MENTOR, Ohio – Pink balloons were released into the wintry sky after Wednesday's funeral for a 2-year-old girl suspected of being beaten to death by her mother and stepfather and thrown into Galveston Bay in Texas.
Some of the balloons had cards attached with Riley Ann Sawyers' picture and an address where the finder could return it to her family in northeast Ohio. The balloon release coincided with similar releases around the world in memory of the toddler, who had been nicknamed Baby Grace until authorities determined her identity.
"People all over the world adored this child. She was loved and cherished by everyone," Riley's great-uncle, Mike Nebelski, said in a eulogy.
"Let's not forget Riley. Let's not forget all the other kids out there who are missing," he said.
Riley's body was found stuffed in a plastic container that washed ashore and was found by fishermen in October. Authorities spent weeks searching for her identity and family, drawing international attention.
The girl's mother, Kimberly Dawn Trenor, 19, and her husband, Royce Clyde Zeigler II, 24, both of Spring, Texas, are charged with capital murder and evidence tampering.
Trenor and Zeigler are accused of torturing Riley in July, beating the girl with leather belts, holding her head underwater in a bathtub and throwing her across a room.
Trenor told police the assault was a discipline session that went awry after the toddler didn't remember to say "please," and "yes, sir" to her stepfather. Zeigler's attorney has denied that account.
Trenor moved with her daughter from Mentor to Texas in June to be with Zeigler, whom she met online.
Among those present at the church service were Riley Ann's father, Robert Sawyers, and her paternal grandmother Sheryl Sawyers, who had suspected her granddaughter was Baby Grace and contacted Texas authorities last fall.
A Web site established last year to help authorities identify Baby Grace also helped Sheryl Sawyers coordinate the international balloon release.
The site Wednesday contained comments from people who said pink or white balloons for Riley Ann were sent into the sky.
One posting, signed Susan al Bassam, said 50 balloons were launched from Kuwait.
She wrote: "Kuwait was unusually cold today, with strong winds. My children and I said a final prayer as we released the balloons into the night sky of Kuwait."
Another posting without a location said, "I organized a balloon release at my job today. We were all just now able to release them. We released 17 pink balloons. We all stood there and watched them until we couldn't see them anymore."
"God has given Riley to us to lead us. A child leads us today with greater respect for all children," said the Rev. Tom Johns, who led the service at St. Bede the Venerable Roman Catholic Church.
After the service and balloon release, the funeral procession left for Mentor Cemetery for burial of the 36-inch coffin. Inside was an urn with the girl's ashes and various other items, including a dress and a stuffed animal toy.
The child's remains had been cremated according to the family's wishes.