Authorities suspect that a 7-year-old missing north Florida girl, whose body was found by police beneath trash in a landfill Wednesday, may have been sexually assaulted before being slain.
The killer of the child, Somer Thompson, remains at large. An autopsy has been completed and investigators now know how she, died but they declined to disclose their findings, or to provide any details regarding the body’s condition. They also declined on Friday to confirm that she was sexually assaulted. The autopsy was performed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in Savannah, because the girl’s remains were found near the Florida state line.
Somer vanished on her mile-long walk home from school in Orange Park on Monday. She had been squabbling with another child, and her sister had told her to stop. The girl got upset, walked ahead of the group and was never seen by her family again.
The girl’s mother, Diena Thompson, believes her daughter's killer will be caught, and that whoever is responsible should face the death penalty. Mrs. Thompson appeared on the three main morning television shows in the US on Thursday.
Speaking on The Early Show on CBS, Mrs Thompson said of the killer: "I hate him. I hate him."
She added: "He needs the death penalty. And I hope they put him in a cell with someone who absolutely can't stand a child predator and let them have fun with him."
On ABC's Good Morning America she added: "We're coming for you. We'll get you, and hopefully justice will be served."
Mrs. Thompson appeared red-eyed and struggled to maintain her composure during the interviews, just a day after Somer's body was formally identified.
She said she has been told little about the investigation into the murder of Somer, only that authorities are searching a vacant house near where the girl was last seen.
"I feel responsible," she said. "If I could have just, I don't know, left work or something and been able to pick her up, this wouldn't have happened."
Orange Park is a suburb of Jacksonville with about 9,000 people, just south of Jacksonville Naval Air Station. The area where the girl disappeared is a heavily populated residential area with homes, apartment complexes and condominiums.
On Thursday, a Clay County Sheriff's spokeswoman called the girl's death a homicide, though she refused to elaborate. Authorities have not said whether investigators believe the crime was committed by one or more people. Police have questioned all of the registered sex offenders in the area.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show a shocking number – 161 – sex offenders live near Somer's home. Florida's sexual offenders and predators registry, which is updated daily, shows 88 registered offenders live in Orange Park, while the remaining offenders live within a five-mile radius of her home.
Investigators finished interviewing all of them on Friday, saying that they don't believe there is a suspect in that group.
The victim’s identity was confirmed a short time after authorities said clothing and a birthmark on her left shin found on the body they discovered in the landfill led them to believe they had found the missing girl.
On Monday, authorities had immediately launched a countywide search involving helicopters, dogs and volunteers walking arm-to-arm through wooded areas.
Investigators had followed nine garbage trucks – lorries – leaving the neighborhood where the child disappeared to the Chesser Island Road Landfill, near Folkston, Ga., about 50 miles from where Somer was last seen.
On Wednesday, detectives were combing the landfill when they spotted the poor child’s legs first, then the body, which had been partially covered by garbage.
Clay County Sheriff Rick Beseler said he told the girl's mother to prepare for the worst, and called her after receiving the tragic information confirming her identity Wednesday night.
"Needless to say, she was absolutely devastated," he 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."
Beseler credited one of his detectives with suggesting on Tuesday that the landfill be checked. Trucks were scheduled to pick up garbage in Orange Park on Tuesday morning. He said detectives were told to go through the debris looking for evidence as the trucks brought it in. Investigators sorted through more than 100,000 tons of garbage.
"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. Even if the body had been found later, key evidence could have been destroyed or degraded, the sheriff added. An FBI forensic unit is helping process evidence from the landfill.
The girl's father, Sam Thompson, lives in Graham, N.C. He and other family members were "torn up" after hearing the news, aunt Laura Holt said. She hopes authorities will find her niece's killer.
"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?"
"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."
Two deputies stood guard at mother Diena Thompson's home early Thursday morning. It appeared to be full of supporters. An oak tree across the street was decorated with flowers, candles and pictures of Somer.
"This has been so unreal for the neighborhood," said Sharon Galloway, who lives across the street from the Thompsons. "I just hope they get that son of a gun."
At a nearby shrine formed by flowers and dozens of teddy bears. Somer's family was making funeral arrangements Friday.