NOEL, Mo. — The three children of suspected homicide victim Jessica McCormack were dropped off a few days ago at the home of a woman in Des Moines, Iowa, and have been taken into protective custody in that state, but how her children got there remains under investigation.

McCormack, 25, was last seen in the Noel area about the middle of July. Friends recall seeing all three children with her before that on July 3.

The McDonald County Sheriff's Department has developed "strong evidence" that a woman whose body was discovered July 29 on a steep hillside northeast of Noel is McCormack. Although positive identification is still lacking, investigators decided Thursday to make public their tentative identification of the body in the interest of locating McCormack's three missing children: 4-year-old Siah Casillas, 20-month-old Saidah Noor and 7-month-old Intisar Mahamed.

Sheriff Michael Hall announced Thursday night that the children had been located in Iowa and that their safety had been confirmed.

Hall said Friday that a Somali woman living in Des Moines contacted McDonald County investigators late Thursday to let them know she had the children with her. The sheriff described the woman as a family friend. He said how the children came to be with her remains under investigation, but it was not McCormack who left them there.

"All three kids have different fathers," the sheriff said.

Two of the girls' fathers are part of the Somali community in Noel. The father of the oldest girl is a Hispanic American who came forward recently and filed a missing-person report with regard to his daughter. The other two fathers have yet to be located by investigators, Hall said.

The children were entered into the National Crime Information Center's database as missing and endangered on Thursday prior to the woman in Iowa contacting authorities. The McDonald County sheriff's office also had been working with the Missouri State Highway Patrol on the issuance of an Amber Alert before receiving word of their whereabouts.

The father of one of the younger girls had been working recently in the St. Louis area, Hall said. But investigators have not been able to reach either him or the other Somali American father.

The sheriff declined to discuss if any of the three fathers is a suspect in the investigation of McCormack's death.

"We're not commenting on that right now," Hall said. "We're checking every avenue. I don't want us going in any single direction right now."

He said the family friend in Iowa is not facing any charges.

Investigators are still working on a positive identification of the body found on the hillside. A half-brother of McCormack provided DNA for comparison purposes. But DNA testing takes some time.

The sheriff said the problem with comparing the body's dental X-rays with the X-rays of McCormack is that her family has not been able to provide the name of any dentist she may have seen. He said she may not have been to a dentist since she was a teenager. Her family thinks she may have seen a dentist in the Joplin or Carthage area more than 10 years ago when she was about 13, but they do not know which dentist, he said.

An autopsy was unable to determine the cause and manner of death of the woman on the hillside. But the discovery of her remains near a suitcase in which investigators believe her body had been placed at some point is a strong circumstantial indicator of homicide.

No surviving parent

Possible homicide victim Jessica McCormack lost both her parents in a car accident when she was still a child. Consequently, DNA cannot be obtained from either of them for comparison purposes with a woman's remains discovered near Noel.

Jeff Lehr is a reporter for The Joplin Globe.