(WESTMINSTER, Colo.) — A day after police confirmed a dismembered body found in a park Wednesday was missing 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway, her Colorado community came together for a “balloon release” memorial to celebrate her life.
More than 1,000 memorial-goers wore purple (Ridgeway’s favorite color) and released purple and green balloons with messages on them at a park in Westminster, Colo. The community also held a candlelight vigil at 7 p.m.
“Hopefully, that will begin some healing for our community,” said Kimberly Bowman, the stay-at-home grandmother who planned the memorial even though she never met the little girl or her family. “I’ve lived here my entire life. This is the first time something like this has ever happened.”
Bowman, who also created a Facebook page for Ridgeway that now has 40,000 members, said she would be surprised if fewer than 2,000 people attended the balloon release — even with the rainy forecast. As she pulled up in her car an hour early, she said she already saw swarms of community members swathed in purple and “tons of balloons.”
“I don’t see a whole lot of sorrow right now, and I’m sure that will come and go throughout the day,” Bowman said. “We really want to make this about Jessica not being in a situation where she’s feeling pain.”
The balloon release had been planned before Ridgeway was confirmed dead as a way to send wishes for her safe return up to heaven, Bowman said. When Bowman and her team learned of Ridgeway’s death, they decided to turn the event into a celebration of her life.
“I think as far as the writing on the balloons, we wanted to make that personal,” Bowman said. “I’m sure there will be messages to Jessica on those, and we’ll send them off to heaven.”
The fifth grader went missing on the morning of Oct. 5, walking to a nearby park where she regularly met her friends for their one-mile walk to school. She never arrived.
Ridgeway’s mother, Sarah, reported her daughter missing eight hours later, when she woke up to a call from school saying that Ridgeway was absent that day. Sarah works nights and slept through the call.
Officials found a body Wednesday in Arvada, seven miles from Ridgeway’s home, but they were not able to confirm it was Ridgeway’s until Friday because it was “not intact,” police said.
Stephen Teske, who works with Sarah Ridgeway, created JessicaRidgeway.com to collect donations for the family. Since 7:30 p.m. Friday, it has received more than $10,000.
Teske said he’d only met Jessica a few times.
“I just know how I feel, and I can only imagine they feel 10 times worse,” Teske said, adding that the balloon release is the fun event the community needs. “If you knew this kind of area, it’s one of those places where things just don’t happen.”
Investigators searched 500 homes and 1,000 vehicles in the last week, said James Yacone, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Denver office. They also received 1,500 tips.
“We recognize there is a predator at large in our community,” Westminster, Colo., Police Chief Lee Birk said.
Birk said the search for Ridgeway’s murderer will continue.
The FBI released a profile of who they think committed the crime: a man who either didn’t show up to work on Oct. 5 or he found an excuse. The report also details the abnormal ways this man would react to news coverage of Ridgeway’s disappearance and murder.
“It could be your boss, it could be your friend and, ultimately, it could be your family member,” FBI spokesman David Joly said.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Chuck Johnston, CNN Newswire
Ray Sanchez, CNN Newswire