ORANGE PARK — A body found in a landfill has been tentatively identified as that of 7-year-old Somer Thompson, a Florida girl missing since Monday.
Sheriff Rick Beseler said Thursday that the identification was based on clothing on the body and a birthmark that matched the girl's.
The partially covered body of the child was found in a Georgia landfill near the Florida state line, after investigators followed garbage trucks leaving the neighborhood where the child disappeared on her way home from school.
Beseler said at a news conference he still fears for the community until a suspect is apprehended. He wouldn't talk about what evidence police have recovered, or whether investigators believe the crime was committed by one or more people.
An FBI forensic unit is helping process evidence from the landfill.
Authorities say they have not identified a child's body they found Wednesday in a landfill while searching for a missing 7-year-old girl. Family members were hopeful the girl is still alive, though neighbors in the girl's community feared the worst.
The partially covered body of the child was found in a Georgia landfill near the Florida state line, after investigators followed garbage trucks leaving from the neighborhood where Somer Thompson disappeared Monday.
Sheriff Rick Beseler said investigators searched through 100 tons of garbage before finding the body. He first said the body was female, then corrected himself to say he could not confirm the gender.
Few other details about the body, such as a possible cause of death, were released. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation planned an autopsy Thursday.
Somer vanished on her mile-long walk home from school Monday in Orange Park. She was squabbling with another child, and her sister told her to stop. The girl got upset, walked ahead of the group and wasn't seen again.
The girl's aunt, Laura Holt, said family members were going through an agonizing wait to find out whose body was found.
"I'm still holding out hope this is not Somer," Holt said Wednesday night, her voice cracking.
Earlier, the girl's father, Sam Thompson, who lives in Graham, N.C., pleaded for her safe return. Holt is his sister.
"Somer, your daddy Sam loves you unconditionally. Stay strong and don't give up the fight or the hope that we're going to be a family again. I love you," he said before authorities revealed they had found the body.
That news was an awful blow to her brother, Holt said. He nearly had a breakdown not long after, when someone claiming to be part of the search team in Florida told him they had positively identified the child as his daughter because of a birthmark. The claim was quickly found to be false after a call to the sheriff, she said.
"My brother just fell apart. He thought he was having a heart attack," she said. Thompson is now staying at an undisclosed family member's home to get away from the "circus" in front of his house.
Orange Park is a suburb of Jacksonville just south of Jacksonville Naval Air Station. The area where the girl disappeared is a heavily populated residential area with homes, apartment complexes and condominiums.
A crowd of about 150 people, some crying, gathered across the street from Somer's home, many clutching their children tightly. Others placed flowers under a tree.
"We are all devastated," said Tonya Jennings, a grandmother who lived three doors away and often saw the girl and her siblings come home from school. "I knew her."
Jennings, 61, was with her two granddaughters, Nina Guitierez, 9, and Aria Michaels, 8, who attend Grove Park Elementary School with Somer.
"We will need to be more vigilant. There are pedophiles everywhere in the area," she said.
John Latavia, 43, said his children attended school with Somer.
"All we can do is pray and come together," he said.