'If, for a minute, I knew or believed he had murdered those girls, I would be horrified'

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The Independent Online

For five weeks, she had sat in the dock listening to prosecutors describe the minutiae of how the man she said she loved "very,very much" was responsible for the "ruthless" murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.

But when Maxine Carr finally took the witness stand at 2.10pm yesterday, it was to insist that for what was the longest fortnight of her life she believed the schoolgirls could not have come to any harm at the hands of Ian Huntley.

Dwarfed by the heavy oak fittings of the Old Bailey's Number One court, the 26-year-old former classroom assistant, whose role had won her the affection of the 10-year-olds, repeatedly described why she lied to protect her then fiancé and found herself at the centre of one of the highest-profile murder trials in recent history.

Asked by her barrister, Michael Hubbard QC, why she had not felt the need to go the police when Mr Huntley asked her to give him a false alibi for the events at Five College Close, she said: "Because those girls walked away from my house and they were alive when they walked away." She could not have been more wrong.

Mr Huntley, who denies two counts of murder, yesterday repeated his acceptance that Holly Wells died because of his failure to act when she fell into his bath as he tried to treat her for a nosebleed and that he killed Jessica Chapman by placing his hand over her mouth as she screamed at him.

But for his curly-haired former girlfriend from the edge of Grimsby, who for two weeks after the disappearance of the girls from their homes in Soham, Cambridgeshire on 4 August last year resolutely backed his claim that she had been with him that day, it yesterday became her legal lifeline.

She had not and could not, a rapt courtroom heard, have concealed that Mr Huntley had been responsible for the girls' deaths because she could not have kept such terrible knowledge secret. After all, she had helped educate the girls and liked Holly so much that she considered her "the kind of daughter I would want to have".

Here, after months of what her lawyer warned were media "caricatures", was what the jury was told was the real Maxine Ann Carr - a self-confessed "obsessive compulsive" cleaner with a history of anorexia who, whether out love, loyalty or compassion, believed Ian Huntley when he told her that he feared he would be "fitted up" by the police and needed her to lie.

As Mr Hubbard put it in booming tones across the courtroom: "It could not be a simpler case for her or against her. The prosecution say that she told lies primarily to assist Ian Huntley knowing or believed he had killed those girls.

"Her defence is: 'Yes, I lied but the reason was to protect Ian Huntley from a repetition of what he told me had happened to him those years back ... If for a minute I knew or believed he had murdered or killed either of those two girls who were close to me, one of whom sent a card to me, I would have been horrified.'" The "what" in question was a reference to the allegation of rape made against Mr Huntley in 1998, of which he was cleared and which - Miss Carr told the court - he constantly referred to because he believed the "police would always be after him for something, they had it in for him".

At times smiling, she spoke of her love for Mr Huntley after they met in 1999 in a Grimsby nightclub called Hollywoods, how they were planning to get married, and how once they were "financially stable" they planned to start a family.

Asked by Mr Hubbard if she had loved him, she said: "Yes, very, very much." To question of whether she thought the feeling was mutual, she would only reply: "I think so." The court heard that Miss Carr had been in Grimsby visiting her mother on Sunday 4 August when Mr Huntley is alleged to have murdered the girls and attempted to cremate their bodies in a ditch close to an American airbase in Suffolk.

She told the jury that when her boyfriend, sounding "tired", had phoned her the following afternoon to tell her that the missing girls were two of her former pupils and that he had been the last one to see them after inviting them into the house to deal with a nosebleed, her initial reaction had been anger because it broke the rule of Soham Village College, his employer, that no children were to enter Five College Close.

But it was a feeling rapidly superseded by something else by Tuesday afternoon when the couple sat down and Miss Carr asked to be told "everything", the court heard. Miss Carr said: "He kept saying he was a suspect ... He said he was going to be fitted up for it when they found out about the [rape] allegation against him." She said the caretaker dismissed her suggestion that he should go to the police and be "open" about the visit of Holly and Jessica to the house and his past. According to prosecutors, such a course of action was closed to Mr Huntley because he knew it would divert attention to his actions. According to Miss Carr, the reason he had given her was simply that he would lose his job for breaking the school rules.

Confronted by a pacing, anxious fiancé, she insisted that she felt compelled to grant his suggestion to tell first the media and then the police that they had been together when the girls died.

Miss Carr said: "He was in a state. He was scared, he was really scared. I just agreed with what he said because I just wanted it to be all right. I never really thought at the time about the girls because they had left the house. They were out of the question. It was all about Ian, his job, his reputation."

Asked by Mr Hubbard how they had finalised their agreement, the aspiring childcarer added: "Neither of us said, 'Right we are going to do this'. Ian had not said you have to do it. But I could tell from the way he was that I had to." Talking rapidly, Miss Carr punctuated her evidence with insights to her character. She had suffered from anorexia as a teenager and it was a condition, she said, you never get rid of.

