ST. JOHN -- Friends and family of Teresa Halbach halted their search for the missing woman Thursday morning and retreated to the seclusion of her parents' home.
Thursday afternoon police revealed that partially burned human bones of an adult female and human teeth had been found near Halbach's abandoned sport utility vehicle in rural Manitowoc County. And the SUV's key was found in the bedroom of a man who was freed from prison after serving 18 years for a rape he did not commit, police said.
"The whole thing is devastating and horrific," said Ryan Hillegas, 25, a close friend of Halbach's who was speaking for the family Thursday. "Everyone has so many thoughts running through their heads right now. The news is hitting everyone hard."
Calumet County Sheriff Gerald Pagel said Thursday the case is now a homicide investigation. No charges have been filed.
He said police are waiting for more forensics results before conclusively identifying the remains.
Halbach, 25, of St. John, about 15 miles southeast of Appleton, disappeared Halloween afternoon.
A freelance photographer for Auto Trader Magazine, she had three scheduled appointments Oct. 31 for the publication, including one at Avery's Salvage Yard near Mishicot, which is run by the family of Steven Avery, 43.
Avery was released from prison two years ago after spending 18 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. New DNA evidence proved his innocence.
Avery resides at the salvage yard along with his parents, his brother and other family members.
Halbach's SUV was found abandoned at the salvage yard, and Pagel said Thursday that the SUV's ignition key was found in Avery's bedroom.
A significant amount of blood was found in the SUV and around buildings on the site, including Avery's residence, Pagel said. Bone fragments and teeth also were found on the property, he said.
"It appears that an attempt was made to dispose of a body by incendiary means, however, that attempt was not completely successful," said Pagel, adding that a burn barrel figures prominently in the investigation.
A search warrant affidavit filed Thursday in Calumet County court revealed that Halbach's 1999 Toyota Rav4 had first been found by a member of a volunteer search party.
An investigator noted that "there were tree branches covering the vehicle and also vehicle parts placed alongside the vehicle which looked as though someone tried to conceal it."
Avery was arrested Wednesday and remains jailed on an unrelated charge of being a felon in possession of firearms. Police say they found two firearms in his bedroom while searching Avery's trailer Sunday.
He has prior felony convictions for burglary that predate his wrongful imprisonment on the rape charge. His initial appearance on the weapons charge is Tuesday.
Pagel said Avery was interviewed Wednesday about both the weapons charge and the homicide investigation, although Pagel would not divulge what was said.
The investigation is being handled by Calumet County because Avery has sued Manitowoc County and its former sheriff and district attorney for $36 million over his wrongful rape conviction.
Calumet County District Attorney Ken Kratz, the special prosecutor in the case, declined to call Avery a suspect, saying police "remain open to any number of suspects in this case."
Several Avery family members have been questioned in the case and provided police with DNA samples.
"Everyone remains a person of interest," Kratz said.
Pagel, whose voiced cracked with emotion Thursday, said he has seen many bad things in his 33 years of police work, "but I think this tops the cake."
He continued: "To know that one human being can do this to another human being is beyond belief."
Chris Avery, whose husband, Arlen, is Steven Avery's uncle, said she was stunned and sickened by Thursday's news.
"My whole heart just sank," she said. "I feel so bad for her family."
She has maintained all along that Steve Avery is innocent, although doubt occasionally creeps into her thoughts.
"I want to say he didn't do it, but I just don't know," she said. "If he did do it, it has to be due to some sickness or something."
She has never felt unsafe around Steve Avery, she said.
"He's such a sweet guy. I would be alone right now with Steve."
In Mishicot on Thursday, speculation on the case's outcome varied, although it was not difficult to find people who think Avery is being framed.
"Everyone is saying he got set up," said Fred Moschel, 67, who was hanging out at Chillers Pub. "He's got that $36 million lawsuit against Manitowoc County, and they don't want to pay it."
Back at Halbach's residence near St. John, Hillegas was remembering her as a take-charge, independent person who feared little. He declined to address the suspicion surrounding Avery and encouraged people to be patient with the legal process.
"We know people are angry and sad and bitter, but we need to give the police time to do the investigation right."