EVANSDALE, Iowa - The families of two young cousins missing for five months still were hoping the girls would come home, maybe even for Christmas, until the sad news arrived that two bodies had been found.
Autopsies by the state medical examiner's office are still under way, but the remains are believed to be those of Lyric Cook and Elizabeth Collins, who were 10 and 8 when they vanished July 13 while riding their bicycles, Black Hawk County sheriff's Capt. Rick Abben said.
"This 100 percent blindsided us and it absolutely did them as well," said Sara Curl, a friend of the girls' families and organizer of several community events to support them.
She said the families were spending time with each other Thursday trying to cope with the news. The Collins family put up a tree and decorated it for Elizabeth, she said.
Curl helped put together a vigil for the girls Thursday night, one of many community activities that will be needed to help people heal in the days ahead, she said.
"I think everybody just needed to be together," she said. "Everybody was just wandering around going about their day not knowing how to handle things."
The vigil was held around a Christmas tree set up to honor the girls — with the hoping they would be home for Christmas to see it — said Tammy Marvets, whose husband, Randy, came up with the idea. She said her 7-year-old son went to school with Elizabeth and rode the same bus.
"He's pretty upset. He says, `Mom, I just want to cry.' I said, `It's OK to cry, honey,'" Marvets said.
Hunters found the bodies Wednesday in a rural wildlife area in northeastern Iowa, about 25 miles from Evansdale, the city of 4,700 where the girls were last seen. Authorities found their bikes and a purse near a recreational lake in the city, and their disappearance sparked a massive search and kidnapping investigation involving the FBI, state and local police.
Abben said Thursday at a news conference that investigators are "confident" the bodies were those of Lyric and Elizabeth, based on evidence found at the scene and a preliminary investigation. He noted that the bodies were small in stature and authorities "have no one else that's missing in this area."
Abben said investigators were leaning toward reclassifying the case as a homicide investigation but would wait for information from the autopsies before proceeding. He declined to say whether the bodies had been concealed or how long investigators thought they had been there. Relatives have not gone to see the bodies, and "there's no reason for them to do so," Abben said.
Officers from several agencies scoured fields, woods and ditches near the Seven Bridges Wildlife Area for any possible evidence in the case. Deer hunters apparently stumbled on the remains Wednesday in the secluded area, which is intersected by the Wapsipinicon River and is a popular spot for hunting and fishing.
Abben said investigators would continue combing the area for clues for several days and the park would remain closed to public access until at least Monday. "We will gather whatever is out there," he said.
The news of the girls' likely deaths hit hard throughout northeastern Iowa, which had rallied behind the girls and their families in the five months since they disappeared. Some residents in Evansdale, which is 90 miles northeast of Des Moines, had been holding out hope that they would be found alive.
"We are all grieving. We hurt for the families, and believe me it touches the community deeply because it is a small community," said Jeff Rasanen, pastor of the Faith Assembly of God Church in Evansdale. "It's a sad time. We were just praying for a much better outcome."
In a posting on her Facebook page Thursday, Heather Collins, Elizabeth's mother, said it was not the outcome the family wanted but now "we know our girls are dancing up with our savior." Collins thanked the community for an outpouring of support.
When Zuhra Hodzic, 25, of Waterloo, saw that Facebook message, she was heartbroken. Hodzic was a volunteer on searches for the girls and other community activities.
"You're left with a blank," she said searching for the words and fighting back tears. "It's heartbreaking. It's devastating."
For her and many others at the vigil the focus turns now to finding who is responsible.
"Our community deserves justice, and I hope our FBI agents and cops and everybody involved gets for us what we deserve and that's justice for the whole family and all of us," she said.
At the girls' schools, additional counselors were available Thursday for students and others, according to Sharon Miller, the Waterloo schools spokeswoman. Lyric would have been in fifth grade at Kingsley elementary in Waterloo and Elizabeth would have been in fourth grade at Poyner school in Evansdale.
The two were being watched by their grandmother at Collins' home in Evansdale when they went for a bike ride on a Friday summer afternoon. Surveillance footage and witnesses have confirmed that they were riding nearby. Hours later, after they didn't return, relatives reported the girls missing. A firefighter soon found their bikes near Meyers Lake, and a search that involved hundreds of volunteers and several police agencies ensued.
An FBI dive team brought in special equipment to search the lake days later, and the case was reclassified as an abduction after no sign of the girls emerged. Months passed — as did each girl's birthday — without any news as police chased thousands of tips and explored theories about what could have happened. Volunteers held prayer vigils and hung pictures of the girls. An anonymous donor last week pledged $100,000 for information leading to their return and the conviction of those responsible for their disappearance, on top of the $50,000 authorities had announced.
Authorities had asked hunters to look for the girls in remote woods and fields this fall. Jennifer Lancaster, chief law enforcement official for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in northeastern Iowa, said she believed deer hunters happened to come upon the bodies and called police.
"I think it's the first time someone happened to be in that particular spot," she said. She said she believed anyone who saw the remains would have reported them immediately because "that is certainly a case that has tugged the hearts of many people around northeastern Iowa."
Foley reported from Iowa City, Iowa.