'My God, she was next door': Police had already visited the house where Abbie Humphries was found. Why did it take so long to find the baby?

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WHEN the first knock on the door came for the occupants of the house in Brendon Drive, Wollaton, Nottingham, they must have believed that the game was up. The police had finally arrived at the house where baby Abbie Humphries had been living since she was snatched from the Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham, when she was just four hours old.

But the officers were convinced that the baby was with its legal parents. One saw the child, but they left, believing that she was not Abbie.

The police are understood to have made up to three visits in all to the house but it was a neighbour's tip-off which led to the eventual recovery from the three-bedroom, detached house, hidden by tall fir trees and shrouded by net curtains. Yesterday at 1am the occupants, a woman in her mid-forties, her son, 25, and his girlfriend, thought to be in her early twenties, were awoken and taken away.

Other questions are likely to be asked of the police. Neighbours said that a traffic policeman lived two doors away from the house, and on the other side of the street, about 40 yards away, lives a CID officer who neighbours say was a member of the Abbie investigation team. He refused to comment yesterday when asked if he was a member of the team.

Police are offering little explanation as to why they came so close to discovering Abbie days earlier. But their operation will no doubt come under close scrutiny in the next few days.

A few neighbours admitted to having been suspicious but most fears had been allayed by the previous police visit.

Some had believed that that the girlfriend, a small, dark- haired woman often seen in a uniform, had recently had a baby. She had appeared to be heavily pregnant for some time and had 'given birth' to a baby girl. Some had heard crying, others saw baby clothes - rompers, a blue dress - hanging from the line.

Passers-by saw newly hung curtains decorated with yellow and white teddy bears in an upstairs window. On the window- sill were two cuddly dogs and a piggy-bank.

Naznin Khokhar, 16, who lives next door, said neighbours had been a little surprised when the young woman announced that she had given birth to a girl.

'She really was pregnant,' Naznin said. 'She had put on a lot of weight and had swollen ankles, but we were a bit surprised because she had said she'd had a scan and was told there would be a boy. When she told us she'd had a girl, she said: 'Thank goodness we didn't buy any boy's clothes after the scan.'

'My brother and sister said they were suspicious and they kept saying: 'They've got baby Abbie', but I just thought they had overactive imaginations.'

Another neighbour, Liz Wynfield, a primary school teacher from number 19, said: 'It was a working day over a week ago in the early evening when they came. My son was playing football in the road when a police Transit van pulled up and two policemen leapt out, put their helmets on and went inside the house. They were in and out in 10 minutes. One of my neighbours said the police were just checking because the woman's baby was born on the same day as Abbie.'

Yesterday, Karen Humphries reserved her biggest thank-you for the police, and for Det Supt Harry Shepherd, who led the investigation, in particular. But their strategy for recovering Abbie was always controversial. From the start, Det Supt Shepherd, advised by psychologist Paul Britton, worked on the premise that Abbie's abductor was a woman who had lost, or could not have, a baby of her own. She was therefore likely to care for, not harm, Abbie. As Mr Britton began to compose a psychological profile of the kidnapper, the police worked on the assumption that they could appeal to her conscience by emphasising the pain her action was causing.

The day after Abbie was kidnapped, Karen - close to collapse - made a direct heartbreaking appeal to the abductor to bring her baby back. The abductor failed to respond. This approach continued for five days. When Det Supt Shepherd made his own direct appeal, his words had been meticulously drafted with Mr Britton's help. The detective was at pains to sympathise with the abductor's problem and to reassure her that she would not be ostracised by society if she gave Abbie up.

Psychologists praised the approach, complimenting the police for adapting to the unusual role of part law enforcer, part social worker. But critics complained that police were delaying the release of three photofits and two video images of the abductor taken by a hospital security camera.

When the first phase of the 'carefully constructed' strategy failed, police shifted focus, appealing to the relatives and friends of the abductor to 'do the right thing'. That brought thousands of calls, but a few dozen 'sick' hoaxers clogged up the system, at one stage costing detectives 60 hours. Gary from Gloucester was the most successful. He claimed that his wife had the baby and persuaded police to make a special TV appeal to her when, he claimed, she would be watching her favourite soap opera.

