courtesy of Kenai Police Department
March 23, 2015 07:15 PM

The phone call from police that Dennis Gifford had been dreading came in the early morning hours of Sunday.

The bodies of his 22-year-old niece Rebecca Adams, her two daughters, Michelle Hundley, 6, and Jaracca Hundley, 3, and her boyfriend Brandon Jividen, 37, along with the family dog, Sparks – who had seemingly “vanished” from their three-bedroom apartment last May – had finally been found in a field a quarter mile from where they lived.

“This has been really difficult for us,” Gifford tells PEOPLE. “We’ve always had that shred of hope that they would be found alive, but obviously that has been taken away from us this weekend.”

The break that local police had been waiting for in the 10-month-old case came on Saturday evening when a backcountry motorist spotted clothing and what appeared to be human remains in a remote grassy, shrubby area.

“We located the remains of four people, clothing and other things that are consistent with what we know to be missing from the residence,” Kenai, Alaska, police Lt. David Ross told reporters at a Monday press conference.

Also found at the scene was a handgun with a serial number that matches on an empty box located at the couple’s apartment. “This is still an active investigation,” Ross says. “We don’t have all the answers yet.”

Last seen on May 25, the family, who left behind all their belongings, including their wallets and keys to their cars, had been the subject of the state’s most intense search effort, involving local police, the FBI, scent dogs, helicopters, planes and dozen of trained personnel and volunteers.

Although police had initially combed the area near where the bodies were eventually located, over time they moved their efforts to other locations based on “clues” they received during their investigation.

“We believe we had people very close [to where the bodies were found],” said Ross. “But it’s not an easy thing to find people in the Alaskan wilderness.” The bodies, he added, were discovered in a “depression” located about 15 yards from the main trail.

“If you stood on the trail,” Ross said, “you wouldn’t be able to see them.”

This provides little solace to Gifford, who – like the rest of his family – is still numb from the news. “At the end of the day our loved ones are gone,” he says. “But least we can bury them now. And we have a place for [Rebecca’s] sister to come and put flowers, where she can have her memories.”

Gifford pauses for a moment, choking backing tears, then adds: “It’s been a tough year.”

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