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Hundreds of tips chased, FBI consulted in slaying of 8-year-old

Investigators are chasing hundreds of tips from across the country in their hunt for the person who killed an 8-year-old Northern California girl, officials said Wednesday.

Calaveras County sheriff's Sgt. Chris Hewitt said as of Tuesday morning, authorities had received more than 215 tips about Leila Fowler's murder.

His department is working nonstop to track the girl's killer -- days off have been canceled, he said, and deputies are pulling 12- to 16-hour days "until we complete this."

Authorities have scoured the rural community of Valley Springs, interviewed sex offenders and parolees, and fast-tracked fingerprints and DNA collected from the girl's home, hoping to track down the girl's killer.

Investigators also planned to meet Wednesday with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which Hewitt said had offered its assistance with the case.

"It is a top priority for us," Hewitt told The Times on Wednesday.

Leila's slaying has stunned the small, rural community of Valley Springs, about an hour southeast of Sacramento. The girl and her 12-year-old brother were at their home Saturday when he heard an intruder, authorities said.

The boy told investigators he saw a man, who fled on foot, before discovering his sister.

The girl had "severe injuries," Calaveras County sheriff's Capt. Jim Macedo said. She was rushed to an area hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

An autopsy showed Leila died of shock and hemorrhaging as a result of multiple stab wounds, Calaveras County Coroner Kevin Raggio said.

Despite some reports, Hewitt said investigators don't believe Leila's slaying  was a targeted killing. There were also no signs indicating it was an attempted burglary or robbery gone wrong, he said.

"We're not sure what the motive is," he said. "We don't know if it was an intentional act or random."

Authorities are also looking into whether there is any link to an attempted kidnapping of a 15-month-old girl in Placerville on Tuesday. There, a 42-year-old man was arrested after allegedly following a woman into an apartment and grabbing a 15-month-old girl. The girl's mother was able to get the girl back and hold off the suspect until police arrived.

There's a "very slim chance" the two cases are related, Hewitt said, but investigators will examine DNA taken from the Placerville suspect just to make sure.

"This is a very bizarre episode or incident that took place here in Placerville, and obviously it's a very sad and bizarre case that took place in Calaveras County," Placerville police Capt. Mike Scott said. "If there is a match, that would be outstanding, but it's truly a shot in the dark."

Macedo said earlier this week that fingerprints and possible DNA were recovered from Leila's home, and the California attorney general's office and state Department of Justice pledged they would "not only expedite this case, but this case would be the priority case that they were working on in the state of California."

Hewitt said the evidence could be processed as early as Wednesday, but could take up to two weeks.

Leila's brother was able to provide a description of the suspect that was similar to what a neighbor saw, Macedo said. A third description came from a resident who "had seen someone in the area a few days prior," Macedo said.

But Macedo said there were "some inconsistencies" among the three descriptions, which is why investigators are sticking to few details. The man is described as muscular, about 6 feet tall, and wearing a black, long-sleeved shirt and blue pants.

Residents of the rural community remained on edge as the hunt for Leila's killer continues. Hundreds gathered for a candlelight vigil at her elementary school Tuesday, where Leila's mother addressed the crowd.

“I just want to thank the entire community and all of our family and friends for all the overwhelming amount of support you've given our family,” Crystal Walters said. “It will never be forgotten. Thank you.”

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Twitter: @katemather | Google+
kate.mather@latimes.com

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