Soham: 'We've all had enough - especially the children'

Tomorrow the seven men and five women whose job it is to decide whether Ian Huntley is a murderer will go to Soham and retrace the last steps of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. Our correspondent first visited the town when the search for the missing girls was at its height. Here he returns to discover what the jury will find
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The house in which Holly and Jessica died has been gutted. The gardens have been dug up, the fixtures, fittings and furniture taken away in pursuit of evidence, so the caretaker's cottage looks like a bare-boned new build.

The steel cladding that hid the interior from tourists has been replaced with perspex sheeting, allowing a view right into the empty rooms. The only remaining decoration is black and yellow police tape.

Boys were chasing a football in the playground of Soham Village School on Friday, a short miskick from the stripped, detached house, but the former schoolmates will be given the day off tomorrow when the lawyers and jurors arrive. Many of the 9,000 locals will leave before police cordons seal off the streets. "We've had enough," said a businessman. "Especially the children."

I first walked through the village of Soham in August last year, six days after the girls disappeared, when the whole country seemed to be looking, and worrying, for them. Holly and Jessica were only missing and we all so wanted them to be found. It was a case that chilled the heart of every parent: two 10-year-olds slip out of the house during a barbecue, take a walk, buy some sweets and are never seen again. The parents made tearful appeals, the police sought to speak directly to their "abductor" through the television cameras, there were press conferences every day at the school. Now we know their bodies were lying in a ditch ­ and the school caretaker is the man accused of murdering them.

So on Friday I retraced that fateful route as Ian Huntley stood trial in an oak-panelled court room 70 miles away at the Old Bailey in London. He was not there. Huntley, who pleaded not guilty to murder, was ill that day. His former girlfriend, Maxine Carr, was left alone in the dock as the prosecution counsel, Richard Latham QC, concluded his opening speech. Ms Carr has denied two counts of assisting an offender and one of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. "Standing by your man is no lawful authority or reasonable excuse," said Mr Latham.

As the case continued in London a police officer sat in a patrol car outside Huntley's old house in Soham reading the newspaper. Not the coverage of the trial, but the sports pages. The shouts of the boys in the playground drifted on the wind that ruffled a weeping willow in the staff car park; the only other sound was the surprisingly quiet moan of an American air force transporter jet rising into the sky from one of the bases nearby. Soham was getting on with its life. What else was it supposed to do?

The house where Kevin and Nicola Wells lived with their daughter Holly was in a quiet cul-de-sac in a quiet part of a quiet community. After a meal on 4 August Holly and her friend Jessica Chapman went upstairs to play and at about 6.15pm Kevin Wells heard the floorboards in Holly's bedroom creak. The girls left the house unnoticed some time after that, and walked away from Red House Gardens, the court heard last week. The blue and white van that stood in the drive of number 4 on Friday was familiar from all those newspaper photographs and television reports of the time, shot from a respectful distance as the families waited inside for news and the minutes and hours and days went by. As the time lengthened the hopes of getting them back diminished.

The alleyway leading to Tanner's Lane is short but to the girls the dark-stained wooden fence must have appeared high. They crossed the road and walked down along the side of Sand Street, the main traffic route through town, with its speed restrictions and sleeping policemen, the sort of kerbside at which parents hold their children's hands a little more tightly to keep them safe. Holly and Jessica were dressed in matching Manchester United shirts with the name of the star player on both backs. "Look, two little Beckhams," said a passing motorist to his companion, the court heard.

When I was last there a clutch of press photographers stood at one end of Sand Street to capture the sight of two young actresses from a theatre school walking the same route as the girls, dressed in the same red shirts, wearing the same kind of jewellery, their hair having been cut at the same salon in the same style.

Half the village had gathered below, by the war memorial, to watch. People came out of the Red Lion in their dozens or craned their necks from outside Derek's Home Furnishings to look past some of the 300 police officers and Japanese camera crews and see a family support officer put her hand on the shoulder of one of the little actresses, who had clearly been affected by the performance. Officers in boiler suits were six days into their search, going from door to door asking questions. Huntley was giving interviews to the press and television, expressing his hope that the girls would be found. He was in the crowd when the parents made a tearful appeal. He expressed his support for Mr Wells and called him "Kev". Those interviews were mentioned by Richard Latham last week as he set out the direction the prosecution would take.

Back in August 2002 all people could do was wonder. Had the girls been abducted? Had they run away? Had they fallen in the streams that run along the edge of Soham, swollen by storms on the Sunday? We may now be moving towards the moment when we know exactly what happened. The trial is expected to last until January. Holly and Jessica crossed the Lode, the river that runs beneath Sand Street, and turned back up towards Gidney Lane, where they turned right, said Mr Latham last week.

