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Cause of girl’s death still unclear

Authorities await the findings of toxicology report

By Peter Schworm and Martine Powers
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / August 3, 2011

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WEST STEWARTSTOWN, N.H. - An autopsy conducted yesterday on the recovered body of Celina Cass failed to determine how the 11-year-old died, but authorities said they are actively investigating her death as a crime.

In a brief press conference yesterday evening, Jane Young, New Hampshire’s senior assistant attorney general, said that authorities would wait for toxicology results before issuing their finding on the cause and manner of the girl’s death.

“We are doing everything we can to have more definitive answers,’’ she said.

The inconclusive results added uncertainty to the investigation of Celina’s death, which has deeply rattled residents of this tiny town near the Canadian border and fueled fears that other children may be in danger.

Young declined to comment on whether police had identified any suspects. She said residents should remain vigilant, but advised against “heightened alarm.’’

A tall girl with a gap-toothed smile, Celina was last seen in her bedroom on the evening of July 25; she had disappeared by the next morning. After days of searching, officials recovered her body Monday from the Connecticut River, just a quarter-mile from her family’s home.

Investigators concluded that her death was suspicious after seeing the condition of the body. Young said yesterday that she had to withhold details to preserve the “integrity of the criminal investigation.’’

Young declined to say how long Celina’s body had been in the water, but said its immersion played a role in the autopsy. She would not say how toxiciology tests would help determine the cause of death.

Celina’s disappearance drew national attention and sparked a frantic search. Police said there were no signs of a struggle, and her family and friends said she was not the type to run away.

Over the weekend, scores of investigators canvassed homes and searched ponds and rugged woods within a 1-mile radius of her home. After her body was recovered, friends and neighbors gathered in remembrance in a park near her home, sending balloons with farewell messages into the sky.

Celina’s father described her yesterday as an “everyday child who loved being in life’’ and said he could not understand why anyone would hurt her.

“That’s the thing that puzzles me,’’ Adam Laro said in an interview broadcast on CNN. “I can’t see why someone would want to do that to my daughter. . . . She was very kind in spirit.’’

Laro said that when he last saw his daughter, she seemed happy at home, where she lives with her mother and stepfather.

“She showed me her grades and that everything was going good,’’ Laro said. “She said: ‘It’s good, Daddy. Everything is OK. I’m doing real good in school.’ ’’

Meanwhile, residents in this small town struggled to cope with her death and waited anxiously for any news about the investigation. Parents tried their best to reassure their children, many of whom knew Celina and are frightened by what happened. Some worried they, too, could disappear without warning.

Bailey Swallow, 12, said he was sad because he would miss his friend and angry because he could not understand why someone would hurt her.

Most of all, he was scared.

“At night, I’m afraid that the person who did this will be out there and that they’ll come into our house and take me and my brother,’’ he said.

Counselors with Northern Human Services, an area mental health center, met with residents at a local church to help them with their grief.

Dennis MacKay, the head of the center, said a slaying is often a child’s first experience with the injustice of dying young.

“Death is a part of life that children are exposed to, but not the kind of exposure that they’ve been through this week,’’ he said.

After such a traumatic event, children want to be assured that the same thing could never happen to them. But it is a promise parents cannot honestly make.

“That’s the tragedy of this whole piece of the process,’’ he said. “Something like this does really confront children with a very real but very painful reality.’’

Garrett Rancourt, 10, said that “everything got kind of slow’’ when he heard the news on television that his friend Celina was dead. Now he sleeps with “one eye open.’’

“I don’t want anyone to come take me in the middle of the night,’’ he said yesterday in town.

Garret’s father, Gary Rancourt, 52, said he considered shielding his son from the news, but knew he would eventually hear it from his friends.

William Wheeler, 10, who was in Celina’s class, said he has had trouble falling asleep since she disappeared.

When he saw the police officers looking for her, he assumed they were going to find her and bring her home.

His little sister, Skye, 8, felt the same way. It had never crossed her mind that she would never see Celina again.

“I feel so sorry for Celina’s big sister,’’ she said.

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