ORLANDO, Fla. -- Pieces of a tiny skeleton found in swampy woods can tell authorities one thing: Missing three-year-old Caylee Anthony was killed. What they can't help explain, authorities said Friday, is how or when she died.
Authorities said at a news conference that DNA tests conducted on remains found by a utility worker last week less than a kilometre from where the child lived matched Caylee's genetic profile. But the only clue they give about her death is that her bones didn't suffer trauma, said Orange County medical examiner Dr. Jan Garavaglia.
"Bottom line is, folks, no child should have to go through this," said Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary.
The discovery of the child's remains came after months of searches, twists and turns in the investigation. Caylee's mother, Casey Anthony, 22, was indicted in October on first-degree murder and other charges, even though no body was found. She has insisted that she left the girl with a babysitter in June, but she didn't report her missing until July.
An undated photo of missing child Caylee Anthony reading a book police say they found in the woods near the discovery of a child's skeletal remains.
A search team said they did not check the wooded area sooner because it was submerged in water from the summer's heavy rains. But the utility worker who made the tip, Roy Kronk, said he had contacted the Orange County Sheriff's office in August to report that he had seen "something suspicious, a bag, in the same area."
The sheriff's office said he first called on Aug. 11 to report the bag. A deputy responded but didn't find anything and was unable to locate him. Kronk called a crime hotline the following day and the information was passed on to the sheriff's office criminal investigation division. On Aug. 13, he called the sheriff's office a third time. He met a deputy, but authorities cleared the area as a place of interest in the search a short time later.
Beary said his department was investigating its response.
"If we missed a window of opportunity, we don't know," he said. "I'm not throwing anybody under the bus because we don't know."
It took authorities several days to analyze the remains since being found last Thursday, and some are still undergoing tests. Some of the bones were as small as a pebble and had been scattered, and the fragments were hard to find by excavators who searched on their hands and knees, authorities said.
Garavaglia -- the star of cable TV's "Dr G: Medical Examiner -- said authorities concluded Caylee was killed through DNA tests and "circumstantial evidence." But she said she was certain this a homicide and not an accidental death -- and didn't expect further testing to reveal a specific cause.
"I wouldn't have issued the report if I wasn't sure," she said.
A jail chaplain told the girl's mother that the remains were her daughter at the Orange County jail just before the news conference began. Her lawyer, Jose Baez, was with her at the jail shortly after.
"This is her private moment," Baez said. "This is her life she's trying to battle through right now."
The case captivated the Orlando community where the little girl's family lived, and Caylee has been a staple on national news as her grandparents pleaded for tips, promising that the girl was still alive.
Volunteers and investigators mounted several search through the summer and fall, looking at wooded areas near Orlando International Airport, local parks and even the grounds where the bones were found.
Caylee's grandmother first called authorities in July to say she hadn't seen the girl, whose third birthday passed shortly after her disappearance, for a month. Her daughter's car smelled like death, she said.
Police immediately interviewed Anthony and soon said everything she told them about her daughter's whereabouts was false. The babysitter was nonexistent and the apartment where Anthony said she had last seen Caylee had been empty for months. Anthony also lied about where she worked, they said.
Other troubling details emerged: Photos surfaced of Anthony partying after her daughter went missing. Friends said she was a habitual liar, but also a good mother.
Last month, the Orange County State Attorney turned over almost 800 pages of documents showing someone used the Anthonys' home computer to do Internet searches for terms like "neck breaking" and "household weapons."
In mid-March, someone searched Google and Wikipedia for peroxide, shovels, acetone, alcohol and chloroform. Traces of chloroform, which is used to induce unconsciousness and a component of human decomposition, were found in the trunk of Casey Anthony's car during forensic testing, the documents say.
If convicted of first-degree murder, Anthony faces an automatic life sentence as prosecutors have announced they will not seek the death penalty. Her trial is scheduled for March.
Without a definite cause of death, a defence lawyer can suggest to a jury that labelling Caylee's death a homicide is only speculation, said A. Russell Smith, a Jacksonville lawyer and immediate past president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
"Juries are particularly conscientious in homicide cases because the penalties are so severe," Smith said. "So, to the extent that there are gaps in critical evidence, it makes the prosecutor's job much more difficult."