TODAY
"Bring her back to us. She belongs with her family," Orange Park, Fla., mother Diena Thompson said on TODAY, where she appeared live with Clay County Sheriff Rick Beseler.
TODAY staff and wire
updated 10/21/2009 9:13:51 PM ET 2009-10-22T01:13:51

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.  NBC affiliate WTLV reported that the body was female.

Few other details about the body, such as a possible cause of death, were released. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation planned an autopsy Thursday.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead said the agency was assisting with the investigation and an autopsy would be conducted on the body Thursday morning in Savannah.

"We all need to say a prayer for Somer's family," Gov. Charlie Crist said at a press conference announcing the discovery.

Vanished after school
Somer vanished on her mile-long walk home from school Monday in Orange Park, near Jacksonville.

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.

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.

Investigators said before the body was discovered they suspected foul play in her disappearance.

"We want to find who did this and bring them to justice," the sheriff said.

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Earlier Wednesday, the girl's parents made emotional pleas for their daughter to be returned home safely.

“Please bring her back to us,” Diena Thompson said while choking back sobs during an interview from Clay County, Fla., with TODAY’s Erin Burnett. “She belongs with her family. She belongs with us. She belongs with her twin brother, please bring her home.”

To her daughter, who went missing Monday afternoon on her way home from school, Thompson directed another plea: “Somer, you’re not in trouble. I know you’re scared. Just come home.”

Her father, Sam Thompson, who lives in Graham, N.C., also pleaded for her safe return.

"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.

Joining Thompson on TODAY was Beseler, who has been coordinating a massive search for Somer that includes deputies, civilians and volunteers from a nearby military base on foot, on horseback and in helicopter. Dogs and divers have also been employed. His department issued an Amber Alert and had been working under the assumption that foul play was involved.

“We need a break in this case,” Beseler told Burnett. “We need a tip. We need a phone call. Somebody knows where Somer is. We need that person to call us.”

The Justice Coalition, a victims' advocacy organization based in Jacksonville, Fla., announced Wednesday that it would give a $25,000 reward to anyone who could help lead to the arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible for Somer's disappearance.

Walking home from school
“She’s creative. She’s smart ... She likes to talk. She liked to be around people and kids. She likes to talk. She’s just wonderful,” said her mother, who added, “This is not happening. It’s just surreal.”

Video: Missing girl’s mom speaks out Somer is 3 feet, 5 inches tall, weighs 65 pounds and has long brown hair which was pulled back in a ponytail. She was wearing a cranberry jumpsuit with pink striped sleeves and carrying a black, pink and white backpack with a skull and hearts on it when she disappeared.

Somer was walking home from Grove Park Elementary School around 2:45 p.m. on Monday with her twin brother, older sister and some friends when she reportedly got in an argument and ran ahead. Her siblings expected to find her at home ahead of them, but when they arrived, she wasn’t there.

A little squabble
Diena Thompson was working when her children came home, but a family friend who spoke to NBC News said that another friend, Sean Patten, was waiting at the Thompson home for the children. It is reportedly a close neighborhood and some 100 kids walk home from the school every day. The Thompson home is about a mile from the school.

“They told me that she got into a little squabble with a little classmate,” Diena Thompson said. “Her older sister told her to quit fighting and she got mad about that.”

The other kids didn’t think anything of it when she ran ahead, as Somer had been walking home since kindergarten and knew the way home well.

TODAY
Somer, here with her twin brother, walked about a mile home from school every day.
When Somer didn’t arrive home, Patten reportedly exchanged text messages with Diena Thompson, who immediately left work and came home. Patten said she flagged down a police car and the search began almost immediately. At 9 p.m., when police were convinced she was missing and suspected that Somer had been abducted, an Amber Alert was issued.

Foul play suspected
Police reported more than 100 Clay County deputies, law enforcement officers from neighboring counties, the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are involved in the search. They spent Monday afternoon and night and Tuesday scouring the little girl’s neighborhood. Sgt. Dan Mahla, a Clay County detective, said horses, dogs, divers and helicopters have been used in the search.

“She is an endangered missing child. We do suspect foul play,” Mahla said. “We believe it is foul play because she did not come home,” he said.

Beseler added that 10 days ago, the Orange Park Police Department received a call about some people in a blue Nissan trying to lure a girl into their car. The police report said a 5-year-old girl on a bicycle was riding about a block from where Somer was last seen.

TODAY
Neighbors held a candlight vigil Tuesday night.

The sheriff told Burnett Wednesday that the car and the people in it were located and that authorities ruled them out as possible suspects.

Beseler said officers expanded the initial search area and interviewed about 75 known sex offenders in a five-square-mile radius of Somer’s home. Authorities also said they searched two landfills in Florida and Georgia, though those searches were not based on tips.

Beseler said the search would continue throughout the day with volunteers locking arms and scouring wooded areas.

If you have any information on the whereabouts of Somer Thompson, call the Clay County Sheriff’s Office at 1-877-227-6911 or e-mail CART@claysheriff.com.

This story contains information from The Associated Press.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive

Video: Small child's body found in Georgia

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