AUSTIN, Man. — Days of searching by hundreds of volunteers for a missing Manitoba toddler have ended with the tragic discovery of the boy's body in a creek.
RCMP Sgt. Bert Paquet told reporters there were no "obvious signs of foul play" in the death of two-year-old Chase Martens and it appears he just walked away from his home.
The little boy's body was found Saturday afternoon near the community of Austin after a search began on Tuesday.
"This appears to be exactly what we all thought it was — a tragedy," Paquet said.
Paquet said that while police aren't looking at foul play in the case, a team of investigators would be working to determine how the little boy died and that an autopsy is to be conducted Sunday.
On Thursday the boy's parents had pleaded for any information that might lead to a reunion with their son, saying it would be unusual for Chase to wander off the property without the family dog.
The search involved hundreds of people on foot and horseback, driving ATVs and in the air.
"I would estimate that about 30,000 volunteer hours were donated this week, the majority of them by people who are total strangers to the Martens family," Paquet said.
"The true genuine care and concern of Manitobans is something that should be recognized and commended."
The news came as a huge blow to neighbours like Robert Smith, who took part in the search with members of the local crime watch and range patrol.
"Everybody that had something they could offer, they stepped forward. I'm so proud to be a person from Austin because it's just so wonderful to know that people would drop whatever they have to come to support a family that's in need," Smith said.
Paquet said the body of water where the boy was found was only about half-a-kilometre from his home. He said it had been identified early on as a spot that experts advised be searched in greater depth, and teams visited those areas several times as the search area expanded.
Smith said he saw an open spot on the creek near the family home on Wednesday where the sun had melted the ice. He said he repeatedly walked up and down the shoreline.
"We live along a little creek ... and the first thing you do when your kids are missing is you go to the creek and look, because kids are curious," Smith said.
By Friday, the search covered an area up to four kilometres from the family's home.
Paquet said the searchers kept hoping for the boy's survival, but knew the odds were challenging after the first few nights.
The searchers who found the body were volunteers from Winnipeg, Paquet said, and that resources would be available to provide them with counselling.
Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger tweeted condolences shortly after the announcement that the search had ended.
"Our hearts go out to the family of Chase Martens today. We wish them peace in this time of sorrow," Selinger said.
By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press