ORANGE PARK, Fla. - The abduction and murder of 7-year-old Somer Thompson 10 years ago gripped not only Orange Park but our entire region, leaving a lasting scar on the community.
Days after Somer was lured into a home as she walked home from school on Gano Avenue on Oct. 19, 2009, the girl's remains were found in a Southeast Georgia landfill.
The killer, Jarred Harrell, is now serving six consecutive life terms.
In the years after Somer's murder, her mother Diena Thompson, took possession of Harrell's former home. Knowing it was where her daughter took her last breath, Thompson worked with the Clay County Fire and Rescue Department to burn it down.
For the firefighters, it was a training exercise. For Thompson, it was a cleansing of evil and she worked with the community to turn it into a magical place: Somer's Garden.
"There's butterflies. A lot of the plants attract butterflies," Thompson said. "This place is just so amazing to me."
The garden is filled with fruit trees, vegetables, herbs and flowers. It is maintained monthly by volunteers. The trail is marked in the shape of an "S."
For Thompson, the garden is a special connection to Somer.
"But at the same time, in the back of my mind, I still know what happened here," Thompson said of what happened 10 years ago. "Some days it feels like an eternity. Some days it feels like it just happened."
The events of the day Somer disappeared and the days after play like snapshots in Thompson's memory. There were search teams, prayers and vigils. People came from all over to rally behind and support the Thompson family.
"Huge things like finding out that it was her, even though once they stated that they found someone in the landfill," Thompson said.
The journey that led to finding Somer began with a hunch, and three Clay County deputies. Detectives Robert Dews, Gary Winterstein and Sgt. Matt Williams are sharing their experience of searching the landfill for the first time.
"It was pretty daunting," Williams said. "We literally had a couple shovels and rakes, and we were looking at a mountain of trash."
EXTENDED INTERVIEW: Detectives recount finding Somer's body in landfill
As trucks of trash were cleared, more arrived. The search was grueling.
"You always have in the back of your mind, there's no way we're going to be able to find a body in this massive, massive scene," Dews said.
The deputies tell News4Jax the job was easily meant for hundreds of men.
"We were going to stay there all night if we had to," Winterstein said. "We were just dedicated to finding that little girl if she was there."
Williams said the memory of 5-year-old Haleigh Cummings was running through his mind. Haleigh disappeared from her Satsuma home -- 50 miles south of Orange Park -- only eight months earlier. She has never been found.
"I just kept thinking that. We don't want this to be an unsolved mystery. We've got to find her," Williams said.
The second day after Somer's disappearance, within minutes of beginning to sift through a new pile of garbage from Clay County that had been set aside, Winterstein made a heartbreaking discovery -- remains found
"When I first saw her though, I wasn't really sure it was a person or a doll," he said.
It was Somer Thompson.
"Emotionally, it was tough for all of us," Winterstein said as he choked up. "Because she was just a little girl."
With tons of trash arriving at the landfill every day, the men believe that if another 24 hours gone by, Somer likely would have never been found. They said the most emotional time came later, when they had the chance to meet Diena Thompson.
"In this career, we see death and destruction on a regular basis," Dews said. "But to actually go in and meet her... She said she wanted to thank us for finding her baby."
After finding Somer, the journey for justice began. Officials arrested Harrell in Mississippi a few weeks after the remains were found. Three years later stood in a Clay County courtroom and pleaded guilty to kidnapping, sexual battery and first-degree murder.
One of the most powerful moments of an already emotional sentencing hearing came during victim impact statements when Somer's twin, Samuel, addressed the killer in open court.
"I was just so amazed, and I was just, basically looking at these children of mine, and just thinking, 'wow,'" Thompson said. "Utter astonishment at the humans that they are."
That brave boy is now a young man. Samuel Thompson is 17 years old, full of life, and energy.
We wanted to know if she saw Somer in her son.
"Oh, yeah. There have been times that I've closed my eyes, and rubbed his arm and touched his face because, obviously, their skin feels similar," Thompson said. "I just envision that it's her."
From the mother who raised the girl to the detectives who helped bring her home and the community who mourned, Somer Thompson's memory lives forever. She would be graduating from high school next spring. She would also be an aunt to a beautiful baby girl.
"She probably wouldn't have left the baby alone," Thompson said. "She would have wanted to hold her all the time."
While Diena Thompson remembers her daughter's sweet temperament and loving personality, she also thinks about one day seeing her again, in heaven.
"I think that she doesn't even really realize that I'm missing yet," Thompson said. "In my mind, at least, that she's just turned her head and it's only a fleeting moment when she turns her head back around and I'm there."
Dews, Winterstein and Williams get together every year either on or around the date of Somer's death. They have lunch, reminisce and reflect on the experience they share in finding her. This is their special way of memorializing a little girl they never forgot.
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