ARVADA, Colo. (AP) – More than 2,000 family members, friends, neighbors and others gathered Tuesday to remember a 10-year-old suburban Denver girl who was abducted on her way to school and killed.
As the public memorial for Jessica Ridgeway was held, the search for her killer continued, with multiple agencies checking leads and asking for more tips.
Westminster Police Chief Lee Birk said at the evening service that investigators are working the case “tirelessly, diligently, and we are committed until we achieve justice for Jessica.”
The ceremony at Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada opened with a slideshow of pictures set to the Jessica’s favorite songs, including “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen. Many attendees wore the fifth-grader’s favorite color, purple.
Pastor Rick Long of Grace Church in Arvada said Jessica had two fish, two frogs and a dog, and she loved Disney films. She enjoyed wearing green and blue makeup as part of her peewee cheerleading squad at a nearby high school, and she was looking forward to dressing up as a zombie lifeguard for Halloween.
Long added that community support has been lifting Jessica’s family.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, whose son is Jessica’s age, told those gathered that the Ridgeways are in Coloradans’ thoughts.
“Every single person in this state is with the Ridgeways in every single way that we may be,” Hickenlooper said.
Cases like this – in which a child apparently is abducted and killed by a stranger – are “the ones that shock entire communities and scare us all,” said Robert Lowery, senior executive director of the missing children’s division at the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children.
Michelle King, who lives in the neighborhood where Jessica disappeared, said she brought her 10-year-old daughter to the memorial partly as closure.
“It’s a thing we have to talk to our children about,” King said. “We’ve gotten a little relaxed about this.”
Authorities have been tight-lipped about the investigation since they announced Friday that a body found on the edge of town belonged to Jessica.
The girl was last seen alive walking down a quiet street in her modest Westminster neighborhood Oct. 5. Her school backpack was found three days later in Superior, another Denver suburb about 7 miles northwest of her home.
Jessica’s body was found Oct. 10, the same day authorities ruled out her parents as suspects in her disappearance. Her body was found along a remote road that locals say few knew about.
Authorities usually are reserved in what they say to the public, out of concern for causing unnecessary alarm. But they issued a statement last week advising residents to be suspicious of their bosses, friends and family members.
Authorities asked the public to keep an eye out for people exhibiting unusual behavior – like leaving town unexpectedly, missing appointments, consuming unusual amounts of alcohol or changing their appearance. The idea was that the killer would not be able to act normally after committing the crime.
“They may have no suspects,” said Kenneth Lanning, a retired FBI behavior analyst in Fredericksburg, Va., who is now a consultant specializing in crimes against children. “But likely at this point, they have so many suspects and now they’re trying to sort through them.”
Lanning is not involved in the Colorado case but described such investigations as multi-track efforts, with volunteers and deputies searching homes, bushes, drainages and open space near the child’s house while investigators develop a criminal case.
Police likely are pouring through hours of surveillance video taken at banks, gas stations, government buildings and elsewhere, Lanning said.
In Cody, Wyo., where an 11-year-old girl was abducted and sexually assaulted Oct. 8, police were able to get a license plate number from surveillance video at Yellowstone National Park that led them to a suspect in Montana. The girl was released hours after her abduction.
Investigators also have statistical data based on past crimes of this type that could provide a general profile of who may have committed the crime, Lanning and FBI profiler Clinton Van Zandt said.
Neither Lanning nor Van Zandt would provide an opinion on the Colorado case, saying each case is unique.
However, a 2006 report funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and compiled by Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna determined the majority of suspects in such cases are single and between 18 and 30 years old.
The study looked at more than 800 cases from 1968 to 2002, the latest figures available. It found nearly half the suspects were unemployed, and those who did have jobs worked in unskilled or semi-skilled labor occupations.
The report also said 21 percent of victims were 10 to 12 years old and initially encountered their abductor within a quarter-mile of their home. Jessica was 10 and last seen within two blocks of her house.
Lanning and Van Zandt noted investigators will build their own suspect profile using the evidence. They’ll consider where Jessica was last seen alive and where her body was found, along with the condition of her body, which police have said was “not intact.” There’s also the girl’s backpack, which might contain clues.
“Behavior can be expressed in a crime scene,” Lanning said. “We’re greatly hoping that in addition to behavioral clues, how about he left his DNA?”
Lowery, of the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children, added that fewer children have been abducted and killed in recent years because of greater awareness and the Amber Alert system established nationwide in 2003. He said several abductors have released children after seeing or hearing such an alert.
Westminster Police Ridgeway Case Tip Line: (303) 658-4336 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Jessica Ridgeway Murder Timeline
– Jessica Ridgeway, 10, disappeared on her way to school on the morning of Oct. 5. After leaving home on foot, she never met up with friends she normally walks to school with at Chelsea Park. The park is about three blocks from her home and about a mile from the school.
– When she didn’t arrive at Witt Elementary School in Westminster, Jefferson County Schools officials tried to contact her mother. They made a call at 10 a.m. but were only able to leave a voicemail. Ridgeway’s mother, who works an overnight shift and sleeps during the day, didn’t get the message until 4:30 p.m. and immediately contacted Westminster police.
– It took about five hours before the protocols were met in the case for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to call an Amber Alert.
– Ridgeway’s backpack was found on the sidewalk near Alpha Court and Andrew Drive in the Rock Creek neighborhood in Superior. That’s 6.4 miles away from her home. It’s unknown so far at what point the backpack wound up there.
– The CBI analyzed the backpack for DNA evidence and collected evidence from Ridgeway’s home for comparison.
– Searches were taking place around Jessica’s home and her school, as well as in open space areas in Westminster. Another area that underwent an extensive search was Rock Creek and open space areas near there.
– A day after their tearful televised plea for help and thanks to the community, police on Oct. 10 ruled out Ridgeway’s parents as being involved in her disappearance. Police said Ridgeway may have been abducted by an unknown suspect.
– Late in the day on Oct. 11 Ridgeway’s body is found in Arvada on Highway near Pattridge Park Open Space and Highway 93, about seven miles from Ridgeway’s home.
– By P. Solomon Banda, AP Writer
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