ORLANDO — A utility worker might have found what dozens of investigators and search crews have been looking for during the last five months — the bones of Caylee Marie Anthony.
Now Caylee's family, police and even strangers trying to help the case are waiting to learn the identity of a small child's remains found less than a half-mile from her home.
The girl's mother, 22-year-old Casey Anthony, was already charged with first-degree murder in the disappearance of her daughter, which she didn't report for a month. Observers are waiting to see if a body will be added to the evidence in the case.
A meter reader on Thursday walked into a patch of woods and discovered a plastic bag on the ground. When he lifted the bag, a child's skull rolled out.
The lot had been flooded by rains during the summer when searchers first scoured the neighborhood.
There was nothing that immediately indicated the remains were Caylee's. But Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary said his investigators and the FBI would work around the clock and through the weekend to identify the child.
Sheriff's spokesman Angelo Nieves also said there were no other similar missing-children cases in the area.
Authorities searched the home where Caylee and her mother lived again on Thursday night, looking for more clues.
Caylee was 2 when she was reported missing on July 15.
Caylee's mother, who was indicted in October on first-degree murder and other charges, even without a body, is being held without bail at the Orange County Jail.
She has insisted that she left the girl with a babysitter in June, but she didn't report her missing until July.
Anthony; her parents George and Cindy Anthony; and her defense attorney, Jose Baez, have insisted that Caylee is alive and that Anthony is innocent.
For the past several months, Anthony's family, police and volunteers from around the country have searched for the little girl.
George and Cindy Anthony were flying from California, where they appeared on CNN's Larry King Live on Wednesday, while Thursday's events folded. After their flight landed at Orlando International Airport, law enforcement officers rushed them off the plane and away from the media.
Allen Moore, a spokesman for the Orange County jail, said Casey Anthony was told about the discovery. She was placed under psychological observation, not suicide watch, and remains under protective custody.
The child's grandmother first called authorities in July to say that she hadn't seen Caylee for a month and that her daughter's car smelled like death.
Police immediately interviewed Anthony and soon said everything she told them about her daughter's whereabouts was false. The babysitter was nonexistent and the apartment where Anthony said she had last seen Caylee had been empty for months. Anthony also lied about where she worked.
Other troubling details emerged as the case picked up national media attention: Photos surfaced of Anthony partying after her daughter disappeared. Friends said she was a habitual liar but also a good mother.
Last month, the Orange County state attorney turned over almost 800 pages of documents showing someone used the Anthonys' home computer to do Internet searches for terms like "neck breaking" and "household weapons."
In mid March, someone searched Google and Wikipedia for peroxide, shovels, acetone, alcohol and chloroform. Traces of chloroform, which is used to induce unconsciousness and is a component of human decomposition, were found in the trunk of Casey Anthony's car during forensic testing, the documents say.
Last week, prosecutors announced they would not pursue the death penalty for Anthony. Earlier Thursday, before the remains were discovered, a judge had delayed her trial from January to March.
Forensic experts said it is harder for investigators to identify a child's remains than an adult's.
Medical examiners would probably look at photos of the child along with the skull, hoping to make a bone structure comparison, said Dr. Lee Jantz, coordinator of the forensic anthropology center at the University of Tennessee.
Dr. Bill Manion, a pathologist and an assistant medical examiner for Burlington County, N.J., said DNA testing could determine an identification even without other DNA from the victim, "as long as we know who the parents are or siblings."
The fastest the bones can be tested for DNA identification is a couple of days, if the case is given priority, according to Dr. Marcella Fierro, former chief medical examiner of Virginia.
By early Thursday afternoon, dozens of reporters, police and onlookers had gathered in the pouring rain near where the remains were found. One man walked up and placed a flower-covered cross at the scene. Another man openly sobbed.
An elementary school at the end of the street released students out through a back pedestrian exit, steering them away from the frantic scene.