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Body in Colorado identified as missing girl

  • Published Friday, Oct. 12, 2012, at 5:19 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Oct. 12, 2012, at 6:07 p.m.

— Authorities announced late this afternoon that a body found in a Denver-area park is that of Jessica Ridgeway, a 10-year-old girl whose father lives in Independence.

“Our focus has changed from the search for Jessica to a mission of justice for Jessica,” Westminster Police Chief Lee Birk said. “We realize there is a predator at large in our community.”

The body was found Wednesday, but authorities said it was “not intact,” which had hampered identification.

Jessica, who has other relatives in the Kansas City area, 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 works nights and slept through a call from school officials saying Jessica wasn’t there.

“This is not the closure we wanted,” Larry Moss, a great-uncle of Jessica, told KCTV5, The Star’s reporting partner. “We were hanging on to every little gleam of hope, hoping that she would make it home safe.

“It is a relief to know that it is now a manhunt and we can put her to rest,” he continued. “I don’t see what kind of sick person — yes, that would be the best way to put it or monster if you want to put it that way — could do this to a child.”

Moss said he would like to see justice for Jessica.

“I would give my right leg to have them brought to justice and prosecuted to all extents of the law,” he said. “I mean there is no price on it.”

Fear had been building in the Westminster community after the FBI urged residents to be alert for Jessica’s abductor — people they know 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.

“We suspect someone in the community knows this individual,” he said.

Signs of the tragedy were everywhere in Jessica’s neighborhood of modest two-story homes with single-car garages.

During the past week, officers have searched homes, combed yards and looked in bushes. 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.

“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.”

Adults have been walking or driving children to school bus stops and talking with neighbors.

“We want to be the community that is visible, that is vigilant, that if somebody does come into our neighborhood or our community, that they can see that,” resident Bob Ruet said.

On Thursday, authorities dropped their previous appeals to spread the word about Jessica’s disappearance and instead asked for residents’ help in identifying a possible suspect, signaling a shift in the focus of the investigation.

Retired FBI behavioral analyst Clinton Van Zandt told The Associated Press that tip-offs could include someone suddenly growing a beard, getting a new haircut or other changes in appearance. Other clues might be out-of-character behavior, such as someone detailing a car when he normally would have only washed it, Van Zandt said.

Police have said they don’t suspect Jessica’s parents, Sarah Ridgeway, who lives with Jessica in Westminster, and Jeremiah Bryant, who lives in Independence.

The only substantive clue police have disclosed was the discovery of her backpack and water bottle in Superior, about six miles from her home. Police won’t discuss what was found in the bag or test results involving it.

The Star’s Robert A. Cronkleton, contributed to this report.

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