EVANSDALE, Iowa --- The tragic discovery of the two bodies believed to be those of the missing cousins has allowed authorities to narrow their investigation.

“This discovery doesn’t end this investigation, it just begins a new chapter,” said Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson.

He said the development gives authorities the ability to “draw conclusions off what we already know, and some of the people we already talked to and likely open up additional avenues for us to purse. That’s fantastic, because we were chasing down leads that were a lot of times ended up being vaporous for us. Now we’re are able to commit a concerted effort in a single direction.”

Since July 13 — when Lyric Cook-Morrissey, 10, and Elizabeth Collins, 8, were last seen riding their bikes in Evansdale — detectives have chased even the most far-fetched tips as the investigation has gone from a missing person case to an abduction probe to a presumed homicide case.

Wednesday’s discovery at Seven Bridges Wildlife Area by hunters has allowed authorities to narrow their focus, Thompson said.

“We spent five and a half months working every lead from a pop bottle cap to somebody with a divining rod. We’re finally at a position where we’ve got some tangible evidence, some credible evidence that we can move on,” Thompson said.

On Friday, authorities rounded out their third day in the investigation’s new chapter with some 50 officers on the scene documenting clues at 7 Bridges, a 125-acre wildlife area in rural Bremer County.

The entire park, accessible by a gravel road, remained closed to the public, and Capt. Rick Abben said law enforcement may hold the scene until Monday, if not longer.

It wasn’t immediately known if authorities had searched 7 Bridges when the disappearance was fresh in July, but Thompson said investigators had requested neighboring counties check their parks for signs of the girls.

Neighbors said the out-of-the-way park sees little traffic, with the exception of hunting season.

Even if it had been checked, it would have been difficult to find the bodies, Thompson said.

“It’s pretty rough up there,” he said. “The location of where those bodies were found, if those hunters had moved five feet either direction, they wouldn’t have seen them.”

The Iowa Medical Examiner’s Office is handling the autopsies to determine the cause of death and the positively identify the bodies. Abben said authorities are certain the bodies are those of Lyric and Elizabeth because of their small stature and the fact there are no similar missing persons cases in the area.


EARLIER STORY

Authorities hope bodies will yield break in missing cousins case

EVANSDALE, Iowa  — A sheriff investigating the apparent kidnapping and slaying of two Iowa cousins said Friday that the discovery of the young girls’ bodies is a long-awaited break in the case that could help find their killer.

Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson said investigators would be deliberate in pursuing the case of Lyric Cook and Elizabeth Collins, who were 10 and 8 when they disappeared in Evansdale in July. Hunters stumbled upon two bodies believed to be Cook and Collins in a wooded wildlife area some 25 miles away on Wednesday.

Thompson said it could take “several weeks” for their autopsies to be complete and the results to be made public.

“We’re going to be extremely meticulous and we’re not going to apologize for that,” he said a phone interview with The Associated Press. “We’ve got an opportunity to find a killer.”

After nearly five months of chasing tips and theories about the girls’ whereabouts, Thompson said police “finally have something credible. We finally have something we can sink our teeth into” in the high-profile case.

Thompson’s remarks indicate the case is becoming a homicide investigation. At a news conference Thursday, Thompson’s chief deputy said the investigation was leaning that way but that police would wait for the autopsy results before making the change.

Teams of local and federal officers have scoured the Seven Bridges Wildlife Area in Bremer County for evidence since the discovery of the bodies, searching in ditches along the road, fields and woods. The Iowa Medical Examiner’s Office, which is handling the autopsies, was also at the scene. That office has declined comment on the autopsies.

The sheriff’s office had asked neighboring counties, including Bremer County, to search their parks and wildlife areas for the girls after they vanished last summer, Thompson said. He said that as far as he knows, Bremer County officers did search the popular hunting and fishing spot but that the bodies would have been hard for anyone to spot.

“Even the hunters, if they had gone five feet in either direction, would not have found those bodies,” he said.

The girls left the Collins’ home in Evansdale, where they were being watched by their grandmother, for a bike ride July 13 and never returned. Authorities found their bikes and a purse near a recreational lake in the city, and their disappearance sparked a massive search and kidnapping investigation involving the FBI, state and local police.

The cousins’ families had been hoping they would come home, maybe even for Christmas, until this week’s news.

“This 100 percent blindsided us and it absolutely did them as well,” said Sara Curl, a friend of the girls’ families.

Curl helped organize a vigil for the girls Thursday night, one of many community activities that will be needed to help people heal in the days ahead, she said. The vigil was held around a Christmas tree that had been set up to honor the girls — with the hope they would be home for Christmas to see it.

