Huntley said girls would be found dead, jury is told

Ten days before Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were found in an isolated ditch, the man accused of their murders told a salesman in his house "they'll be dead", the Old Bailey heard yesterday.

As the search for the 10-year-old girls spread, a "hovering, helpful" Ian Huntley was a constant presence among searchers and police. The jury was told that Mr Huntley had asked several constables about the nature of DNA forensics and the extent of the search area.

Special Constable Sharon Gilbert said "bells were ringing" throughout the conversation.

The schoolfriends' disappearance from their home town of Soham, Cambridgeshire, on 4 August last year led to the biggest missing persons hunt in British history, ending 13 days later when the girls were found dead.

Mr Huntley, 29, denies the double murder, while his former fiancée Maxine Carr, 26, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of assisting an offender and one of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. The trial, which is in its third week, heard from Martin Mahoney, a self-employed salesman who met Mr Huntley three days after the girls vanished. Mr Mahoney said he had chatted to the Soham Village College caretaker about "this awful business" at Mr Huntley's house.

"I said, 'They'll catch him.' He said to me, 'No, they will be dead.' I said, 'I have got three daughters of my own and if one of my daughters had been missing I would not give up after a couple of days.' He just said, 'No, they'll be dead'." Stephen Coward QC, for Mr Huntley, said his client had merely stated that "you feared the worst" as the days passed. "He didn't say that to me," replied Mr Mahoney.

Police officers recalled meeting the caretaker. Special Constable Gilbert recounted a 20-minute conversation in which a seemingly pensive Mr Huntley asked about DNA and used the past tense when talking about Holly and Jessica. "All the time we were having the conversation something was ringing bells," she said. Two other officers recalled Mr Huntley's curiosity about the same subject. Special Constable Nichola Peacock said: "He asked where would they get DNA from and how much DNA would they need."

On the same day, the caretaker was spotted near his grandmother's home, minutes from the Lakenheath area where the girls were found.

The prosecution claims Mr Huntley hid them in the remote spot on the night of the 4 August but returned three days later to set fire to them.

Other policemen remembered that on the night of 6 August Mr Huntley appeared curious when they were asked to cut short their search and return to Ely. Mr Huntley, who frequently complained about being "harassed" by the press gathered in Soham, went on repeatedly to question a senior BBC producer about the development, to the point of becoming a "nuisance".

That same Tuesday night, Special Constable Sarah Lee said, Mr Huntley had "abruptly" diverted her and a colleague away from passing the school hangar - where the girls' half-burnt clothes were found - pointing out another "convoluted" route to their car.

He had also initially told Sergeant Mark Barker that he did not have keys for the pertinent section of the hangar. Sgt Barker added that Mr Huntley, went on to say he believed the previous caretaker, dismissed after a relationship with a girl, still had the keys to the site and the alarm codes - a comment he repeated to another officer.

The court also heard from Robert Jeynes, a hitchhiker who caught a lift with Mr Huntley while he was driving Miss Carr back from Grimsby early on Tuesday.

Miss Carr, he said, did most of the talking but seemed "cold and emotionless" when she was discussing the missing girls.

Mr Huntley mentioned a sighting of them, which was later found to be incorrect. "He said up until a woman had appeared on television the previous night who had supposedly seen them 'I was the last one to have seen them alive'," Mr Jeynes said.

Mr Coward suggested his client had neither used the term "supposedly" nor referred to being the last to "see them alive", but Mr Jeynes remained adamant, adding: "I thought about saying, 'You want to be careful because when you watch films it is always the last person who saw them alive who gets done by the police'." The trial continues.