The knock at the door of Barrie Fellows' house in April this year brought him a visit from the police – and from his past. Standing outside his Cheshire home were officers from Sussex constabulary, a force he had last dealt with in 1986 when they investigated the murder and sexual assault of his 10-year-old daughter, Nicola, and her nine-year-old friend, Karen Hadaway.
Dubbed the Babes in the Wood killings, the crimes remain one of Britain's most notorious unsolved cases. Yet the detectives at the door of Mr Fellows's home on that Tuesday morning 12 weeks ago had not come to inform Barrie, 59, of a breakthrough in the case.
"When I heard the words 'Sussex Police' my first thought was that they had arrested someone for murdering my daughter," he said. "Then my mind started to wander and I asked if something had happened to my son, who still lives in Brighton. One of the officers said 'No, we've come to arrest you'."
He was led away and accused of the most heinous of crimes: sexually assaulting his own child before her death. The police trumpeted news of the arrests and the men's names appeared in the media. Officers pointed out that the arrests were "quite distinct" from the murder investigation, but, rather curiously, told the press that the status of the arrested men could be reviewed "in light of whatever we find out today".
But 12 weeks on, a rather different picture has emerged. Last week, Mr Fellows was released without charge – a victim of a malicious allegation which Sussex Police said it had a duty to investigate. For Mr Fellows, the episode has not only been traumatic but it has brought back memories of 1986 and the unimaginable horror of the death of his daughter.
In his first ever interview, he told The Independent: "It took me a long time to move on from the death of my daughter and here it was coming back to haunt me. I have done nothing wrong. All I have done is lose my daughter in the most horrific of circumstances."
Nicola and Karen were snatched from the Moulsecoomb estate in Brighton, where they lived, on 9 October 1986. They were found the next day in nearby Wild Park, having been strangled and sexually assaulted.
Russell Bishop, a 19-year-old roof tiler who had played football and cricket with Mr Fellows, was arrested and charged with the murders. But on 10 December 1987 a jury at Lewes Crown Court took less than two hours to find him not guilty. Three years later, in December 1990, he was put on trial again over a near-identical attack on a seven-year-old girl just a few miles from where Nicola and Karen were found.
The victim in that attack survived and gave evidence, telling the jury, again at Lewes Crown Court, how she had been snatched while rollerblading in the street and locked in a boot. She was driven to remote countryside, stripped and sexually assaulted. Her attacker had tried to strangle her and then dumped her in undergrowth. Bishop was convicted of attempted murder, indecent assault and kidnap.
But in the years between Bishop's acquittal and eventual conviction for the second attack, public suspicion fell on Mr Fellows – who, before Mr Bishop's arrest, had been questioned by police about the murders. His home was attacked with paint and, when he decided to move, his new home was daubed with a message which read: "Don't let the fucking murderer move here."
Mr Fellows said: "It was very upsetting, but I suppose Joe Public is always looking for someone to blame, they always want someone's head on a plate."
The initial tragedy of the Babes in the Wood deaths has been followed by many more. The marriages of both the girls' parents broke up. Then Katrina Taylor, the girl who played Nicola Fellows in a Crimewatch re-enactment, was herself murdered 10 years later in 1996. Two years after that, in 1998, Lee Hadaway, Karen's father, died of a heart attack. His friends and family said it was a broken heart.
The latest installment was this year. Mr Fellows explained how, following his arrest, officers searched his home and removed two laptops, a desktop computer, videos, DVDs, his mobile phone and Sim cards. He was taken to Blakeham police station, forced to surrender his tracksuit bottoms (in case he attempted suicide with the drawstring) and held in a cell for three hours before being interviewed.
"In the car, they told me an allegation had been made against me but it wasn't until the interview they explained it was the same as an allegation that had been made in 1987 and been investigated by the police then and discounted," he said.
"I was furious. I asked them why they were bringing all of this up again, that it had been dealt with 23 years ago. I did not ask for a lawyer, because I felt that I had nothing to hide and didn't need one. But I did become quite uncooperative. It lasted about 20 minutes and consisted of them asking if I did it and me saying 'no, it didn't happen'."
He was released and bailed until 18 June and, in a bid to stem the media interest in his arrest, issued a statement revealing the details of the allegations. Mr Fellows said that they were made by a female friend of Bishop's – possibly to deflect suspicion from him ahead of his upcoming parole hearing – and predicted that he would be cleared. "I told the officers as I left the police station that they would be the ones with egg on their face, looking stupid after this, not me. I knew it was all lies."
The following day, he returned to work as a check-out operator at the Ellesmere Port branch of Morrisons supermarket. But, with his face splashed across the front of the local newspaper, his employers feared possible vigilante attacks from customers and so told Mr Fellows not to return to the store for his own safety.
"They were worried that there would be a bad reaction from customers, but nothing could have been further from the truth. The positivity of the people of this town was incredible. I had text messages, phone calls and cards from people all saying that they knew I was innocent," he said.
Nicola's mother Susan, from whom Barrie has since divorced, went public with her support, saying: "I just don't believe these allegations. I don't believe Barrie would be involved in anything like that."
As did Karen Hadaway's mother, Michelle Johnson, who said: "Barrie and Susan were our neighbours and their house was always open to friends and family.
"I would walk in there and my kids would go in there regularly and we never saw anything untoward."
Their belief was proven correct when, last week, Sussex Police announced that no further action would be taken. A statement said: "When there are serious allegations made – in this case alleging that sexual crimes had been committed against a child – the public rightly expects us to investigate. After receiving information we arrested and interviewed two men. That process, and the inquiries that followed, have enabled us to decide we will not be taking action against either man."
But, says Barrie, an apology has not been forthcoming. "They put me through 12 weeks of hell and not once did they say sorry. Apart from the death of my daughter 23 years ago, this is the worst thing that has happened in my life. "They sent social services round to my house after my arrest to interview my daughter – suggesting that she was at risk of sexual abuse because she lived with me."
Mr Fellows bristles at the insinuation and produces a loving text sent from his 15-year-old daughter, Amber, whose mother is Mr Fellows' new wife, Karen, 50.
"Dad, I love you so much, you are the most amazing dad in the world," it reads. "Does that look like a text message sent from a child that is at risk of being abused?" he asks.
"The deaths of my daughter and her friend destroyed two families. This false allegation could have destroyed me all over again, but I won't let it. I've got a great family and children and I'm just going to get on with my life. The last 12 weeks were hell, but they are over now. I just hope the police forget it and get on with trying to catch whoever murdered Nicola and Karen."
Child murder: Unsolved cases
*Amanda "Milly" Dowler
The 13-year-old disappeared on her way home from school in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, in March 2002. Her body was found in woodland in Hampshire six months later. Nobody has been charged with her murder. The main suspect, Levi Bellfield, a former nightclub bouncer, is serving life in prison for the murders of two other women.
In February 1997, Billie-Jo, 13, was bashed to death with a tent peg at her home in Hastings, East Sussex. Her foster father, Sion Jenkins, was convicted of her murder in 1998. But in 2004 the Court of Appeal quashed the conviction and ordered a retrial. Juries in two subsequent trials failed to reach a verdict. In 2006, the Crown Prosecution Service ruled out another trial. Mr Jenkins was officially declared not guilty. The case remains unsolved.
The Muslim teenager was reported missing in September 2003. In February 2004 her remains were found in a suitcase in Kendal, Cumbria, 70 miles from her home in Warrington, Cheshire. Her parents and five relatives were arrested but released without charge. A 2008 inquest said Shafilea, 17, was the victim of a "vile murder" and returned a verdict of unlawful killing. No one has been charged.