MOUNT VERNON, Ohio Nov. 15, 2010— -- Divers searching a park near the home where an Ohio teenager was found bound and gagged came up empty handed today after locating a car underwater they had briefly hoped would lead them to the girl's still missing family members.
A police dive team retrieved a sedan from a pond at Foundation Park, located steps away from the home of suspected kidnapper Matthew Hoffman. After towing the car from the water, however, they quickly determined that it had been there for months, dashing the hopes of investigators who say it is decreasingly likely that Sarah Maynard's family will be found alive.
Police called Sarah, 13, the "epitome of bravery" after surviving a five-day ordeal in which she was allegedly kept tied up in Hoffman's basement.
Sarah was rescued by a police SWAT team Sunday. Police found the girl alone. Hoffman, 31, and a convicted arsonist ,was arrested and charged with kidnapping.
Despite the girl's efforts to help police in their investigation, they fear Sarah's little brother, mother and a family friend who disappeared at the same time may be dead.
"We still would like to retain a hopeful attitude, but we have to be realistic," Knox County Sheriff David Barber said.
Sarah was released from the hospital and has been reunited with family members. "Physically, she is fine," Barber said. "Obviously she has been through a lot."
The sheriff said the girl has been "very helpful" in the investigation.
"She's a very brave little girl," said Barber. "Not only is she assisting in the investigation, under the circumstance, a 13-year-old being held captive for [five] days, I'd call her the epitome of bravery."
He said Sarah was taken from her home in Howard, Ohio, along with her 10-year-old brother Kody, her mother Tina Herrmann, 32, and family friend Staphanie Sprang, 41, last Wednesday. Police reported that beer cans littered the blood splattered house. Barber said DNA test are ongoing and would not speculate whose blood it was.
"Four people left that house, not under their own power," said the sheriff.
Police spent Monday morning searching the woods and fishing ponds of a former gravel quarry turned into a park near Hoffman's home in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Boats and helicopters were brought in to aide the investigation.
On Monday evening a car was pulled out of a pond, when a dive team's sonar indicated there was a vehicle underwater. Police removed the car from the park, but determined it had likely been there for months and was unrelated to the investigation.
Police have removed "four bags of evidence" from the park, according to ABC News affiliate WSYX-TV.
The sheriff said the investigation was quickly moving from a missing persons case to a murder investigation.
"Four people are missing not quite a week. There has been no contact with them, with the exception of Sarah. Based on evidence, based on the fact we haven't seen them, there is a possibility that Stephanie, Tina and Kody are dead, that they've been killed," he said.
The sheriff used the word "realistic" repeatedly in stating "what the ultimate possibility is in a case like this."
Barber said investigators were trying to determine the family's relationship to Hofmann. "At this time, whether he's connected to the family or whether he connected himself to the family ... a lot of that remains to be seen as the investigation continues," Barber said.
Neighbors told ABC News they routinely saw Hoffman in the park, a former gravel quarry with wooded areas and deep fishing ponds, early in the morning, sometimes carrying a backpack.
Hoffman was convicted of arson in 2001, for setting fire to a condominium complex in Steamboat Springs following a robbery. He pleaded guilty to first degree arson, theft and burglary and served eight years in prison.
Sarah and the others disappeared last Wednesday. Tina Herrmann was reported missing when she did not show up to work at a Dairy Queen. When police searched the family home Thursday they found it littered with beer cans, and splattered with a large amount of blood.
Neighbors near Hoffman's home described the man's behavior as "bizarre" and "weird." Hoffman moved into the 2-level home last year. Until recently, he lived in the home with a girlfriend and her 8-year-old son.
Neighbors said Hoffman routinely climbed trees spying on them from his perch and would regularly, in both summer and winter, build fires.
"He was kind of weird he was always climbing the trees and stuff like that," said neighbor Ron Fowler.
Dawna Davis, 35, who lives next door to him, told The Associated Press that she told her children to stay indoors when he was out.
"He would sit and listen to us up in a tree. He had a hammock and he would sit there and listen to us," she said. "He was just different. He was very different."