to hear,” said Jefferson County District Attorney Scott Storey. “It is a tragedy. The most important thing we can do now is the investigation, apprehension and the prosecution of the person who did this.”
News of Jessica’s disappearance had garnered more than 650 tips from around the country including places as far away as Maryland, Nevada, Texas and Wyoming. One tip police received from Maine was of a girl fitting Jessica’s description who was seen riding in a light blue Buick station wagon with Colorado plates. The tip didn’t pan out.
Detectives also checked into a similar case in Cody, Wyoming involving an 11-year-old girl who was abducted but released by a man driving a white sports utility truck who claimed he needed assistance in finding his black Labrador puppy. When the child approached the truck the man pulled a gun and forced her into the front passenger seat. Police later determined the cases were not related.
Outpouring for Jessica’s safe return also hit cyberspace. The day after Jessica disappeared, Frank Snell, an area representative for a construction company who used to live in Wheatridge, Colo., near Arvada, said he started a Facebook page for Jessica to provide updated information for people and educate parents around the country about the dangers out there.
“I am hoping that when someone reads something on the page it will click and it will prompt them to call the police,” he said. “I want to educate parents to talk to their kids. When I was growing up we didn’t have these people. Today you can’t turn your back for a second.” Snell says so far he has had more than 10,000 page views. “I had no idea so many people would be following it,” he said. “It has almost turned out to be a full-time job.”
Materasso, the Westminster police spokesman, said part of the investigation has included looking to see if there are any similar abductions, and checking on local sex offenders. “It is standard procedure for law enforcement to contact all of the sex offenders in the area but it doesn’t mean any of them are involved,” he said. Later, the police published a “stranger danger” advisory sheet with tips for parents on teaching children about stranger abductions.
Meantime, the trees in the neighborhood where Jessica lived are dotted with purple ribbons, Jessica’s favorite color and once a symbol of hope for her safe return.