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Their Worst Fears Realized

A police search of trash trucks yields the body of a Florida girl.

October 23, 2009|Associated Press

ORANGE PARK, FLA. — After 7-year-old Somer Thompson vanished on her way home from school, investigators tailed nine garbage trucks from her neighborhood to a Georgia landfill nearly 50 miles away, then methodically picked through the trash as each rig spilled its load.

They sorted through more than 225 tons of garbage before their worst fears were realized: Sticking out of the rubbish were a child's lifeless legs.

Sheriff Rick Beseler said the quick discovery of Somer's body Wednesday, two days after she disappeared, might have saved precious evidence that could lead to her killer.

"Had we not done this tactic, I believe that body would have been buried beneath hundreds of tons of debris, probably would have gone undiscovered forever," he said Thursday.

An autopsy was performed Thursday, but authorities would not disclose their findings. At a news conference, Beseler would not say if Somer had been sexually assaulted or answer other questions about the condition of the body.

"I fear for our community until we bring this person in. This is a heinous crime that's been committed," Beseler said. "And we're going to work as hard as we can to make this community safe."

Searching landfills is common when children disappear, but it is unusual to try to zero in on them more efficiently by tracking garbage trucks, said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"Time is the enemy in these cases, and the sheriff used every resource," Allen said.

Beseler said police had questioned more than 155 registered sex offenders so far. State records online show that 88 sex offenders live in Orange Park, a Jacksonville suburb of about 9,000 people south of Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

Somer's father and other family members were "torn up" upon hearing the news, said the girl's aunt, Laura Holt.

As for the killer or killers, "I don't think they deserve to live," Holt said. "I don't think there's anything worse that a person can do -- to kill a child and dump her in the dump like a piece of trash?"

Somer vanished Monday on her way home from school. Authorities said she argued with another child and walked ahead of the group.

Tuesday was trash day in Somer's neighborhood, and it was Det. Bruce Owens' idea to track the garbage trucks to the landfill they use in Folkston, Ga., 48 miles away.

"At that time I realized that this is probably not going to turn out good," the 10-year veteran of the Clay County Sheriff's Office told the Florida Times-Union. But he said he had been expecting to find perhaps a backpack or a piece of clothing, not a body.

Beseler said he had told the girl's mother, Diena Thompson, to prepare for the worst, and called her after receiving the news Wednesday night.

"Needless to say, she was absolutely devastated," the sheriff said. "It was the hardest phone call I've ever had to make in my life, and I hope I never have to make another one like that."

On Thursday, flowers and dozens of teddy bears were heaped around an oak across the street from Somer's home, where about 200 people gathered for a candlelight vigil just after sundown.

Diena Thompson came out to thank the group, which sang "Amazing Grace" and "You Are My Sunshine," then recited the Lord's Prayer.

"I wish I could hug every one of you," Thompson said. "I love every one of you."

At the tree, Catherine Sullivan held her teary 5-year-old, Nya Frederick. They drove to the Thompsons' neighborhood from Jacksonville because Sullivan wanted to show her daughter the dangers of being too friendly with strangers.

"She seemed to understand when I explained to her [that] her mommy wouldn't see her anymore," the mother said.

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