A MAJOR police inquiry was already under way into the disappearance on 9 April 1991 of Jo Ramsden, when Detective Constable Beverley Havis was assigned to support her family. Jo, a 21-year-old Bridport woman with Down's syndrome and a mental age of 10, had disappeared on her way to the local leisure centre.

Beverley was 23 years old at the time, had been a member of the police force for only four years and was new to CID. She remembers feeling 'nervous but excited' as she set off to meet Jo's parents, Angela and Richard Ramsden, at their detached split-level house tucked away in a cul-de-sac.

Twenty-four hours later it dawned on her that this role was 'the worst thing ever'. It was to last on and off for a year.

INITIALLY I was in total police mode. I was going to go in, do a good job and come out with all the information required by my colleagues. Emotionally the Ramsdens were very reserved, and in the beginning I felt there was a coldness between us.

Mrs Ramsden would sit on the sofa with a blanket over it, always very smart, with her hair neatly pinned back, calmly answering my questions. Amazingly, neither of them ever got angry.

Through subtle inquiries I was constantly looking for motives in the early stages. I remember going home and having terrible thoughts about Jo's parents, such as why would they have done it? When we spoke it was to get them to tell me everything about Jo: her taste in books, records, friends; what she was wearing when she left home for the adult training centre that day.

Then the questions began to hurt me because they seemed so intrusive. At that point I didn't want to be a policewoman at all. I just wanted to be their friend. But they had to be asked: was she having periods? When was the last one? Did she have a boyfriend, had she ever had sex, was she on the Pill? And all this was while they were going through the worst experience in their whole life.

I couldn't think of words that would begin to console them and I began to feel totally inadequate. I just wanted to say: 'This is awful, I don't want to be here, I know you now.' I wanted to paint a nice picture of Jo. Not 'was she on the Pill, when was she having periods?'

I kept thinking what my mother would be feeling if someone was asking her how many boyfriends I'd had and how many I had slept with. I didn't like what I was doing, although I knew it had to be done, and it became a strain even after a couple of days.

When Mrs Ramsden brought out a drawer full of Jo's lovely stripey socks, I had this vision of her going into town and choosing the wildest ones going. She had suddenly become the normal, outgoing personality that everyone told me she was, and I remember looking down into that sock drawer wondering how my family would be feeling if it was me that was missing. That hurt, too.

Although I knew it had to happen, I didn't want the Ramsdens put through the pain of having their house searched, but I insisted that I was there when it took place. They took hairs off Jo's brush. They removed her toothbrush. The building was scoured from top to bottom.

By the third day I'd so got to like this family that I wanted to do more than I could. I'd be there with them for around 12 hours a day, talking and drinking coffee, and while I wanted to make their day by giving them good news about Jo, I knew that the time could come when I might have to tell them something dreadful.

Sometimes I could tell they'd been crying, and I tearfully told them once that I was looking forward to seeing Jo because I'd like to get to know her. That was a real confession for me, and though it felt unprofessional, it did me a lot of good.

Mrs Ramsden became quite tearful, too. I'd been invaded by their daughter's personality. She was no longer a cardboard cut-out pieced together through my inquiries, she was suddenly three-dimensional.

I began to visualise her sitting on a bench in the kitchen, where she used to watch TV, or listening to her music, or out in the garden on her swing. It was tied up by then, and it got a bit rusty after a while but, like a bereavement, it's the little things that affect you, and in Jo's case they became reminders for me, too.

A male colleague of mine who was also closely involved got the brunt of my anger whenever we were travelling in the car together. I was feeling so powerless because of my inability to make them feel better. Both of us felt inadequate in that way.

After three weeks had gone by, and it was looking less hopeful that Jo would be found, if I wasn't with the Ramsdens, I'd spend my time wondering what they were doing. One day Mrs Ramsden had walked into the room in tears after reading wonderful letters from so many well-wishers, and this finally showed me the extent of her distress.

That evening I went out with friends and I was overwhelmed by this feeling of terrible guilt that life was normal for me, while hers was probably never going to be the same again. That I could just switch off, while she was at home without her daughter, probably still going through those letters. It upset me to such an extent that I had to leave.

The Ramsdens never gave up hope. They went on putting up posters and pictures of Jo at caravan sites, and in magazines and shops, in the hope that someone would lead them to her. Her disappearance was a story that touched the nation's hearts as well as my own.

Nearly a year later, while I was on holiday in Devon, I received a telephone call that left me no choice. Jo's body had been found by electricity workers in extremely dense woodland on the county border 10 miles from Bridport. Would I break the news to Mr and Mrs Ramsden?

This was a situation I'd never wanted to happen and I spent the hour-and-a-half journey knowing that whatever I said would be awful. I wanted to be there for them, but I didn't want to have to tell them that their daughter had been lying there for a whole year on her own.'

A retired psychiatric nurse who was convicted of abductions and rapes involving several mentally handicapped people was questioned by police in connection with Jo Ramsden's disappearance but was not tried with her abduction as a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence.

(Photograph omitted)