DAYTON, Iowa (AP) — Residents of a small central Iowa city and its surrounding communities said Saturday they're saddened at the discovery of a body in a river believed to be that of a 15-year-old girl who was abducted more than two weeks ago.
Along streets and businesses in Dayton, purple ribbons on trees, plants and utility poles signified hope for finding Kathylnn Shepard alive.
But investigators are confident that the body a fisherman found Friday night in the Des Moines River near Boone is that of Kathlynn, who was abducted in Dayton, about 20 miles north of Boone, on May 20 along with a 12-year-old girl who later escaped and called 911.
An autopsy was completed Saturday and a positive identification is pending.
"Everyone is full of sadness," said Mary Housken, 45, a utility secretary from nearby Duncombe. "We're glad she's home, but there was a glimmer of hope the circumstances would be different."
The clothes on the body matched what Kathlynn was wearing the day she was taken, and authorities also found zip ties that matched those used to restrain the younger girl who escaped.
Gerard Meyers, assistant director of field operators of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, said the body was concealed by debris when the fisherman found it. It was recovered by Boone County sheriff's deputies.
"We're fairly confident the unfortunate circumstance this evening was the recovery of Kathlynn," Meyers said at a news conference just after midnight in Boone.
Authorities believe Michael Klunder, a registered sex offender who has since killed himself, approached the girls after they got off their school bus and asked whether they wanted to earn money mowing lawns. They say Klunder offered to drive them to ask their parents for permission, but he instead took them several miles away to the hog confinement facility where he worked.
Klunder bound the girls' hands with zip ties in an office there, but when he took Kathlynn to another part of the property, the younger girl managed to slip her ties and flee through the woods, authorities allege. She eventually found some farmers and called 911.
Authorities found Klunder dead hours later at another rural property. They say the 42-year-old hanged himself.
Hundreds of officers and volunteers had searched for Kathlynn, but hopes of finding her alive were dampened when testing confirmed that blood found on Klunder's truck and at the hog building was Kathlynn's.
"We were robbed of some innocence in this whole thing," said Webster County Sheriff James Stubbs. "We'll never quite be the same. Hopefully time will heal some of those wounds, but the awareness is a lot higher than it was before."
Klunder was released from prison in 2011 after serving 20 years for convictions in two separate kidnappings in Iowa that occurred on back-to-back days in December 1991.
In the first, police said he lured a woman on a highway near Mason City out of her vehicle by claiming she was missing a taillight, and then forced her into his car and tried to assault her. In the second, he snatched two 3-year-old toddlers from a Charles City apartment complex, put them in a trunk and left them 50 miles away at a secluded garbage bin, where they were found alive hours later.
Police are also looking into whether Klunder may have been responsible for the kidnapping and slaying of two young cousins who vanished while riding bikes in Evansdale, about 90 miles from Dayton. The bodies of the girls, who were 10 and 8 years old when they vanished, were found in December in a wooded area in Bremer County, where Klunder once lived in a home for emotionally troubled youth.
The cousins were from Black Hawk County, where sheriff's office investigators are still tracking the actions and whereabouts of Klunder around the time that Lyric Cook and Elizabeth Collins went missing.
Authorities note that Klunder isn't their sole focus and they continue to follow up on other leads.