EVANSDALE, Iowa — A sheriff investigating the apparent kidnapping and slaying of two Iowa cousins said Friday that the discovery of the young girls' bodies is a long-awaited break in the case that could help find their killer.

Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson said investigators would be deliberate in pursuing the case of Lyric Cook and Elizabeth Collins, who were 10 and 8 when they disappeared in Evansdale in July. Hunters stumbled upon two bodies believed to be Cook and Collins in a wooded wildlife area some 25 miles away on Wednesday.

Thompson said it could take "several weeks" for their autopsies to be complete and the results to be made public.

"We're going to be extremely meticulous and we're not going to apologize for that," he said a phone interview with The Associated Press. "We've got an opportunity to find a killer."

After nearly five months of chasing tips and theories about the girls' whereabouts, Thompson said police "finally have something credible. We finally have something we can sink our teeth into" in the high-profile case.

Thompson's remarks indicate the case is becoming a homicide investigation. At a news conference Thursday, Thompson's chief deputy said the investigation was leaning that way but that police would wait for the autopsy results before making the change.

Teams of local and federal officers have scoured the Seven Bridges Wildlife Area in Bremer County for evidence since the discovery of the bodies, searching in ditches along the road, fields and woods. The Iowa Medical Examiner's Office, which is handling the autopsies, was also at the scene. That office has declined comment on the autopsies.

The sheriff's office had asked neighboring counties, including Bremer County, to search their parks and wildlife areas for the girls after they vanished last summer, Thompson said. He said that as far as he knows, Bremer County officers did search the popular hunting and fishing spot but that the bodies would have been hard for anyone to spot.

"Even the hunters, if they had gone five feet in either direction, would not have found those bodies," he said.

The girls left the Collins' home in Evansdale, where they were being watched by their grandmother, for a bike ride July 13 and never returned. Authorities found their bikes and a purse near a recreational lake in the city, and their disappearance sparked a massive search and kidnapping investigation involving the FBI, state and local police.

The cousins' families had been hoping they would come home, maybe even for Christmas, until this week's news.

"This 100 percent blindsided us and it absolutely did them as well," said Sara Curl, a friend of the girls' families.

Curl helped organize a vigil for the girls Thursday night, one of many community activities that will be needed to help people heal in the days ahead, she said. The vigil was held around a Christmas tree that had been set up to honor the girls – with the hope they would be home for Christmas to see it.

In a posting on her Facebook page Thursday, Heather Collins, Elizabeth's mother, said it was not the outcome the family wanted but now "we know our girls are dancing up with our savior." Collins thanked the community for an outpouring of support.

When Zuhra Hodzic, 25, of Waterloo, saw that Facebook message, she was heartbroken. Hodzic was a volunteer on searches for the girls and other community activities.

"You're left with a blank," she said searching for the words and fighting back tears. "It's heartbreaking. It's devastating."

For her and many others at the vigil, the focus turns now to finding who is responsible.

"Our community deserves justice, and I hope our FBI agents and cops and everybody involved gets for us what we deserve," she said, "and that's justice for the whole family and all of us."

___

Foley reported from Iowa City, Iowa.

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  • Lyric Cook, Elizabeth Collins

    This combo made from undated photos provided by the FBI shows cousins Lyric Cook, 10, right, and Elizabeth Collins, 8, who have been missing since Friday, July 13, 2012. Dan Morrissey, Lyric's father, is expected to learn Friday, July 27, whether he will be put on trial next week for domestic abuse or drug charges, raising the possibility that he could be sent to prison even as the search continues. (AP Photo/FBI)

  • Elizabeth Collins

    This photo provided by the FBI shows Elizabeth Collins, 8. Collins and her 10-year-old cousin Lyric Cook, who have been missing since Friday afternoon, July 13, 2012, when they went for a bike ride in Collins' neighborhood in Evansdale, Iowa. Their bikes were found a mile away near a lake, and investigators say they have no idea what happened to them. (AP Photo/FBI)

  • Lyric Cook

  • Elizabeth Collins, Lyric Cook-Morrissey

  • Misty and Dan Morrissey speak to the media near Meyers Lake where their daughter Lyric Cook-Morrissey, 10, and Elizabeth Collins, 8, disappeared last Friday, Tuesday, July 17, 2012, in Evansdale, Iowa. The girls' bikes were found Friday afternoon near a bike trail at the edge of the lake. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • Misty and Dan Morrissey walk to speak to the media near Meyers Lake where their daughter Lyric Cook-Morrissey, 10, and Elizabeth Collins, 8, disappeared last Friday, Tuesday, July 17, 2012, in Evansdale, Iowa. The girls' bikes were found Friday afternoon near a bike trail at the edge of the lake. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • Dan Morrissey leans on a tree near Meyers Lake where his daughter Lyric Cook-Morrissey, 10, and Elizabeth Collins, 8, disappeared last Friday, Tuesday, July 17, 2012, in Evansdale, Iowa. The girls' bikes were found Friday afternoon near a bike trail at the edge of the lake. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • Elizabeth Collins

    This undated photo provided by Black Hawk County police shows 8-year-old Elizabeth Collins, who, along with her 10-year-old cousin Lyric Cook-Morrissey, has been missing since Friday afternoon, July 13, 2012. The girls were last seen Friday afternoon leaving their grandmother's house. (AP Photo/Black Hawk County Police via Waterloo Courier)

  • This undated photo provided by Black Hawk County police shows 10-year-old Lyric Cook-Morrissey who, along with her 8-year-old cousin Elizabeth Collins, has been missing since Friday afternoon, July 13, 2012. The girls were last seen Friday afternoon leaving their grandmother's house. (AP Photo/Black Hawk County Police via Waterloo Courier)

  • Sarah Staebell ties pink ribbons for Cook-Morrissey and Collins. (AP Photo/Waterloo Courier, Brandon Pollock)

  • Police officers check a lower-level door of a business in Evansdale Monday, July 16, 2012 in the continuing search for Lyric Cook-Morrissey, 10, Elizabeth Collins, 8, who disappeared in Evansdale last Friday, July 13. (AP Photo/Waterloo Courier, Brandon Pollock)

  • An off-duty Cedar Rapids police officer searches the underbrush for clues to the disappearance of Lyric Cook-Morrissey and Elizabeth Collins along the bike trail around Meyers Lake in Evansdale Monday, July 16, 2012. The two girls have been missing since leaving their grandmother's house Friday afternoon. (AP Photo/Waterloo Courier, Brandon Pollock)

  • This photo provided by the FBI shows Elizabeth Collins, 8. Collins and her 10-year-old cousin Lyric Cook have been missing since Friday afternoon, July 13, 2012, when they went for a bike ride in Collins' neighborhood in Evansdale, Iowa. Their bikes were found a mile away near a lake, and investigators say they have no idea what happened to them. (AP Photo/FBI)

  • A poster with photos of Lyric Cook-Morrissey, 10, and Elizabeth Collins, 8, who disappeared in Evansdale last Friday, adorn a utility pole across from the entrance to Meyers Lake in Evansdale, Iowa, Monday, July 16, 2012. Their bikes were found Friday afternoon near a bike trail at the edge of Meyers Lake in Evansdale. (AP Photo/Waterloo Courier, Brandon Pollock)

  • Evansdale code enforcement officer Rick Reuter watches as Meyers Lake is drained while authorities continue to search for 10-year-old Lyric Cook-Morrissey and her cousin, eight-year-old Elizabeth Collins, who disappeared last Friday, July 13, 2012, in Evansdale, Iowa. (AP Photo/Waterloo Courier, Matthew Putney)