By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Fingerprints and DNA evidence from the northern California home where an eight-year-old girl was stabbed to death over the weekend, apparently by an intruder, were sent to a state crime lab on Tuesday as detectives sought to identify a suspect, police said.
The death of Leila Fowler, who was home alone with her 12-year-old brother when she was slain on Saturday, has jarred the town of Valley Springs, a community 60 miles southeast of Sacramento in the Sierra foothills where many residents are reported to leave their doors unlocked.
The Calaveras County Sheriff's Office has asked the public for help in solving the crime, and state authorities have made the case a top priority, promising to hasten the processing of any physical evidence gathered by investigators.
Leila's brother has told investigators the two siblings were in the house when he heard an intruder, saw a man in the living room who fled on foot, then checked on his sister and found her injured, said Sergeant Chris Hewitt, a sheriff's spokesman.
The boy called his parents, who were away at a nearby ball game, then called emergency-911, and his parents also called 911, Hewitt told Reuters.
The girl was rushed to a hospital where she was pronounced dead within several minutes. An autopsy report on Monday found that she died of "shock and hemorrhage due to multiple stab wounds." The deputy coroner, Steve Moore, said he could not say anything about the murder weapon.
The victim's parents appeared with the county sheriff, Gary Kuntz, at a news conference about the case on Monday night but were too distraught to speak with the media. "We will not rest until we capture the responsible person," he said.
Asked whether the 12-year-old brother was considered a possible suspect, Hewitt said he was "still being interviewed as a witness."
At least two neighbors appeared to have corroborated the boy's account of an intruder. According to Hewitt, the neighbors told detectives they saw a stranger, roughly matching the description of the man the brother reported seeing in the home, running down the street near the Fowlers' house at about the time of the killing.
They described the suspect as a tall, muscular white or Hispanic man with shoulder-length hair, last seen wearing a black, long-sleeved shirt and blue pants, the sergeant said.
"We're not sure if it's random," Hewitt said. "That's possible, but that's all still part of the investigation."
Fingerprints and DNA evidence collected from the family's home was sent to a state crime laboratory on Tuesday for analysis, but Hewitt said he was not at liberty to elaborate on the nature of that evidence or where in the house it was found.
Investigators also were tracking down and interviewing all registered sex offenders and parolees in the area, but Hewitt said no one other than family members or witnesses has been brought into the sheriff's office for questioning.
He declined to say whether the girl had been sexually assaulted.
Extra safety patrols have been posted at Leila's elementary school and area bus stops, according to the Los Angeles Times, and homeowners have been warned to lock their doors and remain vigilant.
(Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Paul Thomasch)