Police confirmed the human remains found on Wednesday in Collin County are that of Christina Morris.
Morris disappeared on August 30, 2014. She was last seen with a one-time acquaintance, Enrique Arochi, leaving the Shops at Legacy in Plano. He’s now serving a life sentence for her kidnapping. Prosecutors said her DNA was in the trunk of his car, but he has denied any wrongdoing.
"I know my daughter, our daughter is in a better place," said mother Jonni Hare, who was in tears during a Thursday afternoon press conference at Plano police headquarters. "“I know she's in heaven. I know she's proud of us for not giving up. I know she's smiling.”
Hare on Thursday visited the scene where her daughter’s remains were found. She was accompanied by two other women, all holding large bouquets of flowers.
“We made a promise to Christina that we would find her and bring her home,” said Sarah Estes, Morris’ sister.
The family thanked police, the media and volunteers who have searched for Morris over the last several years.
“Giving up is not an option. Can’t stop. Won’t stop — These are the words we proclaimed time and time again over the past 3.5 years,” Estes said.
“Today is bittersweet as we return Christina to her family,” said Plano Police Chief Greg Rushin.
The volunteers who searched for Morris found comfort in one another after the news conference, knowing their work is now done.
“It’s an experience that I will never forget and one that I was honored to be a part of,” said volunteer Stacey Blair.
“Our hearts are irreversibly broken. We never wanted closure, even if there was such a thing. We only wanted Christina,” Estes said. “Our grief is overwhelming and we ask for privacy while our family processes the realization of our worst fears and most terrifying nightmares.
None of the volunteers who searched for Morris knew her or her family. They said they felt compelled to help and have been meeting once a month for the last three and a half years to continue the search. Morris' sister called them family.
The remains were found in an area where authorities searched extensively for Morris after she disappeared. They were in an area where new homes are being built in Anna.
Andy Mitchell and his brother were part of the crew clearing brush from the swath of land when something got his attention.
“You could just see really up on the hillside over there up in a little opening, there was a skull laying there,” he said.
Mitchell said the skull was near what appeared to be a woman’s dress and undergarments.
What’s next for Arochi?
Toby Shook, a former long-time Dallas County prosecutor who is now a defense attorney, has followed the case closely. He said it's doubtful prosecutors can pursue a capital murder charge and go for the death penalty against Arochi because he's already been convicted of kidnapping -- the portion of the charge that would elevate a new charge to capital murder.
“Since he has been found guilty of aggravated kidnapping, that prevents them from going with capital because the aggravating factor being kidnapping,” Shook said.
Shook says investigators will now want to learn the cause and manner of death, if possible. He said having hard evidence should make it easier to build a murder case.
Arochi, 27, is eligible for parole in 30 years and is appealing his life sentence.
Shook said pursuing a murder charge could give prosecutors leverage to get a plea deal so Arochi drops his appeal. Or, if they get a conviction, request he serves his sentences consecutively so he's never eligible for parole.
“They want the truth to come out and they want Arochi to take responsibility for what happened and finding the body may be the key to making that happen,” Shook said.
Remembering Christina Morris
Hundreds of people gathered Thursday night for a vigil near the field where Morris' remains were found. They were family members, friends and volunteers who helped search for Morris over the years. Many were also strangers who just wanted to come and show their support.
Morris' family did not attend the vigil. Friends say it's been an emotional day for them and were understandably taking the time for themselves privately.
Family friends say it’s been a long wait for this day, calling it bittersweet and too emotional to put into words. They've searched extensively throughout Anna for Norris, even looking near the area she was found.
Others who didn't know Morris say they've followed her disappearance since the beginning and so many related to her story.
Those who've searched for Morris over the years say they've become like a family and leaned on each other as a family.
“We're kind of numb. We knew this day… we wanted this day to come,” said volunteer Allison Penn. “But we also just didn't want this day to come, you know. We didn't want the finalization.”
“Her family and a lot of us have searched weekend after weekend after weekend for her,” said family friend Beverly Lilly. “And it is just by the grace of God we have her where she needs to be now. She's home. She's home. She will be at peace.”
Many brought flowers and other mementos to the vigil to leave near the site where Morris was found.
The Anna police chief also spoke at the vigil, thanking the community for their support and coming together during the difficult last two days.