Shortly after he allegedly murdered Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, Ian Huntley was a "calm, chatty figure" among the increasingly frantic searchers, the Old Bailey was told yesterday.
One police dog handler even commended the caretaker for his helpfulness when he showed her round Soham Village College. So grateful was she for his co-operation that she did not questioned the fact he said he had no keys for one outbuilding a hangar where the two girls' charred clothing was eventually found 12 days later.
Yesterday, as the murder trial approached the end of its second week, the jury of seven women and five men heard about the foggy night when dozens of residents from the Cambridgeshire fenland town turned out to help hunt for the missing schoolgirls.
Mingling among the police and searchers, Mr Huntley was described by witnesses as "freshly bathed" amid the increasingly bedraggled crowd.
The court heard that, while Kevin Wells was calling out for his daughter and her best friend across the school playing fields, Mr Huntley could be seen walking his dog near by. Throughout the night, the jury heard, Mr Huntley would talk to several people but it was not until after 2am that he revealed that he had spoken to the girls.
Mr Huntley, 29, has pleaded not guilty to the double murder. The court has been told that he is unlikely to deny Holly and Jessica died in the cottage that he shared with his partner Maxine Carr. Ms Carr has pleaded not guilty to two counts of assisting an offender and one of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
Holly and Jessica's disappearance on the evening of 4 August 2002 prompted a search that grew into one of the largest missing persons' inquiries in recent history. It ended when their bodies were discovered in an isolated ditch near Lakenheath air base in Suffolk 13 days later.
By 1am on 5 August, four hours after the girls were reported missing, police officers had been called in from the surrounding area and many local people had offered their assistance.
As PC Annemarie Burton approached the village college, her dog began growling at a figure. Mr Huntley approached, explaining that he was the senior caretaker on the site and they both set off to explore the area for the next hour. She said she was impressed with Mr Huntley's energy and agreeable demeanour though he never mentioned the missing girls. "He was very pleasant, very helpful," she said. "I was very grateful actually."
Mr Huntley, who was carrying a huge bunch of colour-coded keys, said he did not have any keys for the hangar so the officer confined her inspection to the exterior of the building while her dog sniffed under the doors.
PC Burton denied a suggestion from Mr Huntley's QC, Stephen Coward, that the caretaker had offered to go and get the keys. "Mr Huntley had been very helpful all the way round. When he said he hadn't got the keys, I didn't question it further," she said.
Twelve days later, PC Burton was back searching at the site when an "ashen-faced" colleague came out of the hangar to announce a "significant find". The Manchester United shirts the girls were wearing the evening they disappeared, along with the rest of their clothes, had been found in a bin inside.
A group of retained firefighters, who had volunteered to help, also met Mr Huntley in the early hours of 5 August and he joined their search team. One of the group, David Hobbs, told the court: "It seemed as if he was just out walking his dog ... He seemed calm."
It was to this group of men that Mr Huntley revealed for the first time that he had spoken to two girls the previous evening. Mr Hobbs said they considered it a matter of considerable importance and "We told him he better tell the person in charge".
When the group returned to the police rendezvous point, Mr Huntley contented himself with "hanging around", standing apart from the crowd and calling out to his German shepherd, Sadie, as she ran about, the jury was told.
Susan Hurrell, a teacher at the girls' primary school, St Andrews, and friend of the Chapman family, was excited to hear that Mr Huntley had spoken to two girls. Hearing that one was blonde, the other brunette and they had asked about temporary classroom assistant, Maxine Carr, Mrs Hurrell was convinced it was Holly and Jessica.
Yesterday, as she gave evidence, Mrs Hurrell told the court the caretaker had been adamant he had seen them at 5.50pm though he would later change his timings.
Mrs Hurrell said: "As far as I was aware, this was the first sighting of the girls. I was quite excited and said 'Quick, you had better come and tell the police sergeant. We must share this information.' I took him over to the police sergeant but Mr Huntley didn't seem as excited as I was." It was at that point his composure appeared to break, she claimed: "He was more reluctant to come with me."
Mrs Hurrell tried to interject as Mr Huntley "floundered" with his explanation to the police officer. The teacher said: "Mr Huntley said 'I am tired and my head's muddled'."
Sergeant Pauline Nelson, who was in charge of the search and had already noted that Huntley "smelt of soap and aftershave" listened to his statement as the surrounding searchers fell "very quiet".
Asking him why he had not bothered to tell a police officer before, he said that he did not think it was necessary.
The trial continues.