National News

Sheriff: Body appears to be missing Florida girl

Posted October 22, 2009 7:17 a.m. EDT
Updated October 22, 2009 11:20 a.m. EDT

— Authorities have tentatively identified a body found in a landfill as that of 7-year-old Somer Thompson, a north Florida girl who disappeared on her walk home from school Monday, the sheriff in charge of the case said Thursday.

Clay County Sheriff Rick Beseler said the tentative identification was based on clothing and on a birthmark that matched the girl's.

Her aunt, 43-year-old Laura Holt, said Somer's relatives who live in Graham, N.C., are "torn up" about the confirmation of her identity. 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?"

Somer's father, Sam Thompson, has left his Graham house to avoid reporters, Holt said.

Detectives spotted the legs first and found the body partially covered by garbage Wednesday in a Georgia landfill, near the Florida state line. Beseler credited a detective for suggesting that investigators follow several dozen garbage trucks leaving the neighborhood the day after Somer disappeared.

"It was a massive undertaking," Beseler said. "Some of my detectives looked at me like I was crazy when I said I wanted to do this."

"Had we not done that, tons of garbage would have been distributed over the top of the body, and it likely would have never been found," he told ABC's "Good Morning America."

Beseler said at a news conference he still fears for the community until a suspect is apprehended. He urged residents to be vigilant but not to become "so paranoid and scared you can't live your life."

Beseler wouldn't talk about what evidence police have recovered or whether investigators believe the crime was committed by one or more people. He said police have questioned more than 70 registered sex offenders in the area, and that process was continuing. Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show 161 offenders live in a 5-mile radius of Somer's home.

An FBI forensic unit is leading the effort to process evidence from the landfill in Folkston, Ga., about 48 miles from where the girl disappeared. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation planned an autopsy Thursday.

Somer vanished on her mile-long walk home from school in Orange Park. She was squabbling with another child, and her sister told her to stop. The girl got upset, walked ahead of the group and wasn't seen again.

Authorities launched a countywide search involving helicopters, dogs and volunteers walking arm-to-arm through wooded areas.

Orange Park is a suburb of Jacksonville 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.

Two deputies stood guard at the home of Somer's mother, Diena Thompson, early Thursday. 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."