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New Jersey mystery death: Questions remain as family of woman found dead mourns

MONTCLAIR, NJ -- She'd been missing since before Thanksgiving, and now, the family of college student Sarah Butler, 20, has had to accept the worst possible news about her fate.

Her body was found in the Eagle Rock Reservation, a 402-acre forest park five miles from her home. How she ended up there remains a sad mystery.

"I just miss my little girl. I wish she was here," said Victor Butler, the young woman's father. "It's in God's hands now."

"It wiped out our Thanksgiving," he continued. "I took the Christmas tree down, 'cuz there ain't gonna be one right here," he said outside of his home here, where his daughter had lived with him and his wife, Sarah's mother.

She could be heard weeping inside the house Friday morning.

"It's hard, just very hard for us right now."

Sarah, a media studies major at New Jersey City University in Jersey City, vanished two days before Thanksgiving. She was in her 2007 minivan, which was found this week in nearby Orange, New Jersey.

Her body was found in Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange late Thursday morning. It's unclear how she got there.

"I do have a lot of questions," said her father, "and I'm very angry inside, but I've got to deal with it right now, you know what I mean?"

Melody Kimmel, a close family friend, said, "She's one of those kids," describing the well-loved and well-known young woman. "We need more of them, not less of them."

"She danced for 17 years in the Premier Dance Troupe here in Montclair," said Kimmel. It eventually led to, among other things, a performance at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, "that she was really proud of," Kimmel said.

"She was just a happy, dancing person," her father reminisced. "She loved to dance, loved to dance."

He said that he, his wife and their two other daughters wish there had been a greater effort to find Sarah when she'd first gone missing.

"We had trouble getting [the information] out there," her father said. If more news media had gotten the word out then, he said, "Maybe we could've done something. Who knows."

For now, though, investigators try to figure out how Sarah died. An autopsy is scheduled to take place shortly, and the investigation is active, according to the Essex County prosecutor's office.

Meanwhile, as dozens of candles at a makeshift memorial and a steady stream of family and friends at the Butler home show, the community is joining with Sarah Butler's relatives as they try to absorb a shocking loss.

"It's just hard," Victor Butler said.

Even in his grief, however, he found it important to impart some advice. "To all young people out there," he said, "don't go out alone" at night, to which he added, that as often as possible, teens and young adults should "let people know where you are."