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Witness recants story in whodunit murder of California third-grader

By Ronnie Cohen

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The mystery deepened on Friday over the death of an 8-year-old girl who was stabbed to death last week in her northern California home while left alone with her 12-year-old brother, as one witness recanted her story.

Leila Fowler was killed on Saturday afternoon in her house in the Sierra foothills about 60 miles southeast of Sacramento in Valley Springs, a bucolic community considered so safe some residents reportedly had seen no need to lock their doors.

Leila's brother has told investigators the two siblings were in the house when he heard an intruder, saw a man in the living room who fled on foot, then checked on his sister and found her injured, authorities said.

The boy called his parents, who were away at a nearby Little League baseball game, then called 911, as did his parents. The girl who loved pink and purple was rushed to a hospital where she was pronounced dead six minutes later.

But Calaveras County sheriff's spokesman Sergeant Chris Hewitt said on Friday that a neighbor who had initially told investigators she saw a man running away from Leila's home shortly after the death recanted her story and refused to describe the possible suspect to a composite-sketch artist.

"It has become clear that this witness is no longer credible," Hewitt said. "Though this may seem like a setback in the investigation, it is actually a positive result in that it allows the investigators to narrow the scope of their investigation."

"If it's a false lead, we can eliminate it so we're not chasing ghosts," he said.

The neighbor's recanted description of a man running away from the third-grader's home had largely matched the brother's portrait of the intruder, Hewitt said. Both said they saw a tall, muscular white or Hispanic man running away from the bloody scene, but described the man as running in opposite directions.

Authorities had initially said there were two neighbors who had corroborated the boy's description of the intruder but declined on Friday to discuss any other specific witness accounts.

Asked whether detectives believe a stranger killed the bespectacled girl, Hewitt said it was "under investigation." He said the girl's brother was considered a witness and has "never been a suspect."

Nearly a week after the killing, detectives continued to consider the Fowler home a crime scene. The street remained cordoned off, and Leila's father, stepmother, brother and five other children in the blended family were staying outside the area, Hewitt said.

A crime laboratory was working to identify a suspect from DNA and fingerprint evidence collected at the house. Detectives also recovered several knives, which were being examined as possible murder weapons, Hewitt said.

Hewitt declined to say whether the girl had been sexually assaulted. He said investigators were examining records to see if deputies had prior contacts with the family. State authorities have vowed to hasten processing of physical evidence.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)

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