Image: neighbors pay respects at a memorial to Somer Thompson
Jake Roth  /  AP
Mourners leave stuffed animals and books, and sign cards across the street from Somer Thompson's home in Orange Park, Fla., on Thursday.
updated 10/23/2009 8:59:42 PM ET 2009-10-24T00:59:42

Investigators finished interviewing all the registered sex offenders who live near where a slain Florida girl first vanished but don't believe there was a suspect in that group, authorities said Friday.

Forensic experts continued to comb through a vacant house on the route that 7-year-old Somer Thompson walked home from elementary school before she vanished Monday. The sidewalk in front of that house was the last place witnesses reported seeing the child alive, Clay County Sheriff's spokeswoman Mary Justino.

Somer's body was discovered in a landfill Wednesday about 50 miles away in Georgia after investigators followed garbage trucks from her neighborhood.

Justino told a news conference no witnesses have come forward to say they saw the first grader attacked or abducted.

Investigators ended their questioning of 161 registered sex offenders living within a five-mile radius of Somer's home, Justino said.

"We feel that we do not have any suspects that are members of that group," she said.

An autopsy has been completed and investigators know how Somer died, but authorities won't disclose their findings or any details about the body, Justino said.

Somer's mother, Diena Thompson, warned her daughter's killer: "We'll get you." She pleaded for anyone with information to "please, please tell" police.

At a vigil held outside the Thompsons' home Friday night, the mother said she would not be able to see her daughter's body.

"They are going to give me a lock of her hair," Thompson said.

Neighbors seeks answers
Meanwhile, in front of a small church and in front of homes framed by tall trees with Spanish moss hanging from the branches, handmade signs implored anyone with information about Somer to come forward.

Somer's face, with chubby cheeks and thick brown bangs, still smiled from missing person posters plastered on nearly every utility pole along the mile-long route from her elementary school to her home.

Video: ‘I want justice for Somer,’ mom says The messages were left over from when the middle-class neighborhood held out hope she would be discovered safe until they learned the tragic news.

The next afternoon, authorities searched a vacant home a couple of blocks into Somer's daily route, just past a wooded area and across the street from a playground and baseball diamonds.

"It's crazy to think something like this could happen here," said neighbor Andrew Carlson, 17, as he watched investigators dressed in protective white suits go in and out of the empty house and comb through a construction trash bin outside. Construction crews had been working on the house, which was damaged in a fire several months ago, he said.

'We're coming for you'
Somer's mom said she wants the killer to know they will be caught.

"We're coming for you. We'll get you, and hopefully justice will be served," she said on ABC's "Good Morning America."

Authorities say Somer squabbled with another child Monday and then walked ahead of the group of kids and was never seen again. So far, the police have not made an arrest but have questioned more than 155 registered sex offenders in the area. State online records show 88 sex offenders live in Orange Park, a Jacksonville suburb of about 9,000 people just south of Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

At an intersection about halfway into her walk, where Somer would have crossed the street and turned right on the road that led straight home, a purple ribbon — which supporters and family members have been wearing — was tied to the pole of a stop sign.

On Thursday evening, a steady flow of people — many of them parents, clutching the hands of young children — walked down that same road toward Somer's house to support her grieving family with a candlelight vigil.

'Amazing Grace'
Around a tree across the street from the girl's house, supporters had created a memorial, leaving hundreds of stuffed animals, flickering candles, signs and balloons.

Diena Thompson came out with purple ribbons tied in her hair to thank the group who sang "Amazing Grace" and "You Are My Sunshine," then recited the Lord's Prayer.

"I wish I could hug every one of you," Thompson said. "I love every one of you."

Cries of support came from the crowd of about 200: "The community is behind you!" and "We're here for you. You're in our prayers."

After Somer vanished, investigators tailed nine garbage trucks from her neighborhood to the Georgia landfill, then picked through the trash as each rig spilled its load. They sorted through more than 225 tons of garbage before their worst fears were realized: Sticking out of the rubbish were a child's lifeless legs.

Sheriff Rick Beseler said the quick discovery of Somer's body, two days after she disappeared, may have saved precious evidence that could lead to her killer.

"Had we not done this tactic, I believe that body would have been buried beneath hundreds of tons of debris, probably would have gone undiscovered forever," he said.

Searching landfills is common when children disappear, but it is unusual to try to zero in on them more efficiently by tracking a neighborhood's garbage trucks, said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"I fear for our community until we bring this person in. This is a heinous crime that's been committed," Beseler said. "And we're going to work as hard as we can to make this community safe."

