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N.H. girl’s body found in river

Authorities call death suspicious

By Martine Powers and Peter Schworm
Globe Correspondent | Globe Staff / August 2, 2011

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WEST STEWARTSTOWN, N.H. - The body of Celina Cass was recovered yesterday from the Connecticut River, a quarter-mile from her family’s home, bringing a heartbreaking end to the intensive search for the 11-year-old that drew national attention to this tiny town in the northern tip of the state.

Dive teams found the girl’s body around 10:30 a.m. near a dam. Authorities said they considered her death suspicious. The medical examiner’s office in Concord will conduct an autopsy today to determine how she died.

Hopes that the child would be found alive had dimmed with each passing day of a nearly weeklong search.

“We have brought Celina home,’’ New Hampshire Assistant Attorney General Jane Young said at a brief news conference yesterday evening, her voice strained with emotion. “But not the way we wanted to bring her home.’’

Young said investigators concluded her death was suspicious after seeing the condition of the body, which was recovered in the late afternoon. She declined to elaborate, but said investigators were working to determine where the body had been dumped into the water, which at that point forms the border between New Hampshire and Vermont.

Divers went to the river as part of a meticulous search of the woods and water near her home, she said.

“It was treated as a routine search,’’ she said. “This was the next area that we were looking at as part of that routine and not leaving any stone unturned in trying to locate her.’’

Young would not say whether police had identified any suspects, but said they were interviewing witnesses and “looking at areas where we knew she was last seen’’ in hopes of unraveling the mystery behind her disappearance July 25.

“We are treating it as a criminal investigation based on what we know at this juncture,’’ she said.

Young extended her condolences to Celina’s friends and family and the town “who loved her and who cherished her.’’

Adam Laro, Celina’s half-brother, said in a brief phone interview that the family was devastated by the news after long days and nights, hoping against hope she would return home safe.

“She was a beautiful girl,’’ said Laro, whose father, also named Adam, had issued a public plea Sunday for any information about her disappearance. “We just want answers.’’

Laro, 21, said the family has no idea what might have happened. He described Celina as a friendly girl who seemed happy at home.

“We just don’t know,’’ he said. “It’s all we can think about, but we just don’t know.’’

At a vigil last night, held at a park around the corner from the girl’s home and just steps away from the river where her body was found, more than 100 friends and neighbors gathered in a solemn remembrance.

Skye Wheeler, an 8-year-old friend, remembered Celina as a loving girl who was quiet at school, where she was sometimes teased by her classmates, but who opened up around her close friends.

“I was mad and also sad at the same time,’’ Wheeler said of hearing the news. “I was wondering who would do that to such a nice little girl.’’

At the park, those who knew Celina filled a bench with photos, stuffed animals, candles, and handwritten messages.

A tall girl who loved basketball and her cats, Celina was last seen sitting at the computer in her bedroom about 9 p.m. By the next morning, she was gone. Police said there were no signs of a struggle, and her family said the shy, studious girl would never have run away.

Celina lived with her mother, sister, and stepfather. Yesterday their home was cordoned off with police tape and surrounded by state troopers. It appeared the family was not home.

Young said they were searching the house because it was the last place she was seen alive.

“At this juncture, we are looking at all facets of this investigation,’’ she said. “Now as a criminal investigation, and not as a missing person investigation.’’

Several media outlets reported that Celina’s stepfather, Wendell Noyes, was taken to a hospital by ambulance after he was observed repeatedly lying face-down in his driveway in front of news cameras. A video on MSNBC showed Noyes first kneeling, then lying down.

The family has posted “No Trespassing’’ signs on their property and hung blankets across their front porch.

Celina’s disappearance stunned this small village of 386 near the Canadian border and prompted nightly vigils for her safe return. At those events, friends and neighbors encircled the family to shield them from news cameras. West Stewartstown is a village within Stewartstown; together they have about 1,000 residents.

The case quickly drew widespread media coverage, with photographs of Celina’s sweet smile and uneven teeth shown widely in hopes someone would recognize her. In town, residents stood along the roadside, waving her picture to drivers.

Over the weekend, numerous law enforcement agencies had helped to search for her, including the New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont state police, the FBI, and the US Border Patrol. Scores of investigators canvassed homes and searched ponds and rugged woods in a 1-mile radius around her home, hoping for any clue to what happened to her.

The FBI announced a $25,000 reward for information about the girl’s whereabouts, and an anonymous donor offered another $5,000. Young said the FBI had received 500 tips so far.

Yesterday, dozens of State Police cars, with sirens flashing, gathered around the stretch of Connecticut River north of Celina’s home.

Family friends entered the school that has served as the search command center with downcast faces, some in tears.

At the vigil, children passed out helium balloons so that friends could write farewell messages “Love you always and 4-ever,’’ one said. “Celina - God’s newest angel - Watch over your Mom and sister,’’ read another.

The Rev. Craig Cheney of the North American Martyrs Parish called on community members to find comfort in God and in one another.

“As lonely and dark as this trial seems to be, we need not feel alone,’’ he said.

After singing “Amazing Grace,’’ the children released their balloons into the lavender sky.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com.