Bodies of Holly and Jessica 'had been set on fire'

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The Independent Online

The bodies of Soham schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were set on fire in the overgrown ditch where they were dumped, the murder trial of their alleged killer heard today.

The remains of the two 10-year-old girls were so badly decomposed that they might never have been found, prosecutor Richard Latham QC told the Old Bailey.

They were virtually skeletons with only scraps of tissue and skin remaining and were subject to severe maggot infestation, he said.

Ian Huntley, 29, denies murdering the two girls.

The court heard that the bodies were dumped in an irrigation ditch between two fields. Three walkers found the remains after being alerted by "the smell of rotting flesh", said Mr Latham.

The find was made on August 17, 13 days after the girls went missing. Shrubbery around the find was badly scorched from the attempt to set the bodies on fire.

Jessica's remains were still wearing a beaded necklace and Holly was wearing a metal necklace with the word "love" inscribed on it. Human head hairs later found to belong to Jessica were discovered on a branch above them, suggesting the body had bumped against it on the way into the ditch, Mr Latham said.

A scrap of material from Jessica's trousers was found underneath the body, suggesting the clothes were cut from them while in the ditch, the lawyer added.

The bodies were laid out side by side and appeared to have been put there soon after their deaths, according to Home Office pathologist Dr Nat Carey, because rigor mortis did not appear to have set in, the court was told.

Dr Carey found no evidence of major injury such as broken bones or "compressive neck injuries", Mr Latham said.

No cause of death could be ascertained but asphyxia was considered the most likely. Dr Carey ruled out stabbing, shooting or other "significant trauma". There was no evidence of poisoning or the administration of drugs.

Mr Latham said: "It is not possible to exclude sexual assault because of the degree of decomposition."

Earlier, the jury was told that the red Manchester United shirts won by schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were cut almost exactly in half as they were removed from their bodies.

The jury was shown photographs of the shirts which showed how they were cut vertically from the bottom hem to the neck almost exactly along the centre of the tops.

Similar cuts were made up the back of the shirts. Mr Latham said: "You can see at once from this photograph that the shirt has been cut effectively in half."

The jury was shown two photographs, the first of Jessica's shirt and the second of Holly's. Jessica's shirt showed signs of slight burn marks.

The jury was told yesterday that an attempt had been made to set fire to all the clothing where it was dumped in a bin in a hangar building at Soham Village College, where the alleged murderer Ian Huntley worked as caretaker.

Huntley, 29, denies the double child murder but has admitted a single charge of conspiring to pervert the course of justice.

Maxine Carr, 26, a former classroom assistant at the girls' school, denies conspiring with her ex-boyfriend Huntley to pervert the course of justice and two charges of assisting an offender.

Mr Latham told the court yesterday that Huntley's fingerprints and hair were found in the bin with the blackened remains of the girls' clothing.

And he alleged that there were several links between the clothing and Huntley, his red Ford Fiesta and his house.

Huntley was not in the dock today.

Trial judge Mr Justice Moses explained to the jury yesterday that he had left the dock in the afternoon because he was feeling unwell.

Nothing more was said today about his absence from the dock, where Carr sat alone.

The jury were then shown pictures of other items of burnt clothing found in the bin, including a bra which Holly's mother had bought her the day before she died, Mr Latham said.

Other items of burnt underwear were also pictured along with scorched training shoes.

Mr Latham highlighted other items that were found mixed up with the clothing, including two dusters and a dishcloth.

Returning to Huntley's Ford Fiesta, Mr Latham said the carpet that was found in the car boot when police seized it matched similar pieces that the college had used during the refurbishment of 5 College Close before Huntley and Carr moved in.

Mr Latham said the prosecution believed it was "the same type of carpet found in Number 5 which had been used to carpet the boot".

The jury were then shown photographs of the piece of carpet in the boot and the prosecutor drew their attention to other items seen in the picture, including a red petrol can and a large pair of scissors.

He said scenes of crime officers had carried out extensive sweepings of the car's foot-wells.

Mr Latham said an undeveloped film found in Huntley's house was developed by the police and particular attention was drawn to a picture of the Ford Fiesta.

The photograph, dated September 9 2001, showed an open weave patterned throw over the back seat and shelf of the Fiesta.

Mr Latham said that throw was not there when the car was taken by the police.