EVANSDALE, Iowa (AP) — Investigators scoured a rural wildlife area in northeastern Iowa for clues Thursday after hunters found dead bodies believed to be those of two young cousins who vanished in July.

Even as they waited for confirmation of the bodies’ identities, agents involved in the kidnapping investigation of Lyric Cook and Elizabeth Collins searched for possible evidence near the Seven Bridges Wildlife Area. One of the girls’ mothers and community members appeared to be resigned to the tragic news that the bodies were the girls, which would shift the case to a death investigation.

“We are all grieving. We hurt for the families and believe me it touches the community deeply because it is a small community,” said Jeff Rasanen, pastor of the Faith Assembly of God Church in Evansdale. “It’s a sad time. We were just praying for a much better outcome.”

Bremer County Sheriff Dewey Hildebrandt said officers from his agency, the FBI, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and Black Hawk County were processing the area where hunters found the bodies Wednesday afternoon. He said more information about the investigation would be released at a news conference Thursday afternoon. News photographs from the scene showed teams of officers looking in ditches along roads, fields and woods.

The county-owned wildlife area is popular for hunting and fishing and is intersected by the Wapsipinicon River. It is about 25 miles from Evansdale, the town of 4,700 people where 10-year-old Lyric and 8-year-old Elizabeth disappeared July 13 while riding their bikes.

Authorities announced Wednesday they had notified the girls’ families of the hunters’ discovery and sent the bodies to the state medical examiner’s office in Ankeny for positive identification.

Black Hawk County sheriff’s Capt. Rick Abben recalled the long hours that officers had spent searching for the girls. “It’s definitely not the outcome that we wanted, obviously,” he said.

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

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

Iowa Sen. Jeff Danielson, a Cedar Falls firefighter, said the case has affected everyone in the area deeply. He is drafting proposed legislation that would provide faster distribution of information about missing children through law enforcement and social media.

“We believe that we can speed up the time that the public is aware of an abduction and let them be our eyes and ears in the immediate time frame,” he said.

About 70 people attended a Wednesday night prayer vigil at Meyers Lake in Evansdale, where investigators had found the girls’ bicycles and a pink purse hours after they went missing.

“I don’t want to think the worst, but two bodies. It’s just really heartbreaking,” said Amanda Mulzac, who lives in nearby Waterloo. “At their age I was out by myself, but now it’s different. Hold your babies close.”

Mulzac was among hundreds of volunteers who helped investigators search for the girls by traipsing through cornfields and wooded areas in and around Evansdale. The mayor even joined the search in his private plane. Days later, an FBI dive team brought in specialized equipment to search the bottom of the lake. Police then classified the case as an abduction.

Investigators had largely been tight-lipped in the months since. An FBI spokeswoman initially said investigators had reason to believe the girls were alive, but other investigators backtracked, saying only that there was no reason to believe the girls were dead.

Authorities had asked hunters to look out for the girls during this fall’s popular deer hunting season. Jennifer Lancaster, chief law enforcement official for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in northeastern Iowa, said she believed deer hunters who were out Wednesday stumbled upon the bodies and reported them immediately.

Investigators have looked into thousands of tips and chased multiple theories in the case.

They looked into Cook’s parents, who had criminal records for prior involvement in making methamphetamine. Cook’s father, Daniel Morrissey, is being prosecuted for domestic assault and a series of meth and other drug charges, and he backed out of a plea agreement with prosecutors the day before the disappearance. They have denied any involvement.

The region had rallied in support of the girls. Photographs of the cousins seemed to be everywhere in northeastern Iowa: on T-shirts and buttons worn by locals, and on fliers hung on gas station walls and in business windows. Last week, an anonymous donor pledged $100,000 for information about the girls’ whereabouts, on top of the $50,000 that police had offered.

After Wednesday night’s vigil, family friend Sarah Curl said it was a tight-knit, caring community.

“When something happens to one family it happens to all of our families,” Curl said. “This could have happened to anyone.”

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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