CONCORD, N.H. – More than two weeks after searchers pulled the body of 11-year-old Celina Cass from the Connecticut River near her house, the lack of an arrest and answers to questions about how she died have cast a pall over her New Hampshire hometown.
Sad and edgy, residents of Stewartstown are waiting — for answers about the girl, justice for her family, peace of mind for themselves. The police's inability to charge a suspect, an autopsy that couldn't pinpoint what killed her and the lingering fear that a killer is at large are hanging over folks in the one-stoplight burg with 960 residents near the Canadian border.
"Everybody's still uncomfortable, wanting some answers," said Shannon Towle, whose family owns a convenience store and gas station where people gather. "It's just creepy."
Police say the investigation is active, with the results of toxicology tests on the girl's body pending. Experts say that may go a long way toward helping identify or charge a suspect.
Cass, a shy fourth-grader, vanished July 25 or July 26 from her home after being last seen at a computer in her bedroom.
For a week, a small army of investigators, law enforcement agents and volunteers searched. Friends handed out fliers containing the girl's smiling face, clutching a basketball, or looking jaunty in a baseball cap.
The three-story apartment building where she lived with her mother, 13-year-old sister, stepfather and a 23-year-old man — an acquaintance of mother Louisa Noyes — was roped off with crime scene tape and two vehicles linked to it impounded.
On Aug. 1, Celina's body was found. Police, while saying her death was suspicious, still haven't called it homicide.
Now, the mystery is what killed her.
"Unlike a gunshot wound or something like that, with drownings or victims found in water, it's a process of elimination," said Robin Adler, a professor of justice studies at Norwich University.
"When a body is found in water, a lot of things happen that could mimic something that could've happened outside of water, like bruising of the head. They have to start with, 'Was she alive when she entered the water?' And it's not just the body that will tell them."
Police have not said how long the body was in the river, where prolonged exposure to water can erase clues.
"Any subtle skin evidence is gone," said Dr. H. Wayne Carver II, Connecticut's chief medical examiner, who isn't involved in the investigation. "The outer layer of the skin is where you interact with the rest of the world, where we read the interactions. It's gone."
Senior Assistant Attorney General Jane Young, who is heading the investigation, won't comment about that. She says that investigators with the New Hampshire State Police and the FBI are investigating and that the lull in developments shouldn't be taken as a sign.
"This amount of time shouldn't signal to anybody that we've reached the end of the road," Young said. "That's certainly not the way we view it."
So Celina's family waits.
Noyes, who hasn't spoken publicly since her daughter disappeared, remains in seclusion. Jeanine Brady, her boss at a Colebrook consignment shop and a close friend, said Noyes and her family are patient.
"They're willing to wait to have an arrest made that's going to stick," Brady said. "Celina deserves to have the right person arrested and to have finality that way. They want answers, of course, but it's more important at this point that the FBI and state agencies can get the right answers."
Noyes, who was allowed to return to her home last week, is having trouble coping and doesn't want to live there, Brady said.
"That child's perpetrator could be someone she knows," Brady said.
Celina's stepfather, Wendell Noyes, has a history of psychiatric issues and was declared unfit to stand trial in a 2003 case in which he allegedly broke into an ex-girlfriend's home and threatened her. Police have not cited him as a potential suspect in Celina's case.
Noyes, 47, has been in and out of hospitals several times since the girl's disappearance and no longer lives in the house with the mother, Brady said.
"Until he is together, she just can't be part of that right now," she said.
The mother, who has received letters of condolence by the hundreds, recently printed up more than 500 photographs that were on Celina's camera.
"She wishes everyone could see those pictures and know what kind of girl Celina was," Brady said. "They're happy pictures. The girls are playing dress-up and just being girls."
Curran reported from Montpelier, Vt.