WESTMINSTER, Colo. – Anxious parents kept close and protective watch over their children on Friday after the FBI warned them that a 10-year-old girl who vanished a week earlier may have been abducted by someone they know.
The sense of dread and suspense was magnified in the quiet Denver suburb of Westminster as residents waited for police to release the identity of a body found in a nearby park.
Jessica Ridgeway, the missing girl, began a short walk from her home to Witt Elementary School on the morning of Oct. 5 but never arrived. A massive search by hundreds of law enforcement officers did not start until hours later because Jessica's mother works nights and slept through a call from school officials saying Jessica wasn't there.
Grim-faced investigators said Wednesday a body had been found, and that it was not intact, a fact that made it difficult to identify. Few other details were released, including whether it's the body of a child.
Investigators said they expected to identify the body on Friday.
The FBI urged residents to be alert for people they know who might have suddenly changed their appearance or uncharacteristically missed work or appointments.
"It could be your boss, it could be your friend, and ultimately it could be your family member," FBI spokesman Dave Joly said.
"We suspect someone in the community knows this individual," he said.
Signs of the tragedy were everywhere in Jessica's neighborhood of modest two-story homes with single-car garages.
During the past week, officers have searched homes, combed yards and looked in bushes. They kept guard at crosswalks and photographed cars entering the neighborhood. Mailboxes and trees were encircled by ribbons in Jessica's favorite color, purple.
"I don't feel safe for my daughter anymore, anywhere," said Stacey Oppie, who lives in the neighborhood.
Two months ago, Oppie started letting her daughter play unsupervised with a friend at the park that Jessica customarily passed on her way to school. She doesn't intend to do that anymore.
"We're all a little bit on alert, but it's not fear. We're angry because this is a good neighborhood," Oppie said.
Jessica's disappearance hit close to home for Chelsea Bozsak, a senior at nearby Standley Lake High School, where Jessica's cousin attends classes.
"It's so scary because you never think something like this could happen in your community," Bozsak said.
Courtney Sullivan, also a senior at Standley Lake, said her father spoke to her and her younger brother about Jessica's disappearance.
"He's definitely talked to us about being more careful about our surroundings. You could see why," said Sullivan, a cross-country runner who often uses neighborhood streets. "I'm running in places where there's lights, busy roads, where I can get to someplace if I need to."
Families in Arvada, near the park where the body was found, were already on edge over reports last month than a man tried to lure two young boys into a car in separate incidents. The cases remain unsolved.
"This person's around here," said Suzette Morgan, the mother of boys ages 13 and 8. "I would say that everybody around here is really freaked out."
Adults have been walking or driving children to school bus stops and talking with neighbors.
"We want to be the community that is visible, that is vigilant, that if somebody does come into our neighborhood or our community, that they can see that," resident Bob Ruet said.
On Thursday, authorities dropped their previous appeals to spread the word about Jessica's disappearance and instead asked for residents' help in identifying a possible suspect, signaling a shift in the focus of the investigation.
Retired FBI behavioral analyst Clinton Van Zandt told The Associated Press that tip-offs could include someone suddenly growing a beard, getting a new haircut or other changes in appearance. Other clues might be out-of-character behavior, such as someone detailing a car when he normally would have only washed it, Van Zandt said.
Police have said they don't suspect Jessica's parents, Sarah Ridgeway, who lives with Jessica in Westminster, and Jeremiah Bryant, who lives in Missouri.
The only substantive clue police have disclosed was the discovery of her backpack and water bottle in Superior, about six miles from her home. Police won't discuss what was found in the bag or test results involving it.