Authorities say they have not identified a child's body they found Wednesday in a landfill while searching for a missing 7-year-old girl. Family members were hopeful the girl is still alive, though neighbors in the girl's community feared the worst.
The partially covered body of the child was found in a Georgia landfill near the Florida state line, after investigators followed garbage trucks leaving from the neighborhood where Somer Thompson disappeared Monday.
Sheriff Rick Beseler said investigators searched through 100 tons of garbage before finding the body. He first said the body was female, then corrected himself to say he could not confirm the gender. NBC affiliate WTLV reported that the body was female.
Few other details about the body, such as a possible cause of death, were released. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation planned an autopsy Thursday.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead said the agency was assisting with the investigation and an autopsy would be conducted on the body Thursday morning in Savannah.
"We all need to say a prayer for Somer's family," Gov. Charlie Crist said at a press conference announcing the discovery.
Vanished after school
Somer vanished on her mile-long walk home from school Monday in Orange Park, near Jacksonville.
She was squabbling with another child, and her sister told her to stop. The girl got upset, walked ahead of the group and wasn't seen again.
Orange Park is a suburb of Jacksonville just south of Jacksonville Naval Air Station. The area where the girl disappeared is a heavily populated residential area with homes, apartment complexes and condominiums.
Investigators said before the body was discovered they suspected foul play in her disappearance.
"We want to find who did this and bring them to justice," the sheriff said.
Earlier Wednesday, the girl's parents made emotional pleas for their daughter to be returned home safely.
“Please bring her back to us,” Diena Thompson said while choking back sobs during an interview from Clay County, Fla., with TODAY’s Erin Burnett. “She belongs with her family. She belongs with us. She belongs with her twin brother, please bring her home.”
To her daughter, who went missing Monday afternoon on her way home from school, Thompson directed another plea: “Somer, you’re not in trouble. I know you’re scared. Just come home.”
Her father, Sam Thompson, who lives in Graham, N.C., also pleaded for her safe return.
"Somer, your daddy Sam loves you unconditionally. Stay strong and don't give up the fight or the hope that we're going to be a family again. I love you," he said.
Joining Thompson on TODAY was Beseler, who has been coordinating a massive search for Somer that includes deputies, civilians and volunteers from a nearby military base on foot, on horseback and in helicopter. Dogs and divers have also been employed. His department issued an Amber Alert and had been working under the assumption that foul play was involved.
“We need a break in this case,” Beseler told Burnett. “We need a tip. We need a phone call. Somebody knows where Somer is. We need that person to call us.”
The Justice Coalition, a victims' advocacy organization based in Jacksonville, Fla., announced Wednesday that it would give a $25,000 reward to anyone who could help lead to the arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible for Somer's disappearance.
Walking home from school
“She’s creative. She’s smart ... She likes to talk. She liked to be around people and kids. She likes to talk. She’s just wonderful,” said her mother, who added, “This is not happening. It’s just surreal.”