Focus: Milly - The anatomy of a murder inquiry

She disappeared three years ago tomorrow. Her body was found six months later. At last, says Cole Moreton, police may have made a breakthrough

Sunday 20 March 2005 01:00

It takes nearly two hours to drive through the late-afternoon traffic from the place where Milly Dowler was abducted to the woodland where her body was dumped. On the congested motorways, or skipping over the M25 on the backroads through Lightwater, the rush hour makes progress slow. What must it have been like, this frustrating stop-start, with a body in the boot?

It takes nearly two hours to drive through the late-afternoon traffic from the place where Milly Dowler was abducted to the woodland where her body was dumped. On the congested motorways, or skipping over the M25 on the backroads through Lightwater, the rush hour makes progress slow. What must it have been like, this frustrating stop-start, with a body in the boot?

Perhaps Milly, 13, was unconscious. Perhaps she was dead. Perhaps she was not in the car at all on that sunny Thursday afternoon, 21 March 2002 - in which case detectives who are still hunting her killer exactly three years later are chasing yet another wild goose.

They think Milly may have been seized or hit or charmed outside Walton-on-Thames railway station by the driver of a red Daewoo Nexia that was seen by a security camera nearby. They think the killer might have steered that car through the quiet, peaceful streets of Walton and Weybridge, out of the orbit of London, to an obscure parcel of woodland 25 miles away called Yateley Heath.

To make the same drive, at the same time of day on the same day of the week, is to be struck by the nerve, or confidence, or arrogance, of the driver. The car was an old banger, an N-reg worth no more than £400. It could have overheated at one of the many sets of traffic lights, or wheezed to a halt by the road. Would he have got away with it then? Was he not unnerved by the Ministry of Defence signs at several bases on the way? Did a military helicopter thunder overhead, as it did last Thursday evening?

When the helicopter was gone, the birds calling at dusk competed with the white noise of the A30. The half moon was out in a clear sky, but the shadows were dark among tall pine trees. Just off the path was the sort of knee-high vegetation the killer used to hide a shallow grave. The wood felt like a secret place into which nobody strayed by accident. It is so far from the scene of the abduction, and so out of the way, that detectives are sure the killer knew the place.

"If Milly was dead," said one, "he knew where to take the body. If she was unconscious, he brought her to a place where he could feel confident."

The missing person posters were still up all over Walton six months after she disappeared, on the day her body was found. They showed her smiling, and said she was 14, because she would have been if she had been alive. But a Polish couple foraging for mushrooms in the wood on 19 September 2002 came across human remains. There were no clothes. The wood was sealed off with red and white police tape; forensic scientists in boiler suits and masks searched the area. They identified the skull from Milly's dental records. Later, they sifted through a huge mass of leaf litter, finding crisp packets and cigarette butts, hairs and fibres from snagged clothing that might yet place a suspect in the wood.

Milly's parents, Bob and Sally Dowler, and her elder sister, Gemma, now had a body. They could start to grieve, but they had to give up hope. Three years later, the pain remains acute. "The anniversary of Milly's disappearance is always an extremely poignant time," her parents say in a statement released through Surrey police today. "This year her friends have embarked upon their A-levels, and watching them grow up and start to think about their futures is a constant reminder of what Milly might have been doing now." The Dowlers have started a charity called Milly's Fund to help teenagers and parents think about personal safety. They yearn for a conviction. "We need to know the name and see the face of the person who murdered our beautiful daughter."

Surrey police has 47 detectives, 21 women and 26 men, still working on what it calls Operation Ruby, from an incident room at the force headquarters in Guildford. They investigate other murders too, but the first thing they talk about at their weekly briefing meeting is Milly.

"We know an awful lot about her," says Detective Inspector Kevin McEntee, who joined the investigation on day two. "We have spoken to many of her friends. We have read her diaries and emails. We've got a clear idea of the sort of girl she was: bright, intelligent, a great sense of humour. She had a circle of close friends, and everything to look forward to."

Teenagers go missing. People are murdered, more than 800 a year in England and Wales. But something about the Dowler case snagged the heart of the nation. Wobbly home video of her dancing around the ironing board was shown on the news when she was still just missing. Her case followed that of Sarah Payne, the eight-year-old killed the previous year, and came just before Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were murdered in Soham. All these girls, taken without warning from places that had seemed quiet and safe, became known by their first names alone. Every parent knew them.

