EVANSDALE - Northeast Iowa residents who have been holding out hope that two young cousins missing for five months might be home for Christmas were grappling Thursday with the news that hunters likely found the girls' bodies.
Autopsies by the state medical examiner's office were still under way, but the remains are believed to be those of Lyric Cook and Elizabeth Collins, who were 10 and 8 when they did not come back from riding their bikes July 13, Black Hawk County sheriff's Capt. Rick Abben said.
The girls' families were stunned by the news that two bodies were found, family friend Sara Curl, who has organized community events to support the families, said Thursday night.
"To be honest we have been trying to keep the positivity going so much this 100 percent blindsided us and it absolutely did them as well," she said. "I don't think that when they were called down there yesterday that they expected to hear the news that they did. so it's really going to take some time to process."
Curl helped organize a vigil for the families Thursday night around a Christmas tree decorated to honor the girls, hoping they would be home for the holiday.
Tammy Marvets, whose husband, Randy, came up with the idea, 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 at a news conference Thursday that investigators were "confident" the bodies were Lyric and Elizabeth based on evidence found at the scene and a preliminary investigation. He said the bodies were smaller 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 were 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.