The police watchdog looks set to delay full publication of its investigation into the Deputy Chief Constable of Surrey – and allegations that he knew for a decade that Milly Dowler's voicemails had been hacked but did not pursue the perpetrators – until 2014, for fear it could prejudice criminal trials.
Craig Denholm, who led the investigation into the disappearance of the 13-year-old schoolgirl, is eligible to retire from the police that year, having begun his career in 1984.
But a significant postponement of the report into his conduct could mean he is no longer a serving officer when the Independent Police Complaints Commission finally reveals its findings. His pension as a retired deputy chief constable could be as high as two-thirds of his current £128,000 salary.
In June, Surrey Police and its police authority referred the conduct of Mr Denholm, its second most senior officer, to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). The IPCC has reached the final phase in its investigation into Mr Denholm, but publication could be delayed for up to 18 months over concerns that its contents could have the potential to prejudice some of the criminal trials for phone hacking scheduled for next year, The Independent has learnt.
Surrey Police knew for nine years before it became public knowledge that the murdered schoolgirl's messages had been accessed when she was still missing, but no action was pursued, nor was the information passed to the Met's original phone-hacking investigation in 2006, the force has confirmed.
The Dowler family said earlier this year: "If Surrey Police had prosecuted this activity in 2002 then the position would have been very different. Perhaps countless others might also have avoided having their private messages hacked into."
The IPCC has also been investigating a second Surrey officer, Detective Superintendent Maria Woodall, who was in operational charge of the Dowler investigation from 2006, over whether she knew about the phone hacking.
The completed report will be sent to Surrey's Chief Constable, Lynne Owens, before the end of the year, but is increasingly unlikely to be made public until 2014.
A spokesman for the IPCC said: "We are assessing what we can put into the public domain and are looking at the timing [of publishing the report] in terms of the legal impact this will have."
When the IPCC launched its investigation, it said it was considering "whether Mr Denholm was aware during Operation Ruby that the News of the World had accessed Milly Dowler's voicemail in 2002 and his handling of that information".
Both Mr Denholm and Ms Woodhall have remained serving officers working in their usual positions since the IPCC investigation began in June.
Senior Surrey detectives investigating Milly Dowler's disappearance met journalists from the News of the World and were shown evidence that the newspaper held information taken from the voicemails of the schoolgirl, who was abducted and murdered by the nightclub bouncer Levi Bellfield. One of the officers who attended the meetings was Mr Denholm.
Nine years later, in July 2011, the revelation that the News of the World had intercepted the dead girl's messages proved a tipping point in the hacking scandal, revolting the public and advertisers, who boycotted the newspaper. Its owner Rupert Murdoch shut the title later that week.
Mark Lewis, the lawyer who represented Milly's parents Bob and Sally Dowler, and negotiated with Rupert Murdoch for the publisher News International to pay them £2m and to donate a further £1m to charities of their choosing, said yesterday: "One of the disturbing aspects of all of this has been the ability of individual police officers to avoid criticism as they retire and draw their pension."
When the IPCC launched its inquiry into Mr Denholm's conduct, the Dowlers issued a brief statement saying that they welcomed a "proper investigation of what happened at Surrey Police 10 years ago".
Mr Denholm has not commented on The Independent's original investigation into Surrey Police since it was published in October 2011.
A spokesman for Surrey Police said yesterday: "Surrey Police Authority and Surrey Police are currently awaiting the conclusion of the on-going Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation and at this stage it would be inappropriate to comment any further."
Surrey Police told the Leveson Inquiry earlier this year: "The force accepts that we failed to investigate this at the time and former Chief Constable Mark Rowley discussed this issue with the Dowler family at a meeting in July last year. We deeply regret any distress this has caused them."
Rebekah Brooks, News International's former chief executive, and Andy Coulson, David Cameron's former Downing Street communications chief, along with other former news executives and employees of the News of the World, are expected to face trial in September next year on various charges of conspiracy to intercept voicemails.
News of the World: Senior officer denies information leak
A senior counter-terrorism officer yesterday denied misconduct in public office over an allegation that she leaked information about the police phone-hacking inquiry to the News of the World.
Detective Chief Inspector April Casburn, 53, is accused of seeking payment for passing information to the now defunct tabloid about Operation Varec, the Metropolitan Police's assessment in 2010 about whether the original inquiry into phone hacking should be re-opened. During a short hearing at the Old Bailey yesterday, Ms Casburn, of Hatfield Peverel, Essex, pleaded not guilty to one count of misconduct in a public office.
She was accused of committing an offence on September 11, 2010 that amounted to an "abuse of public trust". The date for the trial will be set soon.
She was charged in September following an inquiry by officers working on Operation Elveden, the Met's inquiry into inappropriate payments to police and public officials. Ms Casburn, the former head of the National Terrorist Financial Investigation Unit, based at Scotland Yard, has also been charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act for allegedly keeping secret documents at her home without permission.
The officer, who was attached to the counter-terrorism team at the Metropolitan Police, is currently suspended from her job.She will remain on bail until the trial begins.