Soham: A dreadful journey from innocence to horror and, eventually, to justice

There was a crucial moment on that damp August evening last year when Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman met their fate. At 6.32pm, two couples spotted the girls on College Road; they had gone safely past the caretaker's cottage where Ian Huntley lived. If they had continued walking they might have been alive today. But, for some reason, they turned round and went back into the house.

Did the caretaker, as the prosecution suggested, watch them walking by, follow them and lure them back? Or did they simply make what would have seemed an insignificant decision to retrace their steps? The answer, as with so much of the case, remains locked in one man's mind.

The 10-year-olds had spent the day at Holly's home after an eager Jessica, just back from a family holiday, had begged to visit her best friend. Twice she had called home to get permission to stay on at the Wells's, first for lunch, then for a barbecue they were hosting for friends.

They changed into matching Manchester United shirts, both bearing the name of the footballer, David Beckham, joined the family for the early-evening meal then disappeared upstairs to play. It was not until after 8pm, when Kevin and Nicola Wells called them to say goodbye to the guests, that they realised they were gone.

In fact, the girls had slipped quietly out of the house shortly after 6.15pm and meandered down the road in search of sweets, two little Beckhams, as one witness put it, chatting happily, arm in arm. They entered the sports centre briefly then crossed the green outside Soham Village College, past Huntley's tied cottage where they were seen by the couples in passing cars.

By 6.34pm, the girls were inside Huntley's house. Investigating officers believe that by the time Jessica's mobile was turned off 12 minutes later, they were dead.

What happened during those 12 minutes is a matter of half-truths, guesswork and conjecture. "Only three people know what happened in that house. Two are dead and one is not talking to us," Detective Chief Inspector Andy Hebb said.

Huntley, 29, put forward his version of events, a story which he had woven around damning forensic evidence as he tried to outwit the prosecution. It was a tale so flimsy that the Home Office pathologist, Nat Cary, shredded its validity with ease.

But detectives believe there was a thread of truth within Huntley's story, enough to hint at what really might have happened. He claimed they had stopped by to ask after his partner Maxine Carr, 26, their former temporary teaching assistant, and he told them she was upset at not getting a full-time job.

Perhaps that is true, though Carr insisted that when she telephoned him minutes earlier from Grimsby, where she was visiting relatives, he appeared to be inside the house with their German shepherd Sadie, and not outside cleaning her.

Huntley told the court the girls were invited in because Holly was having a nosebleed, an unlikely story, with no evidence of blood found in the house. Far more probable is the prosecution suggestion that the former caretaker - a man with a history of preying on young girls - found the prospect of two 10-year-olds too sexually tempting and lured them inside. The schoolfriends, who were well-briefed on the hazards of strangers, were most probably enticed inside with the story that would become a familiar false refrain in the following fortnight: that "Miss Carr" was upstairs in the bath.

Huntley said they chatted in his living room before going upstairs to the bathroom where he offered Holly damp tissues. At one point, he said he took her into the bedroom while Jessica used the lavatory. He said they returned to the bathroom where, he claimed, Holly drowned after accidentally falling into the bath, and he smothered Jessica to stop her screaming. Certainly there is an element, if only a tiny one, of truth. Something happened in that bathroom that led to the bath being cracked, that required the mat to be washed.

The girls' teacher, Joy Pederson, said they would stick up for each other. Did Jessica struggle and scream as Huntley deliberately drowned Holly? And did something also happened in the bedroom which meant that a man who had never once felt compelled to do any laundry, washed all the bedclothes including the duvet.

He was undoubtedly trying to expunge any DNA traces, whether of semen or of blood. Yet highly sophisticated forensic tests failed to find any trace, and the terribly decomposed state of the girls' bodies meant that it was impossible to say whether they were sexually assaulted, or not.

Something terrible also happened in the dining room. The light was torn down and hanging by the cord. The damp carpet and walls were a sign - not, as he claimed, of a flood from upstairs after the dog cracked the bath as he washed her - but of a comprehensive scrubbing. Even the velvet curtains were put in the washing machine.

During the following days the cottage would be subjected to an intensive clean-up. Not a single one of the girls' hairs was found and the only evidence of fingerprints was on a box of chocolates Holly had bought for Carr at the end of term.

From here the details become clearer. From the moment the former caretaker realised he had two dead children on his hands, he began covering his tracks with cold precision. He placed the two small bodies in the boot of his red Ford Fiesta. He then drove down small side- roads, unlined by CCTV cameras, to an isolated spot he knew well, close to his father's old home and his grandmother's warden-controlled accommo-dation. Lakenheath airbase, Suffolk, was a favourite place, where he had spent many hours plane-spotting.

Down Common Drove, a tree-lined rough track, he went, as the light began to fade. Knowing that the only people who ventured this way were farmers and the occasional dog-walker, he dumped the girls' bodies in an irrigation ditch. Side by side, the girls were left to the elements.