In a posting on her Facebook page Thursday, Heather Collins, Elizabeth’s mother, said it was not the outcome the family wanted but now “we know our girls are dancing up with our savior.” Collins thanked the community for an outpouring of support.

When Zuhra Hodzic, 25, of Waterloo, saw that Facebook message, she was heartbroken. Hodzic was a volunteer on searches for the girls and other community activities.

“You’re left with a blank,” she said searching for the words and fighting back tears. “It’s heartbreaking. It’s devastating.”

For her and many others at the vigil, the focus turns now to finding who is responsible.

“Our community deserves justice, and I hope our FBI agents and cops and everybody involved gets for us what we deserve,” she said, “and that’s justice for the whole family and all of us.” 


Authorities are 'confident' that bodies are 2 Evansdale cousins

By Matthew Wilde, Waterloo Courier

EARLIER STORY: EVANSDALE, Iowa — Authorities stopped short Thursday of saying cousins Elizabeth Collins and Lyric Cook-Morrissey were murdered, but they are leaning that way.

Investigators are confident the two bodies found by hunters Wednesday in the Seven Bridges Wildlife Area in southeast Bremer County are 11-year-old Lyric and 9-year-old Elizabeth, youngsters who vanished while riding their bicycles July 13 in Evansdale.

During a news conference Thursday afternoon at the Evansdale Response Center, Capt. Rick Abben of the Black Hawk County Sheriff’s Department said the identities have yet to be confirmed by the Iowa State Medical Examiner’s Office in Ankeny.

However, Abben left little doubt the remains found were the missing cousins. He said the bodies were small in stature and no other children are missing.

“We considered it an abduction at the time and we’re still proceeding with that,” he said when asked if the case is now considered a double homicide. “I would say we’re looking that way at this time; we have two bodies. But we’re going to rely on the state medical examiner.”

Abben didn’t say when the autopsy results would be made public.

Local, state and federal investigators converged on the 125-acre wooded area shortly after the bodies were discovered at 12:45 p.m. Wednesday to process the crime scene and look for clues. Evansdale Police Chief Kent Smock said aerial photographs also were taken.

Law enforcement officials spent much of Thursday searching grass fields and ditches near the wildlife area and in the park. Smock said the FBI’s Evidence Recovery Team was asked to assist the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, Evansdale Police, sheriff’s departments in Bremer and Black Hawk counties, and other officers.

Abben asked anyone who noticed suspicious activity in or near the wildlife area to contact police. The popular fishing and hunting destination is located about 6 miles southeast of Readlyn.

No new details about the case were provided Thursday, such as time or cause of death, the condition of the bodies or if they were buried or concealed. Abben didn’t say if there were any suspects in the girls’ deaths or a possible motive.

Abben said the public hunting area will be closed at least through Monday as investigators search for evidence. Iowa’s second shotgun deer hunting season began Saturday and runs through Dec. 16.

Officials wouldn’t say if the weather or anything else has helped or hurt the collection of evidence.

“We have plenty of people that are out there. They are well-trained and know what they are doing; we will gather whatever is out there,” Abben said.

The families of the girls have not seen the bodies, he said.

Lyric and Elizabeth disappeared while riding bikes on July 13 in Evansdale. The bikes, a purse and cellphone — the last trace of them — were found on the southeast corner of Meyers Lake on and near the recreation trail.

Seven Bridges is about 20 miles north of Meyers Lake. An Iowa State Patrol trooper was stationed Thursday about a half-mile from the area’s entrance, preventing access to unauthorized people. The trooper gathered names of people who approached.

At the girls’ schools, additional counselors were made available Thursday for students and others, Sharon Miller, the Waterloo schools spokeswoman said. Lyric would have been in fifth grade at Kingsley elementary in Waterloo and Elizabeth would have been in fourth grade at Poyner school in Evandsale.

In a posting on her Facebook page late Wednesday, Heather Collins, Elizabeth’s mother, said it was not the outcome the family wanted but now “we know our girls are dancing up with our savior.” Collins thanked the community for an outpouring of support.

Several elected officials have issued public condolences and a promise to the girls’ families.

Calling the situation tragic, Gov. Terry Branstad pledged to re-evaluate state laws and procedures designed to protect children’s safety in hopes of improving law officers’ ability to respond quickly and enlisting the public’s help more efficiently and effectively when someone is abducted.

“My heart sank when I learned about (the) discovery of two bodies linked to the disappearance of Lyric Cook-Morrissey and Elizabeth Collins,” said Rep. Bruce Braley in a statement.

“Their disappearance has been agonizing for their parents, loved ones, and the entire Cedar Valley community. My thoughts and prayers are with Lyric and Elizabeth’s families during this difficult time,” he added.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)