STEWARTSTOWN, N.H. — After nearly a week of massive searches and volunteers handing out fliers with photos of a missing fifth-grader, residents in this town of 800 in far northern New Hampshire are absorbing the bitter news that there will be no happy ending now that divers have recovered the 11-year-old’s body from the Connecticut River.
Residents and investigators alike hope to find answers about how Celina Cass came to be in the river a quarter-mile from her home when an autopsy is conducted Tuesday.
Celina, who lived with her older sister, mother and stepfather a mile from the Canadian border, was last seen at her home computer around 9 p.m. on July 25 and was gone the next morning, authorities have said. Police said there was no sign of a struggle and there was no indication she ran away or someone took her.
On Monday, the intense search came to an abrupt end when New Hampshire Fish and Game Department divers found her body near a hydroelectric dam that spans the Connecticut River between her hometown, Stewartstown, and Canaan, Vt., Senior Assistant Attorney General Jane Young said.
“We’re all very devastated,” said Jeffry Pettit, whose daughter Kaylin was a friend of Celina’s, after word that the body had been found.
Based on what divers found, her death was described as suspicious, and investigators were treating the case as a criminal investigation pending autopsy results, Young said.
At its peak, more than 100 federal, state and local law enforcement officers descended upon Stewartstown, searching a mile-wide area around her home, including woods and ponds. Law enforcement officers went so far as to have a cellphone tower erected to assist in communications.
Fliers featuring pictures of Celina with a gap-toothed smile had been put up throughout Stewartstown and neighboring communities. Residents passed out purple and pink ribbons and held vigils.
No one was more baffled by Celina’s disappearance than her friends and family, who described her as studious and reliable, shy and timid, not the type to run away from home.
“People don’t tend to think it’s going to happen up here,” said Karen Ramsey, of Lancaster, referring to the tight-knit, rural community. “It doesn’t just happen in the city.”
According to several media outlets, Celina’s stepfather was taken to a hospital Monday. MSNBC reported that Wendell Noyes was taken by ambulance after lying down in the family’s driveway and rolling around, and video showed him dropping to his knees and then lying with his head resting on his hands.
A spokeswoman for Upper Connecticut Valley Hospital, in Colebrook, N.H., said she couldn’t comment on whether Noyes was taken to the hospital on Monday.
In 2003, Noyes was involuntarily committed to a hospital in Concord after he entered his girlfriend’s house in the middle of the night and threatened to throw her down stairs, according to court documents. An order signed by a probate judge indicated Noyes suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.
A court motion filed by his attorney at the time indicated Noyes received a medical discharge from the Air Force because of mental illness. The attorney didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment Monday.
Celina’s death was tough for law enforcement officials, as well as residents. State police and FBI agents from as far away as New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia turned the local school into a bustling command post. The FBI brought in a team specializing in child abductions.
“We have brought Celina home, obviously not the way we wanted to bring her home,” said Young, her voice breaking with emotion.
Associated Press writer David Sharp in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.