EVANSDALE, Iowa — Authorities searching for two young cousins drained an Iowa lake Tuesday after FBI dogs detected the girls’ scents near where their bicycles were found four days earlier, heightening suspicion from family members that they might have been abducted.
FBI spokeswoman Sandy Breault said the reaction from the dogs Monday night indicated a “strong possibility” the girls had been at the lake, less than a mile from their grandmother’s house where they were last reported seen Friday. However, Breault said because there were no confirmed sightings at the lake, authorities couldn’t be certain.
Chief Deputy Rick Abben of the Black Hawk County Sheriff’s Office said the case was still considered a missing persons investigation. The decision to drain the lake was made to rule out the possibility the girls were in the water, he said.
Officers slowly paddled around the lake in kayaks on Tuesday morning. A group of three officers walking along the southeast shoreline stopped to study something that appeared to be a cup. An officer with gloves and an evidence bag picked it up and took it back to a patrol car sitting along the bank.
Officials didn’t identify the object or even confirm whether it was related to the search for Elizabeth Collins, 8, and Lyric Cook-Morrissey, 10, but it was a rare sign of activity in a massive search that has produced few if any significant leads.
“I don’t think that they’re in the lake not at all but it is just like a dead end as far as we know so far,” said Dan Morrissey, Lyric’s father. “We’ve never gone through anything like this. It’s hard enough just to get up and deal with the reality that your daughter is gone.”
Tammy Brousseau, 48, an aunt to both girls, said all the signs were pointing to a stranger — possibility a pedophile — abducting them from the area near the lake where their bikes were found.
Brousseau said that just last week she taught Lyric how to “save someone if they went limp in the water.” She said she also taught both girls how to “drop to the ground and fight” if someone tried to abduct them.
Lyric’s parents said they didn’t suspect a drowning either, noting the girls’ swimming abilities and the fact that no shoes were recovered on the bank of the lake.
“The area where the bikes were found is fenced on both sides, and it is right where maintenance gate is it is a spot that looks to me like a trap,” Dan Morrissey said. “Somebody could have just come along right then or followed them down it would have been the worst spot to be in right there.”
At least 30 FBI investigators joined the search for the girls, who were last reported seen Friday afternoon leaving their grandmother’s house in Evansdale. Their bicycles and Elizabeth’s purse were found later that day near a bike trail at the edge of Meyers Lake.
Breault said the search has been slowed because of the time required to drain the lake. The draining began Monday afternoon and could take up to three days. But local officials said the draining likely will go faster because of the already low level of the lake and the Cedar River into which it drains.
The lake is draining through a 3-foot culvert with a grate over it that would prevent a body from flowing into it, Abben said. A pump was brought in on Tuesday to quicken the pace.
The lake was drained in 2008 when the area flooded and in 2009 when a fish kill prompted the city to empty it and restock it.
Abben said he was told it was down 3 feet on Tuesday morning and the water level continued to fall throughout the day with more of the bank visible.
A massive sweep of the area that drew hundreds of volunteers over the weekend failed to find any evidence. Authorities previously dredged the lake and have been interviewing family, friends and registered sex offenders who live in the area.
Abben said that local, state and federal officials have been “grasping for straws” in the search. A tip line turned up numerous reports of articles of clothing that had been found, but none belonged to the girls. He said it was as if they had just disappeared.
Abben declined to talk specifically about evidence other than saying the bicycle and purse, which had a cellphone in it, did not definitely place the girls at the lake. The cellphone was used by the girls to play games and was not activated to make calls, he said.
He said tips were coming from across the United States since the story has gained national attention.
He said the family has been cooperating with the investigation.
“We have no reason to believe there was any foul play at this time,” he said. “Everyone is suspect until we find something.”
Lyric’s mother, Misty Morrissey, said the family members were trying to stay as upbeat as possible considering the circumstances.
“We’re pretty emotional, pretty sad, trying to remain positive and trying to hold on to our faith and know that God is still in control and we’re going to find a resolution to this,” she said.
Associated Press writer Ryan J. Foley contributed to this report from Iowa City and writer Grant Schulte contributed from Lincoln, Neb.