One week after a young girl vanished on her way to school, authorities released the gut-wrenching news most expected but fervently prayed was not true.
The body left on the side of the road near a Denver-area open space was 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway.
Emotional investigators and area leaders delivered the news Friday afternoon.
"We can't begin to comprehend the grief that they are going through. I want the family to know for me, and every single person involved in this case, that our thoughts and prayers go out to them and they have been in our hearts since the beginning,” said Westminster Police Chief Lee Birk.
The body was found Wednesday afternoon near Pattridge Park Open Space in Arvada, seven miles from Jessica's Westminster neighborhood, where she was last seen alive. Authorities acknowledged Thursday that the body was "not intact," which was hindering the identification process. DNA was ultimately used to positively ID the body as Jessica's.
Now the focus of the investigation shifts to bringing justice to Jessica and her family. Investigators say they will not stop until her abductor is caught and prosecuted.
“The most important thing that we can do now, our priority now, is the investigation, the apprehension, and the prosecution of the person that did this,” said Scott Storey, Jefferson County district attorney.
Birk acknowledged a "predator at large" in the area, and said law enforcement officers are doing all that they can to protect the children in the community.
Every weekday morning, Jessica leaves her home and walks three blocks to a nearby Chelsea park, where she meets a group of friends to walk the rest of the way to Witt Elementary School.
On the morning of October 5, she never made it to the park.
A search didn't begin until 4 p.m., when Jessica's mother got word that her daughter had been absent from school. An AMBER Alert went out later that night.
In the week since she disappeared, investigators searched more than 500 homes, 1,000 vehicles, looked into 1500 tips, and followed 800 leads. The investigation even extended to New England, where a woman reported seeing a girl resembling Jessica in a small town in Maine. An abandoned car matching the one in the woman's tip was found behind a Walmart in New Hampshire, but was ultimately determined to be unconnected with the case.
Prior to finding her body, the only physical trace of Jessica was a backpack found on a sidewalk in Superior. Superior, just outside of Boulder, is about a dozen miles from Pattridge Park Open Space.
Investigators at the local, state, and federal level say they will work tirelessly until her abductor is behind bars.
“The commitment of the task force of investigators in this case will not waiver. In our commitment and resolve to seek justice on behalf of Jessica, will only grow stronger,” said Jim Yacone with the FBI Colorado division.
Investigators say it is essential that any suspicious behavior in the time since Jessica was abducted be reported immediately. Possible warning signs include a sudden absence from work around the time Jessica went missing, or otherwise being unaccounted for in the days around October 5. Other things to look for can be found here.
Investigators at this time believe Jessica's abductor was a man.
Anyone with information can call 303-658-4336.
Investigators say from here on out, they will give out few details in order to not tip off any possible suspects. 11 News will provide further information as it becomes available.
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