She was also, the court heard, fastidiously clean due another personality trait. Asked by Mr Hubbard about her attitude to domestic hygiene, she said: "A bit weird I suppose. People call it obsessive compulsive cleaning. I just can't stand mess. I put bleach down everywhere. I have spoilt lots of clothes just from putting bleach around." The jury has been told by the prosecution that Miss Carr may also have been the inspiration behind her fiancé's vigorous clean-up of what it says is the murder scene of Five College Close. She denies the claim.

Although they have sat within feet of each other in the dock over the past five weeks, the case has pitted the couple against each other. Yesterday the woman who experienced "love at first sight" when she met the Mr Huntley in Hollywoods, and lied for him out of apparent devotion, appeared to turn on him. While his evidence had backed up her claim that she remained ignorant of the truth, she contradicted key strands of his case.

Upon returning from Grimsby on the Tuesday after Holly and Jessica vanished, Miss Carr said she had been surprised to find their bed linen in the washing machine. "Ian doesn't normally use the washing machine. He is not domestic in any way," she explained.

He had claimed that he had merely sponged down the sheets after a drop from Holly's nosebleed had fallen on them, an affliction which Miss Carr said the caretaker had told her on the Monday had affected "the dark-haired girl", Jessica.

Underlying it, the court heard, were her true feelings toward the girls, feelings that meant she would "run out onto the street" if she believed they had been killed by Mr Huntley.

The point was, it seemed, that she could not possibly have wished harm against "Jess", a girl she described as: "Very sporty. Always laughing, always going about with wisecracks. Smashing." And, still less, Holly: "She was lovely. Lovely. She was the kind of daughter I would want to have. Always polite. Always friendly. Always there for everybody."

YESTERDAY IN COURT

* Ian Huntley agreed he knew Maxine Carr would back up his account, but later denied they had "cooked up" the false story in the hours after the girls' deaths. Mr Huntley agreed he and Ms Carr had been lying when they said she had been in Soham on the night Holly and Jessica went missing

* Richard Latham QC, for the prosecution, said Huntley had told a "pack of lies" in TV interviews in which he appeared to be upset. "You were weaving a clever false story weren't you?" he said

* Mr Huntley admitted he had killed Jessica Chapman and described disposing of the dead girls' bodies. He said he put them in the boot of his car, after which he cleaned his own vomit from the hall carpet. He said he knew he had to get their bodies out of his house. Mr Huntley said he felt "numb" and the "whole thing just felt horrible"

* Ian Huntley's defence case concluded

* Maxine Carr took the witness stand

* Her defence barrister, Michael Hubbard QC, set out the case for her defence. She had "done no wrong that weekend whilst events were unfolding in Soham," he said. But she had lied to cover for her former fiancee

* Ms Carr said Mr Huntley had been "devastated" by a rape accusation made before they met. She said she had loved Mr Huntley "very, very much". Ms Carr admitted she had lied to protect her ex-lover, but insisted she had never known the 10-year-olds died in her home

* She first learnt the girls were missing while visiting her family in Grimsby in a telephone conversation with Mr Huntley just before 7am on Monday

* Huntley admitted to her that they had been inside the couple's home in Soham, that one of the girls had suffered a nosebleed and had sat on their bed, but that they had left the house alive

* Ms Carr said she flew into a rage with him, saying he should not have allowed a 10-year-old girl into their bedroom and that it was against school rules, but insisted it had never crossed her mind that he could have killed the girls.

* Ms Carr returned to Soham on Tuesday, after being collected by Mr Huntley. She said she noticed that his car had been cleaned and the carpet in the boot changed; there were bedclothes in the washing machine; the dining table had been moved and the floor was wet

* Ms Carr said she and Mr Huntley agreed to say she had been in the house, because "he was really scared" and she "wanted everything to turn out OK". She insisted he could not have killed the girls. "Ian wouldn't have done anything like that"

* She described the conversation two days after the girls died when it was first suggested that she could lie about where she was when the girls went missing. "He was pacing up and down like he was really fretting about it," she said

* She told how women prisoners at Holloway had called her "Myra Hindley mark two" and "a nonce" while she was on remand

* The pair discussed possible alibis. She claims Mr Huntley suggested she say she had been in the bedroom or the bathroom at 6pm - around the time the girls called at the house. They agreed on the bathroom

* She said she was not thinking about the children because she was convinced the girls had left the house alive. Ms Carr said she was worried about Mr Huntley's state of mind. "He was scared, he was really scared and I just agreed with what he said because I just wanted it to be all right"

* Ms Carr admitted lying "persistently" to police and journalists during the next two weeks

* She said she had noticed there was washing on the line and in the washing machine when she got back from Grimsby, which she said she would not have left. The quilt and cover from the couple's bed were in the machine.

* She said she was surprised and suspicious to see the washing, adding: "The first thing that came into my head was, 'He's had a woman in my house'"

* Michael Hubbard QC, for Ms Carr, warned the jury it was not their task to judge his client in moral terms, but only to decide whether "criminal liability should attach to her for the lies she told"