ABINGTON — Authorities plan to conduct an autopsy Sunday on what is believed to be the body of missing 5-year-old Elijah “Eli” Lewis, after a desperate days-long search ended Saturday morning with the discovery of human remains buried in woods.
The heartbreaking discovery, which was announced at an afternoon press conference, marked a new stage in the investigation, which already has led to the arrests of Elijah’s mother and her boyfriend — Danielle D. Dauphinais, 35, and Joseph Stapf, 30 — on child endangerment and witness tampering charges. The boy was last seen sometime in the past 30 days at his home in Merrimack, N.H.
Plymouth District Attorney Timothy Cruz told reporters at the press conference, held near the spot where the body was found, that officials will work to determine the cause of death and who is responsible.
“Obviously, a little boy is gone, nobody deserved to die this way,” Cruz said. “And we need to make sure that we do everything in our power to make sure we can get justice for this little boy.”
The boy’s disappearance has deeply shaken his family, which includes five siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, according to M.J. Morrison, the aunt of Elijah’s 14-year-old brother.
Morrison had set up a Facebook group to help the family share information and organize a Sunday prayer vigil in Merrimack. The ordeal has taken a toll on the boy’s loved ones, she said.
“I am not dealing with this very well, honestly,” Morrison said in a phone interview Saturday morning. “The rest of the family is [also] struggling.”
In public statements Saturday, authorities said identification of the body is pending, “but preliminarily, it is presumed to be that of Elijah ‘Eli’ Lewis,” according to Cruz’s office. Law enforcement officials who spoke to reporters Saturday clearly indicated they believed they have found the boy’s body.
“We in New Hampshire law enforcement appreciate everybody’s help ... in finding Elijah, being able to bring him home, and put him to rest,” said Susan G. Morrell, a senior assistant attorney general, at the press conference.
The body was found about 9:40 a.m. after a Massachusetts State Police trooper saw ground that was disturbed in a wooded area about 250 yards off of Chestnut Street.
Investigators had spent about 12 hours searching that wooded terrain, according to a statement from Cruz.
Elijah had been the subject of an intense investigation that began in New Hampshire on Oct. 14 and extended into Massachusetts and New York in recent days.
The investigation included help from police in Abington, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, and Rhode Island as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Dauphinais and Stapf were arrested in New York City Oct. 17 and pleaded not guilty to child endangerment and witness tampering charges in a New Hampshire courtroom Wednesday.
They both agreed to return to New Hampshire to face charges.
On Wednesday in New Hampshire, prosecutors alleged that Dauphinais prevented social workers from learning her son was missing from early September to Oct. 14, when the Division for Children, Youth and Families told Merrimack police the boy had disappeared.
Dauphinais and Stapf told a woman to not talk to a child protective social worker about the boy, according to court records. Stapf is accused of endangering the boy by not reporting him as missing.
Dauphinais allegedly pressed two other people to mislead social workers and claim the boy was with them, according to prosecutors.
Two days after Wednesday’s hearing, Massachusetts investigators began searching in Randolph and Abington in connection with the case. Officials said they found nothing in Randolph, but after searching the Abington woods Friday, they planned to resume work there Saturday.
WCVB-TV has reported that a critical part of the investigation was the discovery of a cellphone at Sandy Pond in Ayer more than a week ago. The phone, found by children and handed over to police, was used by officials to track the movements of Dauphinais and Stapf, according to the news station.
During Saturday’s press conference, officials provided few details in response to reporters’ questions, including the role of the cellphone.
Before Saturday’s grim discovery, officials had signaled they anticipated the worst.
On Friday night, Benjamin J. Agati, a New Hampshire senior assistant attorney general, said officials had “new information” about the boy and they believed he was dead.
Before the body was found Saturday, Morrison said family members had warned her nephew that his younger brother was not likely coming home.
“We are letting him cry, we are letting him be angry, we are being supportive through all of this,” Morrison said. “He’s doing OK, but he is definitely having a hard time.”
Morrison said Dauphinais has six children, including Elijah, who left his father’s home in Arizona in May 2020 to be with his mother in Merrimack. Elijah then lived with Dauphinais and her two youngest children, including a 2-year-old and a baby born earlier this month. Stapf is the father of the two youngest children, according to Morrison.
Morrison said she last saw Elijah on his birthday in January, when they spoke over a Facetime video call. She said the boy loved dinosaurs and playing with toy trucks in the water. His favorite movie was “Cars,” she said, and he loved dancing.
“If we could describe Eli, we would describe him as being playful,” Morrison said.
His favorite color is blue, and supporters have hung blue ribbons throughout Merrimack, she said. The Sunday prayer vigil is intended to bring his loved ones together to help one another, and see the support from the wider community, she said.
“I think that they really, really need to see all of the support for him, and all of the light blue ribbons and all of the love,” Morrison said. " All of us there, we need this.”
“We need the love of the community.”
Globe correspondent Jeremy C. Fox, and John R. Ellement and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.