The disappearance of an 11-year-old girl from her house just a mile from the Canadian border rattled nerves in her small town Wednesday as crews searched the Connecticut River and cordoned the house with police tape and the FBI deployed a team that specializes in child abductions.
Celina Cass was last seen in her house at a computer around 9 p.m. Monday and was gone the next morning, authorities said. Police have said that there's no indication she ran away or that someone took her, and there are no signs of a struggle. The only thing that is certain is she disappeared.
Prosecutors from the attorney general's office arrived in Stewartstown on Wednesday and took charge of the investigation into the girl's disappearance, which was being treated as a missing-person case.
"We are still desperately looking for her," said Senior Assistant Attorney General Jane Young, who typically handles homicide cases.
She held a press conference Wednesday night with the head of the local FBI office, Kieran Ramsay, but wouldn't take questions.
The specter of the girl's disappearance hung heavy over Stewartstown, a community of 800 residents with one blinking streetlight and a handful of stores.
"It's creepy," said Shannon Towle, who owns Towle's Mini-Mart on Route 3. "Things like this don't happen here. I know that's kind of a tired phrase. I'm an overprotective mom as it is. Now it's going to be way worse."
About 80 people, many with candles in hand and tears in their eyes, gathered for a nighttime vigil for Celina in neighboring Canaan, Vt. A framed picture of the girl sat on a picnic table, surrounded by candles.
Friends and classmates and people who didn't know Celina were among those in the sobbing crowd.
A family friend, Rebecca Goodrum, of nearby Beecher Falls, Vt., said she was praying Celina, whom she's known since she was 2, is safe.
"It feels like a lost section of the town," Goodrum said Wednesday night. "She was beautiful. She was the light of everything."
Celina's stepfather, Wendell Noyes, described her as a quiet girl who would not have left home on her own. He declined to comment further on her disappearance.
Residents described Celina as a sweet, friendly child. One of Celina's best friends, 11-year-old Makayla Riendeau, said Celina loves her mother and likes her stepfather and wouldn't run away. She said Celina is very athletic, is a stickler about getting her school work done on time and loves having friends over to her house.
"She's a very good friend, and she never lets anybody down," Makayla said.
By Wednesday afternoon, family members and friends were camped out on the porch of the three-story wooden home and shooed away reporters.
Young, the senior assistant attorney general, entered the home with several officers about 2 p.m. and came out with a woman, whom they walked to a nearby office building that served as a command post. Young declined to comment on that.
At midday Wednesday, about a mile north of town, five Fish and Game Department officers searched the woods behind an apartment. They carried bags and boxes, but it was unclear if they collected anything.
Police descended on a parked pickup truck across the street from the girl's home, and officers wearing gloves examined it.
On Tuesday, state and federal law enforcement officials scoured the area within a half-mile of the family home, and relatives, friends and neighbors held a vigil for Celina near the house that night.
Celina's disappearance did not meet the criteria for an Amber Alert and wasn't considered suspicious, state police Sgt. Sheldon Belanger said. Police were going through phone and computer records at Celina's home, he said.
"Honestly, we don't know where else we can look," said Lt. Douglas Gralenski, a state Fish and Game official whose agency is helping state police search the river. "There's so much that's unknown."
Fliers with the girl's smiling face are posted on trees, utility poles and stores in the town.
Shannon Towle's daughter, 13-year-old Echo Towle, who knows her, said: "I hope she's OK. I hope they find her."
Gralenski said Wednesday that a small boat with an officer and fishing guide was searching the river about a quarter-mile from her home. He said the river was lowered Tuesday to help with the search. The river runs between New Hampshire and Vermont, where state police also have helped with the search.
"It's not a deep river. You'd be hard-pressed to find 6 to 8 feet in most of it in that area," Gralenski said. "When we had it drawn down, it was exceptionally low."
That allowed the Border Patrol to search by helicopter and some officers to search by kayak before severe thunderstorms passed through Tuesday afternoon.
At the peak of the search Tuesday, Gralenski said, there were at least three dozen officers, New England police dog handlers and a search and rescue group assisting by water, air and land, including all-terrain vehicle trails in the woods.
"We found no evidence that she had been in that area, and, of course, we have no evidence she is lost as opposed to missing, either," he said.
The area is densely wooded, and there's little to no cellphone reception.
Besides the river search Wednesday, some officers were searching areas where some of the dog teams showed interest, Gralenski said.
Towle said her daughter asked her whether she thought Celina was still alive.
"How do I answer that question? And do I want to?" Towle said. "I don't want to think about it, but I pray every second that she is."
Associated Press writers Kathy McCormack and Lynne Tuohy in Concord, N.H., contributed to this report.