Mark Bridger was an alcoholic paedophile who was infatuated with young girls and who lived out violent sexual fantasies though the internet. On a chilly autumn evening last October, shortly after going to a parents’ evening at his daughter’s school, he took trusting April Jones into his Land Rover and made the evil fantasy a reality.
He murdered the five-year-old and disposed of her body. So effective were his efforts at concealing her remains – either by incinerating them in the woodburner at his whitewashed cottage just a few miles from April’s home, or hiding them in the hills and streams of the surrounding mid-Wales countryside – that she was never found, despite the largest search operation ever mounted in British policing history.
During the hunt, teams of professional searchers on land, sea and air were joined by hundreds more volunteers who flocked to Machynlleth from all over the country. Bridger was immediately the chief suspect in the hunt. He wove an elaborate and fantastical defence initially while being interviewed by police, thwarting any hopes of finding the child alive, and then during the course of the month-long trial. Despite outward displays of regret, he showed no regard for the heartache his obfuscation and lies heaped on April’s grieving family.
His claims that she had died in a road traffic accident with his Land Rover Discovery and that fuelled by panic and alcohol he was unable to recall what he had done with her body were as risible as they were calculated. Bridger’s distinctive vehicle had been spotted by April’s friend on the night she went missing. Her blood was discovered throughout his home, mainly concentrated in front of the stove where fragments of a child’s skull were also recovered, along with a charred boning knife.
Before the murder, Bridger – a powerful six-footer with a snake tattooed on his arm – was a trusted figure on the Bryn-y-Gog estate where he had had relationships with at least two women and used to invite children over for sleepovers at his house.
The father of six – the product of four relationships – was also well known to the Jones family. He claimed to have been a Facebook friend of April’s mother Coral with whom he used to exchange greetings in the street after helping her with her car.
Yet the family knew nothing of his compulsions – believing him like many others to be a former serving officer with the SAS who had trained in exotic locations around the world, a myth he perpetrated after arriving in mid-Wales in the late 1980s. In fact, Bridger had a long criminal record which he had begun to accumulate aged 19.
He had pleaded guilty to offences including attempting to take a car, possession of a firearm, having an imitation firearm, theft and two counts of obtaining property by deception. But though he was regarded as a drinker with a short and often violent temper, particularly directed against women and on one occasion a fellow motorist in a road rage attack, he was never considered a risk to children or convicted of a sexual offence.
The college dropout had drifted through a series of jobs. After moving to Wales following a row with his family in Surrey, he worked as a lifeguard, a slaughterhouse worker and in forestry – an occupation which gave him specialist knowledge of the tracks and hills surrounding the market town.
Bridger’s personal life had begun to unravel in the months leading up to the murder. On the day of the killing, as he sent angry text messages to an ex-girlfriend and tried to arrange dates with other women, he spent time viewing his collection of child pornography. Carefully categorised into separate folders were pictures of Soham murder victims Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman and British schoolgirl Caroline Dickinson who was raped and killed on a trip to France in 1996.
One file was marked “clothed” while another other bore the name of April’s 16-year-old half-sister who he had described as “beautiful” and an “up and coming model”. She had earlier refused a Facebook request to befriend the 47-year-old on the advice of her mother. The files contained photos from the social networking site including a number of April which were downloaded eight days before her murder. There were also pictures of a teenage daughter of one of Bridger’s friends and other young girls from the town.
Bridger insisted throughout that he was not a paedophile, claiming he was impotent as a result of antidepressants and alcohol abuse – telling the court he drank up to 25 cans of cider and a bottle of wine a day.
Yet for all his lies and claims that he was out of control on drink and panic, Bridger went to extraordinary lengths to cover his tracks. His cottage had been comprehensively cleaned and the fire spotted burning evidence away as he calmly walked his dog while the rest of the town frantically searched for the missing child. A blood test taken when he was arrested contradicted his assertion that he had been drinking heavily before April’s disappearance. It also emerged that he had approached three other girls before making off with his victim.
On the day she disappeared, April had been allowed to play outside because she had been given a glowing report from school. Despite months of searching, the Joneses do not know where what happened to their daughter’s remains – a secret that the man who killed her refuses to disclose.