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No local sex offenders eyed in Fla. girl’s death

Image: neighbors pay respects at a memorial to Somer Thompson
Mourners leave stuffed animals and books, and sign cards across the street from Somer Thompson's home in Orange Park, Fla., on Thursday.Jake Roth / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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 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.

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."