He was back in Soham by 10.30pm, walking his dog. Nearby, two men were searching for the missing school children. As Huntley strolled past the girls' school, St Andrews Primary, he must have heard Kevin Wells calling out his daughter's name.

That night, he would mingle with the searchers, going as far as "helpfully" showing a police dog handler around the college grounds. When Mr Wells and two friends turned up at the college, he calmly told them it had already been searched. In the fortnight which followed he schemed to divert attention from himself and mislead the investigation. He hung around the police van trying to listen to the radio. When CCTV footage of the schoolfriends passing the sports centre was uncovered, a curious Huntley suddenly appeared. A short while later he would change his timings to match what he failed to realise was an inaccurate clock on the camera.

Uncaring when it came to normal domestic chores, he began a major operation to sanitise his car and the tied caretaker's cottage he shared with Carr. Even the tyres on the Ford Fiesta were changed for new ones in case they had left tracks at the spot where he had dumped the bodies.

Far from maintaining a low profile, he became a constant figure in the background of the investigation as he tried to stay one step ahead of the police. He even used Holly's father, offering sympathetic declarations of hope while knowing well he had dumped her body beside her best friend days earlier.

Carr said she had been pressured into covering up for an abusive and controlling partner she loved and believed to be innocent, but in 1999 she had given him an alibi for a previous rape allegation, when he was accused of attacking a 17-year-old girl. It was more than a coincidence, the prosecution said, that some of Huntley's earliest lies were told just after speaking to his partner in Grimsby.

Several times, Huntley, fearful he might have been spotted, decided to pre-empt questions by reporting sightings himself. He told a police officer he had seen a suspicious man with a black bin-liner near the hangar at the college, the spot where he burnt the girls' clothing. This attempt to deceive came just three minutes after a telephone conversation with Carr.

The day after the murder, Huntley was confident enough to tell police Carr was in Soham although she was still more than 100 miles away. From the moment she returned from Grimsby the next day, the pair began to concoct a story that she had been upstairs in the bath all the time. Together they, in the words of the prosecutor, peddled their nonsense first to journalists and then to police.

As the couple's confidence grew, they began to embellish their story, peppering it with hopeful pleas for the girls' return. In court, Carr insisted she was merely trying to save Huntley from being "fitted up" again. The prosecutor, Richard Latham QC, said she was scheming to safeguard her future, knowing the girls were beyond saving. How, he asked, could she have not noticed the "spring clean" going on around her, if she had not been part of it?

As the hunt for the girls continued, Huntley was constantly questioning police, asking how wide the search would extend, exactly what DNA could reveal. After one such conversation on Wednesday, 7 August, he collected latex gloves, black bin-bags and a can of petrol and returned under cover of dark to the bodies. He had to fight through thick vegetation, but he found the girls and cut every item of clothing from them. He then poured petrol on them and set it alight. When he got back to the college he put the clothes in a bin and burnt them as well.

By the 11th day of the hunt, unaware that countless people in Grimsby had spotted him on television and were calling Cambridgeshire police to reveal his history of crime and predilection for young girls, Huntley even had the confidence to go up to the second most senior officer in the case and ask how an abductor would retrieve a message left on Jessica's mobile phone.

Twenty-four hours later, the the couple were brought in for voluntary interviews as police re-searched their house. During three video-taped hours, Huntley happily expanded on his bogus story and Carr did the same. Shortly before midnight, officers discovered the girls' charred clothing at the bottom of a bin within the hangar at the school. Huntley's fingerprints were on a bag next to them, his hairs mixed up within the clothes.

The pair were arrested just after 4am the following day, 17 August. Eight hours later, a gamekeeper and his friends came across the severely decomposed bodies of Holly and Jessica in the isolated ditch .

As the people of the town of Soham gathered in the local church that Sunday, devastated by the news that their hopeful search had come to an end, the couple at the centre of the inquiry reacted differently.

Carr capitulated and admitted she had been in Grimsby when the girls went missing. But she spun a new set of lies, protesting her partner's innocence and failing to reveal she knew the girls had been in the house. Huntley also opted for a new strategy. He apparently suffered an immediate breakdown and was sectioned under the Mental Health Act to Rampton high-security hospital. But far from being unable to understand what was going on around him, the prosecution said, he was analysing the case against him and working out devious answers for any damning evidence. His illness meant he could not be forced to show his hand in police interviews.

Two months later, when psychiatrists at Rampton failed to support his claim of mental illness, Huntley was transferred to Woodhill prison, Milton Keynes, and forced to change his strategy again. Still he claimed to have little memory of that night. In a secretly taped conversation during a visit from his mother, Lynda, on 23 October last year, Huntley suggested the "real killer" was framing him. "I am adamant, I 100 per cent remember them girls leaving my house," he told his mother, suggesting somebody, having spotted the girls going into his house, placed Holly and Jessica's charred clothes in the college hangar to point the finger of suspicion at him.