The emphasis on public vigilance increased after an appeal by Karen's sister, Josie, failed to move the abductor. In the second week, there were criticisms that the police were running out of ideas. When Det Supt Shepherd admitted on Friday that he had personally interviewed a psychic, it seemed to support suggestions that the police were becoming desperate. Officers have always maintained that they were in control. But the circumstances of Abbie's recovery have added to concerns about the investigation.

Why did it take so long to reunite Abbie and her parents when police had visited the house where she was being kept? Yesterday, a Nottinghamshire police spokesman said he could not answer the question because it was sub judice, but suggested that all would become clear in court.

Officers finally moved in on the three suspects shortly after 1am. The whole process was filmed by a television crew from Central Television and watched by the few residents still awake in the quiet cul-de-sac of pounds 75,000 detached houses.

One eyewitness, Anthony Sewell, 21, a desktop publisher, said: 'I heard someone and saw a man in a suit running down the road carrying what looked like an iron bar with a handle attached. He ran towards the house and more police followed.

'There were about six or seven officers and you could hear their radios. I didn't hear any loud noises and I don't think they smashed down the door, but soon afterward, the son and his mum and the girlfriend were led out and all put in the back of a white Ford Granada. I couldn't see their faces, but there didn't seem to be any struggle.'

Yesterday, a policeman stood guard outside number 14 as teams of forensic officers came and went. The garden, with rose bushes, a Japanese larch and a broad fir tree, is well tended and surrounded by crazy paving. An A-registered Vauxhall Astra, bearing a Worldwide Fund for Nature sticker, was in the driveway.

According to neighbours, the family moved in about 12 years ago. There was also a father but he left several years ago. Since then, the mother and son had adopted a very low profile. Few in the street knew their names.

'They were a very difficult family to get to know,' Mr Sewell said. 'I used to try to say hello to the lad's mum, but she would just look down and walk away. He's a nice guy and I used to knock around with him. But he went a bit weird - I don't mean strange, I just mean he kept himself to himself. I hardly knew the girlfriend at all. But you'd often see her in a nurse's uniform. I think she was a trainee.'

The theme of the family's secretive behaviour was repeated by shocked neighbours, surprised at how isolated the three had become and how little people living so close together knew about one another. 'I'm just astonished we never heard a baby crying because it's so quiet here,' said Roy Wright, 55, a sheet-metal worker for Rolls-Royce who lives a few doors away. 'We've all had our windows open and doors ajar because of the heat, but then again, we all thought she was pregnant, so what would we have done? I don't know any of the family, but I saw her and she looked genuinely pregnant.'

It is understood that the young woman had been dating the son for more than a year and moved into Brendon Drive when she became pregnant. 'She is very slim and pretty, with short dark hair,' said another neighbour, who asked not to be named. 'She's nothing like the police photofit picture, and neither is the mother - she's very small, with fair or light-ginger hair.

'I got the impression that the two women didn't get on. You'd often see the girlfriend sit outside the house in the car for hours on end rather than go inside. My kids used to call them 'the car couple' because of the time they spent there.'

Ken Curl, 59, a shopfitter from number 18, two doors away, said he too thought the young woman had been genuinely pregnant. 'When we heard the news there were mixed feelings,' he said. 'We thought 'Great, they've found Abbie', and then, 'My God, she was next door but one all the time.'

'We really knew very little about them, even though we've been here for 17 years. But if anyone could pull it off, it would someone like that: people who just didn't mix with anyone else.'

The evidence points to the young woman having lost her own baby, but police were refusing to give details about her or to comment on the criticism of them.

They argued that yesterday was a time for celebration, the successful conclusion of a drama that had touched the hearts of everyone in the country.

Two weeks ago, Karen Humphries looked liked a broken woman as she begged for the return of her baby.

Yesterday, with her daughter nestling in her arms and oblivous to the excitement around her, she looked reborn.

(Photographs omitted)