The girl disappeared in a heavily populated residential area about a mile from a stretch of fast-food restaurants and other businesses. Investigators will presumably try to pinpoint the trash bin or garbage can where she was dumped, based on the trash around her and the truck's pickup route.

The sheriff said he had told Diena Thompson to prepare for the worst, and called her after receiving news her body was discovered.

"Needless to say, she was absolutely devastated," Beseler said. "It was the hardest phone call I've ever had to make in my life, and I hope I never have to make another one like that."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: No sex offenders eyed in Fla. girl’s death

  1. Closed captioning of: No sex offenders eyed in Fla. girl’s death

    >>> market will last.

    >>> first, a race against time for the killer of 7-year-old somer thompson . she vanished monday while walking home from school, and her body was found two days later in a landfill. here's nbc 's mark potter with the latest on the investigation.

    >> reporter: in the sense search for somer thompson 's killer, police say they still have not yet identified any suspects. scores of registered sex offenders in the area have been cleared.

    >> all 90 sex offenders and predators in that five-mile radius have been contacted in person. their homes have been searched. their properties have been searched. their families have been spoken to. and we feel certain at this time that we do not have any suspects that are members of that group.

    >> reporter: sheriff's investigators say they have now identified the garbage truck which carried the girl's body to the georgia landfill where it was uncovered wednesday. officials would not say, though, whether they have developed enough leads from that to determine where somer's body was initially hidden by her killer. crime scene investigators have been concentrating on a va can house here near somer thompson 's school. police say this sidewalk in front of the house was the last place where somer was seen before she disappeared walking home from school.

    >> we're going to be looking for anything that may have dna material. we'll be looking for prints. we'll be looking for, you know, pieces of evidence.

    >> reporter: police say they now know how somer thompson was killed but will not release the information publicly.

    >> our focus is on preserving the integrity of this investigation and not releasing any information that in the long run would prevent us from prosecuting and convicting the person who did this to somer.

    >> i tried with somer. i feel like i failed, obviously.

    >> reporter: after receiving more than 900 phone tips, police say they are working around the clock, still looking for a big break . for "today," mark potter , nbc news, orange park , florida.

    >> and clint van zandt is an nbc criminal analyst as well as a former fbi profiler. clint , good morning.

    >> hi, amy .

    >> you know, police were able to find somer's body two days after she was reported missing, and i imagine that's going to give police a lot of evidence that in many other cases they don't have. how much of an advantage is this in terms of finding who's out, who did this?

    >> yeah, i think it's a big advantage, amy . number one, of course, any forensic evidence on the victim's body -- hairs, fibers, fluids, anything like that are still going to be intact. her fingernails may have her assailant's skin underneath. the other challenge, too, is authorities believe she had been disposed of in some type of dumpster, if they're able to identify that dumpster perhaps by letters, mail, newspapers, other things that were there, they may find the exact location where the victim was disposed of in their attempt to identify every crime scene associated with her murder.

    >> and speaking to that, in mark potter 's report, we saw the police are closely looking at a vacant home on the block where somer disappeared from. does that area specifically say anything about who this suspect may be?

    >> well, i think it's somebody close by, amy . there are going to be four crime scenes . we've got one where the victim was recovered. then we'll have one where she was kidnapped, where she was assaulted, and the means used to transport her to a dumpster. unfortunately, that house, authorities may well believe could have been a point of surveillance for some type of predator, and realize, too, at least one or more witnesses say that was the last spot she was seen as she was by that house until everybody lost sight of her. so, there's a number of reasons why authorities are there. but, again, they're looking for somebody more than likely from the local area with some type of tie in that area who may well have been out surveilling, out looking for his perfect victim.

    >> it is interesting, clint , because there are about 90 registered sexual predators in the orange county area , but police say they have no reason to believe that they were involved, any of them would be involved in somer's abduction. the fact that they could say that this early on, does that point to something to you that they may know who their man is?

    >> well, at least they feel they've eliminated these individuals. like you and i, amy , if we're working this case, we go out, find each of these 90 guys and say, where were you at the critical hour, between 2:30 and 3:30 on monday afternoon? if they can show us, you know, that they were at work, that they were out of town, something else, we can, in fact, eliminate them. and it sounds like they've eliminated these guys. but amy , every time you look at a map -- and there are some wonderful maps on the internet that show where is predators live, i mean, it looks like a shotgun blast all across the united states with every location where a predator lives. as you indicate, between 90 and some estimates upwards of 150 within a five-mile radius of just this victim's home alone , then you take the entire united states , we do have a national problem.

    >> all right. clint van zandt , as always, thanks so much.

    >> thank you, amy .


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