The girls left the Collins' home in Evansdale, where they were being watched by their grandmother, for a bike ride July 13 and never returned. Authorities found their bikes and a purse near a recreational lake in the city, and their disappearance sparked a massive search and kidnapping investigation involving the FBI, state and local police.
The cousins' families had been hoping they would come home, maybe even for Christmas, until this week's news.
"This 100 percent blindsided us and it absolutely did them as well," said Sara Curl, a friend of the girls' families.
Curl helped organize a vigil for the girls Thursday night, one of many community activities that will be needed to help people heal in the days ahead, she said. The vigil was held around a Christmas tree that had been set up to honor the girls — with the hope they would be home for Christmas to see it.
In a posting on her Facebook page Thursday, Heather Collins, Elizabeth's mother, said it was not the outcome the family wanted but now "we know our girls are dancing up with our savior." Collins thanked the community for an outpouring of support.
When Zuhra Hodzic, 25, of Waterloo, saw that Facebook message, she was heartbroken. Hodzic was a volunteer on searches for the girls and other community activities.
"You're left with a blank," she said searching for the words and fighting back tears. "It's heartbreaking. It's devastating."
For her and many others at the vigil, the focus turns now to finding who is responsible.
"Our community deserves justice, and I hope our FBI agents and cops and everybody involved gets for us what we deserve," she said, "and that's justice for the whole family and all of us."
Foley reported from Iowa City, Iowa.