The automated call from Haddon Township police to residents Tuesday morning was ominous: A 3-year-old boy had disappeared from his home, still in pajamas, and authorities needed help finding him.
The alert caused residents to search backyards, porches, cars, even inside large plastic Halloween pumpkins.
"We all started looking, but instantly had that bad feeling from the beginning," said Brian Hueber, 44, a father of two boys who searched his garage, "because it doesn't make sense."
The fears were realized when the body of Brendan Link Creato was found in a wooded area near South Park Drive and Cooper Street — half a mile from his home, and in an area where few people had been searching until a K9 unit tracked him down.
Brendan's mysterious death aroused fears and suspicions among friends and neighbors, but had authorities tight-lipped Tuesday. The Camden County Prosecutor's Office declined to say why Brendan went missing or if there were signs of foul play, and canceled an afternoon news conference.
Friends and family said they had no answers.
"We do not have any answers about what occurred," the boy's mother, Samantha Denoto, and her family said in a statement issued Tuesday night.
"They don't know anything," said Karri Anthony, 37, of Audubon, who said she was a close friend of Brendan's family and had spent the morning with them. "Nobody knows anything."
Anthony said Brendan was an only child and had been at his father's apartment in a two-story brown-brick building at Cooper Street and Virginia Avenue, the location from which he was reported missing. Authorities said a family member reported the disappearance around 6 a.m. Tuesday, but did not say who made the call.
The robocall to residents went out around 8 a.m., some residents said.
Brendan was found in the woods around 9 a.m.
Tuesday evening, about 150 people gathered for a candlelight vigil, walking the couple of blocks from the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish on Virginia Avenue to the home from which Brendan had disappeared. They recited The Lord's Prayer and recalled how the boy wanted to be the Hulk for Halloween.
Samantha Denoto and her family expressed their gratitude for the support from the community, including the search for the boy, in the statement and asked for "privacy during this very difficult time."
"We are grieving and tremendously saddened," they said.
Two close friends said the family suspected a stranger was involved in Brendan's death.
"A stranger and an evil person came in and did this," said Bernadette Ferraro, who said her son is Brendan's godfather. She said that Brendan's father, DJ Creato, had chosen not to get a lawyer because he was not involved in his son's death.
Ferraro said when DJ woke up Tuesday morning, Brendan was gone.Donna Duca, 60, who lives in the neighborhood and said she spent the day grieving with Brendan's grandparents, said she had "truly no idea" what happened, but also voiced the suspicion a stranger was involved.
"It feels like we've been infiltrated by something horrible," she said, adding of the family, "They don't deserve this at all." Brendan, she said, "was just a joy."
By Tuesday afternoon, a page on gofundme.com was asking to raise money for Brendan's mother, Samantha Denoto, so she could pay for his funeral. About $670 of the $15,000 goal had been raised by 5 p.m.
Friends of the family said Denoto and Brendan's father, DJ Creato, did not live together.
On his Facebook page, DJ Creato had pictures detailing Brendan's life.On Jan. 6, 2012, DJ Creato posted a sonogram of Brendan. "He's a boy we have no names yet comment with name ideas!!!!" he wrote.
Two months later, in March of that year, Creato shared a more defined scan and made known that the couple evidently had settled on the name ("3d ultra sound of Brendan," Creato posted).
And on June 2, 2012, with a photo of the newborn: "Brendan Link Creato 7 pounds 10 ounce 20 inches born at 8 58."
In the time since, the young father had continued to publish photos of a smiling, growing Brendan — perched on an Easter Bunny, playing in the snow, and playfully inspecting an acoustic guitar.
That the boy died at such a young age stunned people in Haddon Township's Westmont section, where signs alert drivers to slow down for children, people regularly walk their dogs, and homes are decorated this time of year with pumpkins, scarecrows, and bats for Halloween.
"It's just heartbreaking, heartbreaking," said Debbie Goldberg, who has lived in the area for 16 years. "Poor little Brendan."
Before the boy was found, Carolyne Abbate, 44, a mother of three who lives in the neighborhood, searched her Chevrolet Trailblazer, her back porch, and the plastic pumpkin on her front lawn, just in case Brendan had opened the lid and climbed inside.
"If it was my child, I'd want the whole town looking, everywhere," she said.
On Cooper Street, where Abbate stood behind police tape Tuesday afternoon, detectives talked to each other and went back and forth between police vehicles.
In the wooded area Brendan was found, where towering trees and bushes lead to the banks of the Cooper River, officers removed the police tape around 11:30 a.m.Later, the Camden County Prosecutor's Office issued a news release that identified the child and said the investigation was continuing.
"No arrests have been made at this time," the release said.
According to the spokesman for the prosecutor's office, Andy McNeil, an autopsy was performed and the results were pending.
Authorities urged anyone with information about the boy's death to contact Camden County Prosecutor's Office Detective Michael Rhoads at 856-225-8561 or Haddon Township Police Detective Don Quinn at 856-833-6208.