Murder jury visits remote ditch where girls were found

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The Independent Online

As the country fell silent to remember its war dead yesterday, a jury in a murder trial was processing soundlessly and sombrely to the isolated place where the schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were found 15 months ago.

From the uneven muddy track with its half-bare trees, mist-covered fields stretched as far as the eye could see. Only the spire of a Norman church and the occasional hovering kestrel punctuated the featureless landscape alongside the perimeter fence of an American air base at Lakenheath, Suffolk.

Police officers in fluorescent jackets marked out the boundary of an area which, for nearly an hour, became the Old Bailey's court number one. For a second day, the 12 jurors in the trial were being taken to view locations in the prosecution's case against Ian Huntley.

Richard Latham QC alleged in his opening last week that Mr Huntley, a school caretaker from Soham, Cambridgeshire, had travelled down the darkened, overgrown lane and hidden the lifeless 10-year-olds in an irrigation ditch, returning later to set fire to them. Mr Huntley, 29, denies murder but the court has been told that his defence team is unlikely to deny that he disposed of the remains of the two schoolfriends.

The seven women and five men who must decide on the innocence or guilt of Mr Huntley and his partner Maxine Carr, who faces lesser charges, were accompanied by Mr Justice Moses, barristers and court officials. The girls were discovered 13 days after their disappearance from Soham prompted the biggest missing persons hunt in recent history.

The jury's journey began from outside the tied cottage at Soham Village College that Mr Huntley shared with Ms Carr, the girls' former temporary classroom assistant at St Andrew's Primary School.

Surrounded by police outriders with blue flashing lights, the coach in which the jury was travelling made a ponderously slow 40-minute trip down the back roads and drovers' lanes, which the prosecution claims Mr Huntley took on the night of 4 August 2002.

Passing through increasingly remote terrain with few signs of life, they wended their way across the fens. Police officers lining the 17-mile route kept their backs turned or bent their heads as the coach passed.

The jury paused briefly outside the sheltered accommodation of Mr Huntley's grandmother, Lily Gollings, in Lakenheath village, before arriving three minutes later at the start of the track.

A recently laid posy of white plastic flowers, dotted with red roses, and surrounded by older, wilted bouquets marked the entrance to the concrete and chalk lane. Its note read: "Soham's roses. Remembrance forever. God have you in his keeping. We have you in our hearts. Holly and Jessica. Our thoughts are with your families at this time."

As they disembarked and began the slow walk past the sugarbeet fields of the surrounding farmland, Mr Latham - who had earlier reminded the jury that Mr Huntley was familiar with the area - pointed to the small church in the distance and explained that behind it stood the keeper's cottage Mr Huntley's father had once occupied.

The prosecution alleges that Mr Huntley chose this remote spot in the belief that the girls would never be found.

Five hundred yards further down Common Drove, the prosecutor paused at the low-lying branch on which strands of Jessica's hair were found. Beyond the dense overgrowth, a six-foot deep irrigation ditch carpeted with leaves was visible. "The bodies were found down there," explained Mr Latham, before leaving the jury to make a closer inspection of the area.

Continuing a further 25 paces towards the perimeter fence of the air base, he indicated the spot where the prosecution alleges trampled nettles marked Mr Huntley's return journey three days later to set light to the victims in an attempt to hide his crime.

As the 40-strong crowd doubled back to the waiting coach, Mr Latham explained that their final task of the day would be to look at a popular gathering point for plane spotters attracted by the jets of the air base. It was a hobby Mr Huntley was known to enjoy.

"Now is not the time to be making speeches. I simply want you to be conscious of one other area. It may become relevant during the course of the trial," he said in conclusion.

The trial, in which Ms Carr, 26, has denied two counts of assisting an offender and one of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, will reconvene today for its sixth day at the Central Criminal Court.