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An autopsy showed Francis Ayles, above, was killed by a firearm, RCMP said Thursday. ((RCMP))

The body of a central Newfoundland man at the heart of an RCMP homicide investigation was partially hidden and discovered by a hunting dog, a relative says.

RCMP said Thursday about 20 officers are now assigned to a homicide investigation in the shooting death of Francis Ayles, 28, whose body was found after Christmas near Brooklyn, on the island's Bonavista Peninsula.

On Friday, an RCMP official said the force now believes Francis Ayles was murdered after he left for a hunting trip. Earlier, investigators would not rule out an accidental homicide.

Ayles, a hunter, had been missing since Dec. 2.

Mark Ayles, a second cousin of Francis Ayles, told CBC News how his relative's body was discovered.

"It was a man out walking his dog," Mark Ayles said.

"It was a rabbit dog that found him. He thought it was a rabbit. His foot was sticking up [through] the snow, and the police passed by his body four or five times," he said, describing a ground search that involved not only police but dozens of volunteers.

Ayles said the experience has been "pretty devastating" for the family, including the weeks when Ayles could not be located. His body was found Dec. 28.

Ayles also said the family has told police that Francis Ayles did not go into the woods by himself.

"They said he went into the woods with two men. Three went in, like I said [and] two came out," he said.

The RCMP are providing few details about the circumstances of Ayles's death.

On Friday, Sgt. Wayne Newell told CBC News there are suspects in the investigation.

"There's certain key aspects of the investigation which are still very much being looked at. There's an accused — or accused persons — who are not yet in custody and obviously we can't release too much [in] details."