EVANSDALE, Iowa (AP) — Hunters discovered two bodies Wednesday believed to be the young Iowa cousins who vanished five months ago while riding their bikes, authorities said.
The families of 9-year-old Elizabeth Collins and 11-year-old Lyric Cook were notified of the discovery and are asking for privacy, Black Hawk County sheriff's Capt. Rick Abben said.
He said the bodies were found in a wooded area, but he wouldn't say where, and that they're being sent to the state medical examiner's office for identification.
Appearing to fight back tears during a news conference in Evansdale not far from where the girls were last seen, Abben said: "It's definitely not the outcome that we wanted, obviously."
"This is a difficult thing for us to go through. It's a difficult thing for the community," he added.
The cousins disappeared July 13 near a popular recreational lake in Evansdale, a city about 110 miles northeast of Des Moines. Investigators found their bicycles and a pink purse near the lake hours later, but no sign of the girls.
Abben declined to say if there were any suspects in the cousins' disappearance.
On Wednesday night, about 70 people attended a prayer vigil at the lake, some cradling plastic cups with candles to protect the flames from the cold wind. Some were holding out hope that the bodies weren't those of the missing cousins, though others seemed resigned to the tragic news.
"These were just innocent children. These girls should have been left alone. They should be home safe in their beds, and it's only a coward who would have done something like this," said Barb Collins, a machinist who grew up in Evansdale and helped lead the group in prayer.
Hundreds of volunteers had helped investigators search for girls after they went missing, traipsing through cornfields and wooded areas in and around Evansdale, a city of 8,000 residents. The mayor even flew above in his private plane looking for them.
Days later, an FBI dive team brought in specialized equipment to search the bottom of the lake for the girls but found nothing. 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, raising the region's hopes. But other investigators backtracked, saying only that there was no reason to believe the girls were dead.
Authorities had asked hunters to look for the girls in the region during this fall's popular deer hunting season.
Abben said the bodies were discovered around 12:45 p.m. Wednesday, but refused to say where. He said the area was still being processed as a crime scene and could not be compromised.
"Preservation of that scene is paramount," he said.
Abben said he hoped to release additional details Thursday.
Abben said the girls' families wanted to express gratitude to the community for their support but have asked the media to respect their privacy at this time.
Investigators have poured through thousands of tips and chased many different 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.
"In the beginning, I helped search, and I've been to many other vigils they had. The community is so involved," said Amanda Mulzac, who lives in nearby Waterloo and attended Wednesday night's vigil. "My heart breaks. It's just devastating."
"At their age I was out by myself, but now it's different," she added. "Hold your babies close."
Local residents had held prayer vigils, even as the months passed and both girls had birthdays. Just 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 she had seen "a lot of heartbreak" after news broke about the bodies being found.
"We're a tight community that cares about one another, and when something happens to one family it happens to all of our families," she said. "This could have happened to anyone."