The whoosh of the traffic dropped away suddenly as I followed their footsteps into the Lane, where a sign promised closed circuit television was in operation "recording for the purpose of crime prevention and public safety". The security cameras caught Holly and Jessica crossing a car park to the door of the Ross Peers sports centre, where they rang the bell and asked to be let in to buy sweets from a vending machine. It was 6.30pm. Two minutes later they were seen on College Road, arms linked, heading back in the direction from which they had, presumably, just come. Back towards the tied house in which Ian Huntley lived. Ms Carr was in Grimsby with her parents, 100 miles away, and only returned to Soham when Huntley went to fetch her two days after the disappearance of the girls.

At first she told the police she was in the house. But after her arrest Ms Carr began to change her story, said Mr Latham in court. In telephone calls to Huntley's mother from Holloway prison she admitted the couple had discussed telling lies. The caretaker had told her that the girls had indeed been in his house, and he had sent them to the upstairs bathroom because Jessica had a nosebleed. "It follows she was aware from the very outset, before she saw Huntley after the Sunday evening, that he was much more seriously implicated than she was to admit, even in interview," said Mr Latham.

On Monday 5 August 2002, as hundreds of Soham residents gathered at the school across the road to take part in the search for Holly and Jessica, Huntley was seen vaccuuming his 11-year-old Fiesta. That morning someone had paid £100 for four new tyres from a garage in Ely and paid the mechanic £10 to enter a fictitious registration number on the invoice. The same brand and size of tyre was found on the Fiesta, said Mr Latham, who suggested a worried Huntley was subjecting his house and car to "the ultimate spring clean".

The day after they see the house, and walk the streets that Holly and Jessica walked, the jury will be taken to the edge of Lakenheath airfield, half an hour's drive from Soham, where the bodies were found. As darkness fell there on Friday it was hard to imagine why people would go walking among the ditches, scrubby fields and woodlands in that flat, windswept landscape. There is a raw, melancholy beauty to that isolated place, but the presence of the American military machine is intimidating.

Only the farmer who owned the land and the people who worked for him were likely to go there, the jury was told last week. Huntley knew the area because his grandmother lived nearby, and this was where he brought the bodies in darkness on the stormy night of 4 August, suggested Mr Latham. "Whoever it was dumped the bodies would not have set off down that track in the dark unless they knew where they were going or what they would find."

There was silence as photographs of this spot were projected on to plasma screens in the packed courtroom at the Old Bailey on Thursday. As the killer heaved her lifeless body from the boot of his Ford Fiesta and pushed into woodland Jessica's hair caught on the branch of a tree, where it would later be found and identified, said Mr Latham. Then the murderer laid the girls side by side in a ditch used to irrigate the field by the copse, he suggested. Their clothes were cut off, piece by piece, until they were wearing nothing but their favourite necklaces. Despite Huntley's best efforts, traces of chalk and earth were found on the underside of his car that matched the soil on the track near the bodies, said the prosecutor. Pollen at the scene was the same as that found on the pedals and in the footwell of the car, and on the red petrol can in the boot. Fibres from the football shirts were found in the car, in the caretaker's cottage and on his clothes.

"You may now appreciate why it is unlikely to be disputed that these two girls went into the house," said Mr Latham. The defence may suggest it had been some kind of ghastly accident that led to the death of the girls in the house, he said. "Ten-year-old girls do not tend to drop dead."

On the Wednesday after Holly and Jessica died ­ the same day the police released pictures of the kinds of clothes they had been wearing ­ Huntley went back to the remote spot and set fire to their bodies using petrol, the prosecuting counsel suggested. The flames went out before the bodies were consumed. On that same day Maxine Carr was allegedly seen scrubbing the wall tiles at their house so hard that she complained some of the paint was coming off, said Mr Latham. Burnt clothing would later be found in a bin at the school, including scorched training shoes, underpants, and the little bra worn by Holly. The two red shirts had been cut in half and there were slight burns on the one that had been Jessica's. The clothes were discovered under a black bin bag in a hangar at Soham Village College on 16 August. Huntley's fingerprints were found inside the bin bag. The caretaker was arrested within hours.

The bodies of the dead girls were found on 17 August. They were lying on their backs in the ditch, their legs entwined. The smell of them alerted a gamekeeper, who saw bodies covered in maggots. Holly and Jessica were identified by dental records and DNA profiles.

A Home Office pathologist concluded they must have been dumped before rigor mortis had set in. Asphyxia was the most likely cause of death. Standing close to that spot on Friday evening, with the road distant and the shadows lengthening, it was obvious their discovery had been very unlikely. Holly and Jessica's parents would have been left to wonder, and to hope, against the odds, for the rest of their lives.

"Had they not been discovered at that stage, the state of the decomposition was such that they might never have been found," said Richard Latham, who was concluding his opening speech on Friday as I returned to the warmth of the car. "They were very, very close to almost having wholly disappeared, to becoming just like skeletons."

The trial continues.