Milly Dowler's uncle may have come face to face with the schoolgirl's killer hours after she was snatched off the street, the Old Bailey heard today.
Levi Bellfield returned to his home to dispose of the 13-year-old's body in the middle of the night as Brian Gilbertson searched for her by torchlight, jurors were told.
Mr Gilbertson said he saw a man of Bellfield's description with a dog walking towards a bin shed at the block of flats near where Milly was last seen and where Bellfield lived.
Brian Altman QC, prosecuting, said Mr Gilbertson was a long-lost uncle of Milly who had recently been re-acquainted with the family.
He had become concerned about his missing niece and began his own search in the early hours of the morning after she vanished in Station Avenue, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, on Thursday March 21, 2002.
After searching the railway station with a torch, Mr Gilbertson found himself at flats in Collingwood Place, off Station Avenue, where he saw a man with a dog walking "with an air of confidence" towards him.
Mr Altman told the jury: "You can conclude that the man Mr Gilbertson saw in the early hours was the defendant who had returned with the dog.
"If the prosecution is right that he abducted and killed Milly Dowler, then he had to dispose of her body and clean up."
Bellfield's phone had allegedly been silent for nine and a half hours overnight - ample time to drive Milly's body to the woods where it was found six months later.
Bellfield went on to murder two students - Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange - and attempt to murder a third, Kate Sheedy, during the next two years.
Former wheelclamper and bouncer Bellfield, 42, formerly of West Drayton, west London, denies Milly's kidnap and murder.
He also denies the attempted kidnap of 11-year-old Rachel Cowles in Shepperton, Surrey, the previous day.
Bellfield's partner, Emma Mills, said he had been out of telephone contact on the day Milly vanished.
She and their two children were staying at a friend's house when Bellfield later turned up, said Mr Altman.
They went to bed but between 3am and 4am, Bellfield got up and left with his Staffordshire bull terrier.
Mr Altman said: "She awoke to find him suddenly getting dressed. She asked him what he was doing. He answered 'I am going to go back to the flat cause I am going to have a lie-in'."
Later that day, Bellfield had asked a young friend called Malcolm Ward to help him move something from a bedroom of the flat.
"The room was messy with clothes and videos lying around and Ward saw the defendant put some clothes into two carrier bags," said Mr Altman.
"The defendant got him to help carry out a king-size mattress. This had been on the bed and it had no covers on it.
"According to Ward, that day Bellfield was not his usual self and was quieter than normal.
"He was not telling jokes as he normally would, and he seemed to Ward to be miserable and a bit down."
The following day, Saturday March 23, 2002, Miss Mills said she went to the flat because Bellfield told her they had to move out.
Mr Altman continued: "When she entered the bedroom she saw that the sheets were off the bed. There was no duvet cover, sheet or pillowcases. Only the duvet was left in the middle of the bed.
"She rang the defendant on his mobile phone and she asked him about what she had seen.
"His response was to say that the dog had had an accident and he had 'chucked it all'. He told her he had put the soiled linen in the rubbish."
Miss Mills said she remembered that they later decided to get a new king-size bed.
"The defendant told her that he was going to burn the bed they had brought with them from Collingwood Place. He burnt the bed and the double duvet," added Mr Altman.
Earlier, the trial was told that the last person to see Milly alive was school friend Katherine Laynes, 15, who was sitting at a bus stop in Station Avenue.
"She thought she was at the stop for about 10 minutes when she saw Milly Dowler walking along on the opposite side of the road.
"According to Katherine, they made eye contact," said Mr Altman.
"Katherine recalled Milly wearing her school uniform - her skirt, shirt and tie. She was carrying her blazer over her left arm. Milly was carrying her rucksack.
"When Katherine saw her, Milly was entirely alone.
"Milly walked to Katherine's left, crossing the entrance to the station car park, but Katherine lost sight of her when the advertising board side of the bus shelter obscured her vision.
"Katherine estimates that her bus arrived at her stop within a couple of minutes of Milly disappearing from her view."
The older girl boarded her bus and was the only passenger on board.
"As the bus moved off, she expected to see Milly again in Station Avenue, continuing her walk.
"So she looked out for her on the same side she had seen her walking, but she wasn't there."
Milly had earlier telephoned her father Bob to say she was fine while having chips with friends at the station cafe.
But soon after 7pm, Mr Dowler reported his daughter missing to police.
"There then began one of the largest and longest missing persons inquiries this country has ever seen," added Mr Altman.
Mr Altman said there was no obvious motive for Bellfield's actions but they were consistent with "someone who harbours very great animosity towards women of the description of those victims".
The trial was adjourned to tomorrow when the judge and jury will be taken to Walton-on-Thames and Shepperton to view the scenes of the alleged crimes.
Bellfield will also go but is not expected to view the areas at the same time.