WESTMINSTER, Colo. (AP) – A body found in a suburban Denver park was identified Friday as that of a missing 10-year-old girl, as anxious parents kept close watch over their children because of the potential presence of a predator in their midst, authorities said.
The body of Jessica Ridgeway was found Wednesday about 7 miles southwest of her home. Authorities said it was not intact, and DNA was used to identify her.
“Our focus has changed from the search for Jessica to a mission of justice for Jessica,” Westminster Police Chief Lee Birk said.
“All our efforts now are in search of her abductor,” he said. “We recognize there is a predator at large in our community.”
Jessica began a short walk from her home to Witt Elementary School on the morning of Oct. 5 but never arrived. A massive search 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.
The FBI has warned residents that she may have been abducted by someone they know and is asking them to be alert for 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 previously. “We suspect someone in the community knows this individual.”
Jim Yacone, FBI special agent in charge of the Denver division, said investigators would continue neighborhood searches. The U.S. Marshals Service, immigration officials and state Department of Corrections have been reviewing registered sex offenders in the area, he said, without elaborating.
Investigators have received more than 1,500 tips from the public, roughly 800 of which have been covered, Yacone said. Authorities also have searched more than 500 homes and more than 1,000 vehicles but still need the public’s help.
“We want you to look for changes of habits, patterns, peculiar absences of those around you and report it to law enforcement,” he said.
Signs of the tragedy have been everywhere in Jessica’s neighborhood of modest, two-story homes with single-car garages.
During the past week, officers have searched homes and yards. 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. Students there wore purple Friday in support of Jessica’s family.
“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.”
Community members planned a gathering Saturday to celebrate Jessica’s life.
Retired FBI behavioral analyst Clinton Van Zandt said tip-offs about the suspect could include someone suddenly growing a beard, getting a new haircut or other changes in appearance. Other clues might be out-of-character behavior, he said.
Police have said they don’t suspect Jessica’s parents, Sarah Ridgeway, who lives with Jessica in Westminster, and Jeremiah Bryant, of Missouri.
The only substantive clue police have disclosed was the discovery two days after she disappeared of her backpack and water bottle in Superior, about six miles northwest of her home and several miles south of where her body was found. Police won’t discuss what was found in the bag or test results involving it.
Law-enforcement leaders said they would not disclose further information publicly so as not to jeopardize the investigation.
They have not ruled out that the search for the suspect could be national, an FBI spokesman said.
“The commitment of the task force of investigators in this case will not waver, and our commitment and resolve to seek justice on behalf of Jessica will only grow stronger,” Yacone said.
Associated Press reporters Thomas Peipert and Catherine Tsai contributed to this story.
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