After 11-year-old Celina Cass vanished from her northern New Hampshire home in July 2011, news cameras filmed her stepfather lying face down on the ground, seemingly overcome with grief.
But on Monday that same man, 52-year-old Wendell Noyes, was arrested and charged with killing Cass, whose body was found days after her disappearance in the Connecticut River, about a half mile from her West Stewartstown home.
New Hampshire Attorney General Joseph Foster’s office said in a statement that Noyes allegedly killed Cass by “submerging her body” in the river. Noyes was Cass’ stepfather at the time, but he and the girl’s mother, Louisa Cass, divorced soon after Celina’s death, authorities and relatives said.
It was not clear if Noyes had hired a lawyer, and his family could not be reached for comment. He is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday on a second-degree murder charge in the First Circuit Court, Berlin-District, officials said.
Cass’ grandmother, Marcia Laro, 70, said during a phone interview from her Columbia, N.H., home that her family was relieved to hear of Noyes’s arrest. She said they had long suspected he was the killer.
“It was just the feeling we had,” Laro said. “A comment here or there. He didn’t have a very good reputation. He was always in trouble.”
Noyes was arrested in 2003 for allegedly breaking into a former girlfriend’s home and threatening her, but a forensic examiner declared him “grossly not competent to stand trial,” court records show.
On Monday, Laro said that she and her son — Cass’ father, Adam Laro — do not plan to attend Noyes’s arraignment.
“That’s too much for my son,” Marcia Laro said. “He’s not well. We’ll wait until we hear from the courts [about] a trial date.”
Marcia Laro said family members had grown despondent as the years passed without an arrest in the case, which drew national news coverage as authorities combed the river for days in search of a shy girl who loved basketball and her cats, and was known for her gentle demeanor.
“Sometimes we did get discouraged because we hadn’t heard anything,” Laro said.
Cass was reported missing from her home on July 26, 2011. After a weeklong search that involved more than 100 law enforcement officers — including State Police from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont; the FBI; and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police — her body was found wrapped in a blanket in the river.
Last February, a police van was spotted outside Noyes’s trailer in West Stewartstown. Prosecutors at the time refused to say why law enforcement had visited the residence. He had also previously been called to testify before a grand jury hearing evidence in Cass’ death.
Monday’s statement from prosecutors did not indicate what evidence had surfaced that led to Noyes’s arrest, nor did they disclose a possible motive for the slaying.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Jane Young declined to comment beyond the statement, since the case is pending.
Meanwhile, elected officials reacted swiftly to news of the arrest.
“Granite Staters continue to mourn the death of Celina Cass, and we remain committed to working to hold the perpetrator of her murder accountable,” Governor Maggie Hassan said in a statement, adding that authorities “have remained vigilant in their investigation of this homicide, and I am confident that they will continue working tirelessly toward justice for Celina’s family and loved ones.”
Paul R. Grenier, vice chairman of the Coos County Commissioners, whose jurisdiction includes Cass’ hometown, hailed the news in a brief phone interview.
“I’m very, very happy for the family and all of those involved, that there appears to be at least an arrest to try to get this resolved,” he said.
Grenier noted that Noyes is presumed innocent until proved guilty but said people in the area had looked on him with “quiet suspicion” after Cass’ death.