CLAYTON, N.J. – A teenage boy lured a 12-year-old girl into his house under the guise of getting parts for her treasured bicycle and then, with his older brother, killed her, police said Tuesday. The girl's disappearance had sparked a frantic search by residents of her small town until a tip from the boys' mother led police to her body, stuffed into a home recycling bin.
The boys, ages 15 and 17, were charged with murdering Autumn Pasquale, who disappeared while riding her BMX bike Saturday, a little more than a week before what would have been her 13th birthday. She appeared to have been strangled, Gloucester County prosecutor Sean Dalton said at a late-day news conference.
The boys' mother had come forward with information about a posting on a son's Facebook account, Dalton said. He wouldn't say what was on the website or discuss a possible motive for the killing, but said there was no sign of sexual assault.
Autumn was lured to the house, where they apparently lived with their mother and stepfather, for the purpose of getting parts for her treasured BMX bike, which she rode frequently and talked about on her Facebook pages.
Both brothers were charged with counts including first-degree murder, body disposal and tampering with evidence. The 15-year-old was also charged with luring.
The boys' names were not released because they are juveniles, but Dalton said his office is considering trying to have the case transferred to adult court. The boys turned themselves in with their attorneys, public defenders, but it could not be immediately determined who they are. The boys are expected in court for detention hearings Friday.
The girl's body was found around 10 p.m. Monday in a recycling bin on a vacant property next to the home where the boys live, police said. The suspects had attended a community vigil for her shortly before the discovery, several residents said.
Autumn's BMX bike and other belongings were recovered from the boys' home, the prosecutor said. He did not detail all the items, but a backpack matching a description of the girl's was also seen being taken out.
One of the three teenage brothers who friends said live at the house traded BMX bike parts, according to a according to a young man, Corey Hewes, 19, who said he was among those who traded with him.
Neighbors also said the house was a place where teens frequently hung out and had parties.
The home is just blocks from Autumn's house and from the town hall, where thousands of people gathered for the tearful candlelight vigil to pray for her safe return in this town of 8,000 about 25 miles south of Philadelphia.
"The search for Autumn is over," Dalton said Tuesday morning in the first of two news conferences, at which he was asked to assure residents they were safe with an apparent child-killer on the loose.
The girl's great-uncle, Paul Spadofora, thanked the community for its help in the search.
"There's evil everywhere, even in the small town of Clayton," Spadofora said.
Tuesday was trash collection day, and many residents had dragged their trash cans and recycling bins to the curb the night before. The covered recycling bins are collected by an automated truck that picks them up and dumps the contents into the back.
Police barricaded the block Tuesday morning, and friends and neighbors came by. Some mothers said they were keeping their kids out of school for the day. Even before the body was found, students reported that Spirit Week had been canceled because of the sorrow.
One young man rode a bike up, sat on a porch of a home and cried, then biked away.
Clayton Mayor Thomas Bianco walked to the scene, cried, hugged a police officer and gave a brief statement to the gathered reporters.
"You hear about it in other places but never think it would happen in our little town," he said.
Autumn was last seen around 12:30 p.m. Saturday pedaling her bike away from the home where she lives with her father, her two siblings, her father's girlfriend and the girlfriend's children, authorities said.
Relatives said they believed she was heading to see a friend, and they became worried only after she did not return by her 8 p.m. curfew.
Sunday morning, her disappearance became not only a crisis but a town-wide cause in Clayton. Volunteers by the hundred joined the search, scouring malls, nearby towns and passing out fliers.
By Monday evening, officials were thanking the volunteers for their help but asking them to call it a night.
Hundreds of people returned anyway for the vigil. Spadofora, the great-uncle, said he hoped the town could gather again a week later, with Autumn back, with candles to mark her birthday.
Instead, the community awoke Tuesday to news that her body had been recovered.
"I know a lot of you are angry over what has happened, and deservedly you have a right to be angry," Dalton said at day's end. "I hope today there is some measure of closure, and we can all mourn in the loss of this beautiful child."
On Tuesday night, more than 600 tearful people gathered at Clayton Baptist Church for an hour-long healing service. Counselors from a local school and chaplains from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association assisted those present.