Suspicion and fear hang over the town that needs to find girl's killer

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The Independent Online

The young girl's laughing eyes stare from the police posters stuck up in the windows of almost every shop and office in Dalkeith.

But so far the appeal for information has yielded few clues. Seventy-five days have passed since Jodi Jones, 14, was found dead in undergrowth five minutes from her home. Despite interviewing more than 3,000 people, Lothian and Borders police have yet to find the murder weapon or make an arrest. In the meantime the former mining community and its outlying villages have been transformed by the fear that the killer is still at large.

Parks and playgrounds that normally ring with the sound of children's voices are hushed and empty. Outside school gates the roads are packed each evening with parents picking up their children - most of whom would have happily walked home before Jodi's murder. Taxi services and video shops report booming trade as youngsters are forbidden to leave their homes at night.

At the centre of this web of fear and suspicion is Luke Mitchell, 15, the boyfriend Jodi was supposed to be meeting on the evening she died.

He is the only person to have been formally questioned over the murder. His treatment - he was handcuffed and taken to a police station - prompted a letter of complaint from his family. More than 20 bags of material have been taken for examination from his parents' house and garden.

Feelings in the village have run high since Luke, who lives near Dalkeith in Newbattle, was asked to stay away from the funeral by Jodi's family. The teenager attracted media attention by going to the cemetery to lay flowers after the service at Gorebridge Parish Church.

With his mother, pet dog and a new girlfriend he was photographed stubbing out cigarettes on the ground next to the grave that Jodi shares with her father, James, a postman, who committed suicide five years ago, aged 39, after suffering from depression.

In what has become a highly public spat, Jodi's mother, when she heard of Luke's visit, went to the grave, removed his flowers and returned them to his doorstep.

With questionable timing, the boy chose the day of Jodi's funeral to give a television interview protesting his innocence, which enraged her family. Police are said to be interested in comments he made during the broadcast suggesting that he and Jodi "never had one argument".

There are reports that the couple were seen rowing shortly before Jodi's death and that she had threatened to end their two-month romance.

While police sources refuse to confirm or deny claims that Luke is the only suspect, they admit being aware of possible inconsistencies in the boy's public comments.

As speculation continues in the community, Luke,, who has complained of media harassment, has demanded a move to another school after teachers at St David's RC High School, which Jodi also attended, were ordered to isolate him from other pupils for his own safety. On Monday, he stormed out after being told of the school's intention to segregate him.

Nigel Beaumont, the Mitchell family's solicitor, said: "Luke was told by the school he would be kept on his own and given work to do on his own. This was unacceptable to him and his parents. There is no reason to exclude someone from normal teaching."

Reminders of Jodi's killing are everywhere. Little more than 200 yards from the school a shrine of heartfelt messages and poems adorns a lamppost at the entrance to the woodland short cut that the girl took to her death on June 30. More than two dozen bunches of fresh flowers lie with trinkets by the side of the path, now little used and rapidly overgrowing.

The main theory, but not to the only possibility, is that Jodi knew her killer and that there may have been a falling out between them. The path besides which Jodi was found is not marked on any map and is only really known by people living in the area.

One mother, who declined to give her name, described her fears. "Until the police find who killed Jodi there's no way I could let my daughter walk home from school on her own again," she said.

Her view is one that seems to be widely held in Dalkeith. Les Fraser, owner of a taxi firm, said: "People are scared - I've even had one nightshift driver change his shift because his wife was too scared to be be left at home alone. It's just a nightmare that won't go away. Everyone has an idea who it is but the police still haven't managed to do anything about it yet."