Cédrika Provencher was like every little girl next door, and her disappearance off a random street in an ordinary neighbourhood eight years ago captivated Quebec. Now, with the discovery of her remains in a dense forest over the weekend, an entire province is watching as police try to catch her killer.
More than 200 provincial police officers set off at dawn Monday to hunt for clues in the 9-year-old girl's death, and they appear ready to settle in for several days, bringing in generators, trailers and other equipment to support their search.
They face some major challenges – unearthing evidence exposed to the elements for years, while trying to offer a measure of closure to Cédrika's grieving family. Her grandfather turned up at the search site on Monday, saying he had always held out hope he would find his granddaughter one day.
"I came looking for a girl who would be alive," Henri Provencher said. The family always knew she might one day be found dead, he said, "but it hits harder than you think." Mr. Provencher summed up his emotions as "a mix of sadness and consolation."
In the summer of 2007, photos of Cédrika's apple-cheeked face were everywhere in the province, on telephone poles, shop windows and billboards. She went missing while out on her bicycle on a warm evening in Trois-Rivières and was never seen again. Police initially said they had some suspects, but the trail appeared to go cold. Then, on Saturday, hunters spotted a skull on the forest floor.
The discovery had a cathartic effect on a province for whom Cédrika was gone but never forgotten. The girl's father, Martin Provencher, said the family could finally begin to mourn, and the public joined in, depositing stuffed animals and bouquets of flowers on Monday along a chain-link fence at the search site.
"She became everyone's little girl," said Gérard Bruneau, mayor of St-Maurice, whose municipality adjoins the site where the remains were found. "It's like she was part of our families. For all of us, it was a crime we couldn't accept. Every morning, you would get up and wonder: Is she alive? Is she a prisoner somewhere?
"Now," the mayor said in an interview, "the pain is still there but you can stop thinking that she is suffering."
Experts say the discovery of the girl's remains mark a significant breakthrough in the investigation. Police are probably looking for the main burial site of the body, which would help them advance their inquiry, said Frank Crispino, director of the forensic sciences research lab at the University of Quebec in Trois-Rivières.
Prof. Crispino said it's highly unlikely that DNA evidence would have survived the years and vagaries of weather. However, other clues could surface. The way the body was left – its position, whether it was thrown or buried – could yield signs about the killer's behaviour or familiarity with the area. Bones could show evidence of violence that point to how she was killed.
Finally, the location of the body could help trace the killer's access route into the forest. Police would then use the information when interrogating their list of suspects.
"This is a major advancement that gives momentum to their investigation," Prof. Crispino, a former career police officer with the French Gendarmerie in France, said in an interview.
The mayor, Mr. Bruneau, said the forest where the remains were found is out of the way, and few frequent the area besides hunters. "No one goes there. It takes someone who knows the site," the mayor said.
Police would not disclose the results of their search on Monday but said they have received fresh tips from the public.