"I think this is what's possibly happened, yeah. I'm gonna put this to Roy [his solicitor] to see what he thinks," he continued. "Yeah, well this is what I've been thinking, I think somebody's been following them girls, seen them girls at my bloody house knowing full well they might find some DNA in my house, bugger off and put the clothes down at the school to make it look like it's me and that's really what I believe happened.''

But further forensic evidence required him to relinquish his claim and again revise his defence. Huntley told the Old Bailey it was a suicide attempt in June, an overdose after Carr, who had slashed her wrists superficially weeks earlier, ended all communication, which led to his memory returning. Prosecutors insisted it had a lot more to do with the taped conversations between Carr and his mother in which she explained that he not only remembered the girls were in the house but had told her.

Just weeks before the trial, Huntley's legal team disclosed that he was going to admit the girls died in his house. Only during the court case was more detail to emerge. The pathologist, Mr Cary, was caught "on the hoof" when Stephen Coward QC, for Huntley, outlined his version of how Holly had drowned accidentally while Jessica had been smothered as he tried to stop her screaming.

Even then his account would continue to change. When the 18ins of water he claimed was in the bath was found to be an impossibility, he suggested that was a matter of miscommunication with his lawyers. It had been six to eight inches, he said.

And it was not until the final weeks of the case that he would admit he had changed perfectly good tyres on his car the day after Holly and Jessica died, a key part of the prosecution's case that a calculating Huntley had tried to cover up for his actions. He even paid cash for the tyres, so that no paper trace would be left.

But no matter how many times Ian Huntley, the man Carr called "that thing in the box", tried to twist and turn in the face of such damning evidence, the jury's verdict was clear. He murdered both girls. Last night, after 16 months of trying to outwit police and the prosecution, Huntley was starting two life sentences, carrying with him the grisly secret of what really happened that summer night to Holly Wells and her best friend, Jessica Chapman.

THE AGONISING HUNT FOR HOLLY AND JESSICA - AND FOR THEIR KILLER

SUNDAY 4 AUGUST 2002

*6.15pm: Holly and Jessica leave the Wells's house; enter Huntley's cottage 20 minutes later

*8.30pm: Holly's parents, Nicola and Kevin Wells raise the alarm. Search begins

MONDAY 5 AUGUST

*500 people plus police officers join search. Parents appeal for help

TUESDAY 6 AUGUST

*The soccer star David Beckham appeals for girls to return home

WEDNESDAY 7 AUGUST

*Police believe the girls have been abducted

*Vigil held at St Andrew's Church in Soham

THURSDAY 8 AUGUST

*Police reveal Huntley's sighting of the girls. Huntley and Carr interviewed for the first time by journalists

*Two journalists alert police to Huntley's "odd" behaviour. Carr tells reporters she was having a bath when Huntley saw the girls

FRIDAY 9 AUGUST

*Detectives say they think the girls are still alive and make a direct appeal to abductor

SATURDAY 10 AUGUST *A reconstruction of Holly and Jessica's last-known movements is filmed in Soham

SUNDAY 11 AUGUST

*The girls' families attend a prayer service in Soham

MONDAY 12 AUGUST

*Police investigate areas of disturbed earth at Warren Hill, Newmarket - they prove to be badger setts

*Police release a 30 second message urging abductor to call

THURSDAY 15 AUGUST

*The midnight deadline passes with no word from the possible abductor

*Detective Chief Superintendent Chris Stevenson takes charge of the investigation

*A telecoms expert tells police that Jessica's mobile phone could have been outside Huntley's house when it was switched off

*Police also get a call from a member of the public telling them that Huntley has been accused of rape in the past

*Members of the public also start calling to say that Carr was in Grimsby on the night the girls vanished

FRIDAY AUGUST 16

*Manchester United appeal for help in finding the girls

*The girls' parents make another public appeal for help

*3.55pm: Huntley and Carr are questioned by police while officers search their home

*Midnight: Police find the girls' clothes in a bin inside a storage shed at Soham Village College. Checks show that Huntley's hair is on the clothes

SATURDAY 17 AUGUST

*Police cordon off the home of Ian Huntley's father, Kevin Huntley, in the village of Littleport, near Soham

*8am: Huntley and Carr are arrested. Huntley on suspicion of murder and abduction Carr on suspicion of murder

*1pm: The girls' remains are found in a ditch near Lakenheath airbase, Suffolk

TUESDAY 20 AUGUST

*Huntley charged with murder and detained under the Mental Health Act. Carr charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice and remanded to Holloway prison, north London

NOVEMBER 2003

*Trial starts at Old Bailey

WEDNESDAY 17 DECEMBER

*Huntley found guilty of girls' murders. Carr found guilty of conspiring to pervert the course of justice