DI McEntee is a 49-year-old career detective with a record of high-profile cases and a Queen's Medal for policing. But something in his voice, and his eyes, says this is different. "We are a team of professionals, but it does get to us. We are human beings. Many of us are fathers, with sons or daughters."

Milly, whose real name was Amanda, was a pupil at Heathside school in Weybridge. Her mother was a teacher at the same school. On the day she disappeared, Milly turned down the chance of a lift home with mum so that she could take the train with her mates. It was only a short ride - seven minutes and two stops - but Milly got off early, at Walton, where the gaggle of friends went to the Travellers Café on the London-bound platform, and bought chips. Milly borrowed a friend's mobile to call her father, who often worked from home. "I'm running a bit late," she said. "See you in half an hour."

Bob Dowler never spoke to his daughter again. He never saw her alive again. Imagine the irritation when she was late, then the slight worry becoming fear and panic. Frantic phone calls to every one of her friends, and members of her family, established that nobody knew where she was. The last sighting was at eight minutes past four, by a friend waiting for a bus across the road from the station.

The police were called at 7pm. They took it very seriously, very quickly. Milly was not the sort to vanish. To the outsider, it looks as if there have been a frustrating number of false leads since, but Surrey police say the amount of information volunteered by the public has been huge. This has been the biggest investigation in the force's history. The team has screened more than 800 potential suspects, including 650 sex offenders.

Operation Ruby also looked in vain for connections with the Soham murderer Ian Huntley and L/Cpl David Atkinson, 31, who murdered a student called Sally Geeson at New Year then jumped to his death from the window of a hotel in Glasgow. He had served at an army base half a mile from Yateley Heath. However, detectives are "fairly confident" he was on a military training course at the time of Milly's abduction.

Now, on the third anniversary of her disappearance, there seems to have been a breakthrough. The police can't say exactly what it is, for legal reasons, but the red car seen at 4.33pm that day is key. It was filmed by a security camera at the Unilever building in Station Avenue, 100 yards from the bus stop from where Milly was last seen. The back of the car was low on its springs. Detectives say they found the car among the hours of CCTV footage because they were looking specifically for it. Since appealing for information last Tuesday they have received 150 calls, some from people living near Yateley Heath and others who are experts in the motor trade, able to give tips about where such a vehicle might have been bought. A reward of £50,000 for information leading to a conviction still stands.

The team is investigating a registered sex offender who lives in south-west London, and also working closely with Metropolitan Police officers from Operation Yeaddiss, the investigation into two murders and at least four attacks in the same area. Amélie Delagrange, 22, was bludgeoned to death with a hammer on Twickenham Green in August last year. Police divers recovered some of her belongings from the Thames close to Walton, where Milly lived. The same person is believed responsible for the death of Marsha McDonnell, 19, who was hit over the head close to her own front door in Hampton in February 2003.

Four other women were struck from behind with a blunt instrument in the same area over the past couple of years. The latest attack to be linked to the same man is that on 18-year-old Kate Sheedy who was run over and left for dead in Isleworth, west London, in May last year. She survived because she managed to call her parents on her mobile, saying "I'm dying." They rushed into the street to find her, and called an ambulance. No formal link has yet been made between Operations Yeaddiss and Ruby, but information is being shared.

"It feels like a very painful waiting game," say Bob and Sally Dowler of the investigation, which they follow as closely as their strength allows. "But we feel confident that one day the diligence and hard work of the police will pay off."

Anyone with information should call 0845 125 2222


£3m: is the estimated cost of Operation Ruby, the hunt for the killer of Milly Dowler

11,538, lines of inquiry followed (including checks on phone records or vehicles)

540, of those were in the past 12 months

4,288, statements have been taken

320, of those were in the past 12 months

6,183, telephone messages have been taken

46, of which were in the past 12 months

2,885, people have been questioned in house-to-house inquiries

47, police officers and support staff are still working on the case

6,000, motorists were stopped and questioned

4,000, exhibits have been seized and catalogued

844, potential suspects have been screened

650, of these were sex offenders

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