Utah police “strongly” believe that they’ve found the body of a missing 5-year-old girl whose uncle had been charged with her murder just hours before, police said on Wednesday.
Logan City Police Department Chief Gary Jensen said in a late afternoon press conference that 5-year-old Elizabeth Jessica Shelley’s uncle, Alex Whipple, gave police a tip that led to human remains in a wooded area half a block away from the house in which the young girl lived.
Jensen said that although they could not yet positively identify the remains, “we feel strongly that Lizzy has been found.”
Whipple, 21, was charged on Wednesday with aggravated murder, child kidnapping, desecration of a body and two counts of obstructing justice, Jensen said during an emotional news conference earlier on Wednesday.
The tip was provided after prosecutors took the death penalty off the table, Jensen said.
A spokesperson for Elizabeth’s parents said in a statement that the family is heartbroken.
Elizabeth was reported missing on May 25, police said.
Whipple did not live with his sister or Elizabeth, her daughter, but he had stayed at their home on the night of May 24, according to a probable cause affidavit.
Whipple, Elizabeth’s mother and her boyfriend drank alcohol together that night. The next morning, both Whipple and Elizabeth were gone, court documents said.
Whipple, the sole suspect in Elizabeth’s disappearance, was taken into custody on Saturday, police said.
When he was in custody, he “began licking his hands and trying to wipe his hands clean,” court documents said.
He told police he left his sister’s home shortly before sunrise on May 25 and that he never saw Elizabeth the night before because she was already in bed when he arrived, the documents said.
Whipple told police that “alcohol makes him ‘black out’ and sometimes he does ‘criminal things’ when he blacks out,” the documents said.
Evidence in the case includes a bloody knife with Elizabeth’s DNA profile on it, which was recovered in a parking lot, according to the court documents. The knife matched the brand of knives in Elizabeth’s family’s home and the knife block in that home was found to be missing a knife, the documents said.
Whipple’s watch and sweatshirt were also found to have his 5-year-old niece’s DNA profile, according to the documents.
Investigators also recovered a PVC pipe with a partial palm print matching Whipple’s, documents said.
Whipple is due to appear in court to face the charges on June 3.
A motive was still unknown, Jensen said on Tuesday.