While authorities continue to look for a man who abducted and possibly sexually assaulted an 11-year-old Cody, Wyo., girl on Monday before releasing her several hours later, the community is working to come to grips with what happened.
"I know that the community, number one, is grateful that the girl was found," said Bryan Monteith, superintendent of Park County School District 6, which includes Cody. "But there's a lot of anger based on the fact that someone does this to an 11-year-old girl. I think they want him caught and brought to justice."
At least 300 community members gathered for a candle light observance Wednesday evening in the parking lot of the Recreation Center, an area close by to where the young girl was abducted, organizer David Coch said.
“In response to the violent crime committed against the young Cody girl, the community came together to offer prayer and reflection for the family,” said Coch, news director for Big Horn Radio Network. “It was also an opportunity for the community to come together to talk about this and how to safeguard our families when moving forward.”
The service was led by Kenny Lee, president of Cody Ministerial Association and pastor at Foursquare Church Kenny lee.
“There’s an awful lot of things in our lives that don’t make sense, and when we encounter these times, the support and safety our relationships are really important to help draw out the positive,” Lee said.
Hundreds held candles as the sun set, Coch said, and then 21 floating luminaries were set adrift into the sky to shine a light on missing children.
The most moving moment, Coch said, was when the 11-year-old and her family joined the service.
“I don’t think people were expecting them, but everyone cheered and clapped when they walked to the front of the crowd,” he said.
Following the service, a procession of people offered the girl and her family support with words of hope and hugs.
The community and law enforcement, under the direction of the Cody Police Department, have been active in the search for the girl's abductor.
A review of calls made to to the department on Tuesday shows that about one-third of the 26 calls that officers responded to were from callers reporting people or vehicles that might match information provided by Chief Perry Rockvam earlier in the day.
All of those calls came in after noon, shortly after Rockvam sent a press release detailing the incident that included descriptions of the suspect and sport utility vehicle.
The release described the abductor as a white man 55 to 60 years old, weighing 185 to 200 pounds and with short, strawberry blond or white hair and a neatly trimmed beard or mustache of the same color. He was wearing blue jeans, a brown shirt and a tan baseball cap, the release said.
Rockvam, who could not be reached Wednesday for comment, said the suspect was last seen driving a white SUV, possibly a Suburban, with gray leather seats in the front and an open back area with a mattress on the floor. It also had a black and red backpack and a package of water bottles tied to the roof rack.
All of the calls to police Tuesday turned out to be unfounded or officers could not find the person.
The news release said the suspect drove up to three girls Monday afternoon at the Park County Complex and asked if they'd help him find his missing puppy.
One of the girls said she'd help and later told investigators that, when she approached the SUV, the man brandished a pistol and told her to get into the front seat.
He then drove her outside Cody to the Spirit Mountain Road area, where the sexual assault allegedly occurred, Rockvam said.
Hunters in the area found the girl walking down the road and called police, leading Rockvam to ask anybody hunting in the area recently to contact the Cody Police Department.
Authorities have cast a wide net in the search for the suspect, bringing in the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation as well as sending an alert for the man and his vehicle to law enforcement agencies across the region.
The Associated Press reported that authorities investigating the disappearance of a 10-year-old Colorado girl are looking into whether it could be linked to the Cody abduction.
Police in the Denver suburb of Westminster say they're aware of the Cody case and were working with investigators there on Wednesday.
Jessica Ridgeway of Westminster has been missing since Friday, when she left home to meet friends at a park for the walk to school. The fifth-grader never turned up at school.
Two days later, her backpack was found on a sidewalk in a neighborhood about six miles away.
Carbon County, Mont., Sheriff Tom Reiger said his department is on high alert, with Wyoming's Park County sitting at the county's southern border.
"We’re assisting with anything that they need," said Steven Woodson, director of the Wyoming DCI. "We told (Rockvam) that we’ll assist him with whatever he needs."
Monteith said Monday was a professional development day for staff in the school district, meaning students didn't have class.
School officials were made aware of the situation Tuesday and put into effect an incident command system for the five schools in the district — which has about 2,200 K-12 students — that called for extra staff outside during busy pickup and drop-off hours.
District officials also made sure that each of the five Cody schools has counselors available for students and staff while an on-call district psychologist and teachers prepared to answer any questions.
"I think everybody in our community has been affected by this," Monteith said.
He said some students have already spoken with counselors while others asked teachers questions. He expects that his staff will see more as the students further comprehend the abduction and assault.
The girl has not yet returned to school.
Livingston Elementary Principal Tom Cook said staff at the school, where the girl is a student, prepared a statement tailored for students.
"We address it, we acknowledge it and we deal with it, but we still want to keep normalcy in our lives," Cook said.
Teachers also reminded students about being safe around strangers.
"It's been pretty quiet, pretty somber," Cook said of the school's mood. "It's one of those things you never want to have to deal with. But it's also reminded us that we can't ever let our guard down."
In the meantime, Monteith also hopes that the search for the abductor ends soon.
"There's still a high level of concern, of course, while this person's still at large," he said. "The thing that no one knows is whether he's from the area or somewhere else and is already gone."