Machynlleth: The town whose heart is broken

As Mark Bridger is charged with April's murder, Jonathan Owen joins a community in turmoil

The end of hope was widely expected, and all the more unwelcome for that. When it arrived yesterday afternoon, some railed against it; some were mute and bowed. But all in the Welsh town of Machynlleth were forced to face up to one heartbreaking reality: five-year-old April Jones was not coming home.

Since her disappearance on Monday, the 2,500-strong community living in the green valley on the southern edge of Snowdonia National Park has put on an extraordinary display of solidarity under the eye of 24-hour news coverage. Normal life ceased. The whole town set out in search of the missing girl, their missing girl. News that she needed medication and suffered from mild cerebral palsy only made their efforts more urgent.

The police, astonished by the intensity of the town's response, struggled to cope with the stream of emotion and demands that people be allowed to help, and to conceal the fact that they were increasingly pessimistic about the chances of finding the little girl alive.

And so yesterday afternoon, officers charged Mark Bridger, a 46-year-old former lifeguard, with April's murder. He had been arrested on Tuesday, the day after she went missing from outside her home. He has also been charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice and with child abduction. Mr Bridger will appear before magistrates in Aberystwyth on Monday.

Dyfed-Powys Police said they remained "focused and committed" to finding April. At a press conference in Aberystwyth yesterday afternoon, Iwan Jenkins, district crown prosecutor from the Crown Prosecution Service, said he had been in "close contact" with the police.

But while police are now concentrating on a murder investigation, some in Machynlleth refuse to give up hope. Some still cannot believe one of their own could be responsible. Others will not accept the appalling likelihood that April is dead.

The facts have a savage simplicity: April is a five-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who needs daily medication. She has been missing for six days – during which time the town of Machynlleth has suffered driving rain and winds – a lethal combination for anyone left exposed to the elements, never mind a girl barely old enough to go to school.

Unless she is in a nice warm barn, as one volunteer, 57-year-old carpenter Alun Jones, put it, "she wouldn't survive a night up there".

But still some refuse give up on her. Machynlleth is a special place, said Katherine Harrison, 29: "It's hard to explain to somebody who doesn't live in this area, but it's so safe, and people genuinely don't lock their doors. It's a huge shock."

The tranquillity of Machynlleth, with its pretty shops and tearooms, masked a sense of foreboding yesterday. Candles of hope burn in local churches and pink ribbons are everywhere – from doors and windows to those worn by police officers – after April's mother, Coral Jones, asked people to wear her daughter's favourite colour.

The fear that April is now dead was etched in the grim faces of people around the town. The hope that, by some miracle, she might not be was all that held them together in recent days. Struggling to hold back tears, Gareth Jones, the town's mayor, told The IoS: "April is still out there somewhere. We must cling on to that hope, stay united, keep focused on finding April – that's all we want." Cora Edwards, 77, who has lived here for 30 years, said: "If we didn't think she was alive, we couldn't carry on."

Eerily quiet, the Bryn-y-Gog estate where April's home is has closed ranks – with the family having made it clear they do not wish to speak to the media. A policeman stood guard outside the house yesterday.

The place where April was playing before she was abducted is a barren patch of concrete with rows of tattered and rusting garages. At first, it was assumed that a stranger had abducted the little girl. But the next day, Mark Bridger, 46, a family friend, was arrested.

People are unwilling to talk openly about the anguish that the wound on the close-knit community may have been inflicted from within. But after a week of increasingly desperate searches, the news on Friday that Mr Bridger, held since Tuesday on suspicion of abducting April, had been re-arrested on suspicion of murder prompted a stunned silence.

Few could now deny that what began as a search for a missing girl had turned into a murder investigation and the search for a body.

Today hundreds will gather at St Peter's church, led by the Bishop of Bangor, the Right Reverend Andrew John, to pray. And still some will refuse to mourn: yesterday's news merely hardened their determination to find April. Geraint Evans, a volunteer, said: "They are looking for April Jones. This is not a town in mourning. We are still full of hope."

They would not rest until they find April, alive or dead, said one local man, David Cornell, 24. "The determination stays the same, she needs to be found, either way. We will go out regardless and we will not give up."

Kathleen Rogers, the vicar of St Peter's, insisted: "Nobody has told us that this child is dead. We are looking for a live child here."

Police said the hunt for April would continue, after searchers were stood down last night due to the atrocious weather conditions.

Superintendent Ian John said: "This morning we have deployed 10 specialist police teams who are conducting a systematic and methodical search in and around the town. We continue to have the support of a whole range of search and rescue teams who are using specialist equipment as we continue our efforts.

"We will be keeping April's family fully updated on the progress of this investigation. And finally, despite today's announcement, we are maintaining the momentum of the search and we remain totally focused and committed to finding April."

Chief Constable Jackie Roberts said the investigation was "one of the most complex and fast-moving inquiries in the history of our force". She added: "Now that Mark Bridger has been charged with this horrific crime, it is time to let the judicial process take its course and time to let the family come to terms with what has happened over the last week.

"In the meantime, our efforts to find April will be as meticulous as they have been from the outset of this inquiry until we have exhausted all available options."

Iwan Jenkins said: "I now have to advise that, having carried out a detailed review of the evidence gathered so far by Dyfed-Powys Police, my conclusion is that there is sufficient evidence to charge Mark Bridger with the murder of April Jones, and that it is in the public interest to do so. I have also concluded that there is sufficient evidence to charge the defendant with attempting to pervert the course of justice, and with child abduction."

Residents gathered in silent vigil at St Peter's last night. There was no sound as the town's heart broke, but there was no doubting that it had.

The search for April

Monday 1 October

7pm April Jones goes missing after playing with friends near her home on the Bryn-Y-Gog estate in Machynlleth, Powys. Children suggest she is taken away in a vehicle, with no apparent signs of a struggle.

Tuesday 2 October

10.30am Police say April was last seen wearing a purple coat and a polo top. The town, with a population of 2,100, is inundated with volunteers to help with the search.

3.30pm A 46-year-old man is arrested in connection with April's abduction. He is later named locally as Mark Bridger.

9.30pm April's family release a statement through police, saying their lives have been shattered. "We are devastated and our lives have stopped," they say.

Wednesday 3 October

7.30am Police thank the public for their assistance but warn of "challenging conditions". The public are told to leave the search to "members of our trained and skilled teams".

10:30am A photograph of Mark Bridger is released.

12:30pm Coral Jones, April's mother, makes an emotional plea for information that will help the search for her daughter.

5.30pm It is confirmed that April has cerebral palsy and needs medication.

Thursday 4 October

11am Police are given more time to question Mr Bridger. The Prime Minister describes the situation as "every family's nightmare".

5.30pm Police search a farmhouse in the nearby village of Ceinws, where Mr Bridger was known to be living.

Friday 5 October

5.30am Search teams gather again in Machynlleth as day dawns.

10:30am Police tell a press conference that Mr Bridger, who has been held for three days, has been arrested on suspicion of murder.

3:30pm Mark Bridger appears in court in Aberystwyth, where police are given another 24 hours to question him.

5:30pm All services, including fire, ambulance, coastguard, RNLI, RAF and mountain rescue, join the search. A helicopter with thermal imaging equipment is also deployed.

Yesterday

3pm Police hold press conference at the Welsh government offices in Aberystwyth.

4pm Mr Bridger is charged with child abduction, attempting to pervert the course of justice, and murder.

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