The Parents: 'Our life sentence began last August. His is just beginning'

As the foreman returned the guilty verdicts against Ian Huntley yesterday Holly Wells's mother began to weep softly.

The judge had ordered complete silence but the relief of the moment was too much for a woman who has not betrayed a shred of emotion during seven arduous weeks of evidence.

Mr Justice Moses praised the families of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, saying they had displayed a remarkable bravery during the trial.

They had listened to their daughters' murderer try to talk his way around the crime, and they had watched the woman who lied to protect him speak in glowing terms of her close relationship with their daughters, without once displaying what must have been their inner turmoil.

Without flinching, they had heard horrific details of what Huntley, 29, had done to the 10-year-olds' bodies and the terrible state in which they were finally found.

Yesterday, as they broke their silence for the first time since appeals for their daughters' return in August last year, Jessica's father finally vented some of the rage they felt.

"I hope that the next time I will have to see [Huntley] will be like we saw our daughters, and it will be in a coffin," said 52-year-old Leslie Chapman. "Our life sentence started last August. His is only just beginning." Holly's father Kevin Wells, 40, said that the verdicts had brought them "a great sense of relief, certainly no sense of euphoria".

With his arm around his wife Nicola, 36, he added: "We have had doubts for 16 months ... Not until that verdict was announced today have we had a cessation of our fears."

Acknowledging that they will probably never know exactly what happened to their children, Mr Chapman continued: "There is only one man who can answer that question. Whether he has the guts to answer that question publicly ... I doubt it."

Asked how they had stayed composed and strong throughout the 30-day trial, both women replied: "I don't know."

Until 4 August 2002, there was very little to distinguish the Wells and the Chapmans from so many other inhabitants of small towns across Britain. Mr Wells's window-cleaning business made him a popular and well-known figure in and around Soham, where his wife worked as a secretary. Sharon Chapman, 44, worked as a learning support assistant at her daughter's school, St Andrew's primary. Her husband Leslie is an engineer.

But over the past 16 months, they have been forced to come to terms with the loss of their youngest children amid intense media speculation.

Yesterday as they walked away from a press conference, an almost unprecedented round of applause broke out ­ a sign of the respect that they have come to command from the public and the media. In the words of Mr Justice Moses: "You, the parents and families of these two girls, deserve our respect and admiration for the way you have all conducted yourselves throughout what must have been, to you, the ordeal of this trial.

"Your grief at the loss of bright, life-enhancing daughters cannot be imagined and cannot be shared. Those of us who have been compelled to listen to such a dispiriting and merciless tale will have had a glimpse of what you have suffered and continue to suffer."

Mr Wells said yesterday that the family was hoping to have a holiday and get back to the routine of family life with their son Oliver, 14. But their ordeal is likely to continue as they attempt to come to terms with their anger at why Huntley was not stopped earlier.

With public inquiries about to look into how a man who had repeatedly been accused of sexual offences was allowed to take on the job of caretaker at Soham Village College, they are likely to be consulted.

It was only a few weeks ago that they learnt of Huntley's past, Mr Wells said. "The impact on us was very negative ... We hope that perhaps an inquiry will bring some legislation changes so that no one else ever again has to go through another 16 months like we have." He added that the families were all hoping to be involved in the inquiry.

Mr Wells said he had given a lot of thought to the "contentious" issue of whether he would want to see his daughter's killer hang, were the death penalty to become legal again. "I'm not sure whether, if there was a death penalty in place, our position would be any more tenable," he said.

Mr Chapman concluded: "He was a time bomb ready to go off and unfortunately our girls were in the wrong place at the wrong time."