abducted on her way home from school in March 2002, the desperate and
tragic search for the 13-year-old struck a chord with parents across
Milly Dowler went missing close to
Walton-on-Thames railway station in Surrey on March 21 2002
The last call she had made was to her
father, to say she would be back in ten minutes or so at the family
home, in the affluent commuter town of Walton-upon-Thames.
She never arrived, and despite millions
of pounds spent on one of the highest profile police investigations in
the past decade, no-one has ever been able to tell Bob and Sally Dowler
what happened to their child.
In the weeks after she went missing, the
Dowlers released touching, home videos of their daughter - ironing her
jeans and playing the saxophone - that became etched on the national
consciousness as the tragedy played itself out.
They said they could not rest “until the
monster responsible for this ghastly crime is brought to justice and is
But thin evidence and a trickle of false
leads inquiry had left detectives perplexed. There was no hard evidence
– a lack of a forensic trail or a key witness who had seen the
The painful milestones of Milly’s 18th
and 21st birthdays passed, and still, the family waited for answers.
In their last, anguished appeal, Mrs
Dowler asked: “How can we find peace? How can we ever understand who
could commit such an evil act and why? Imagine not knowing how your
daughter died, or where or when and by whose hand, and imagine how we as
a family live.”
Then, almost five years ago, for reasons
that cannot be disclosed for legal reasons, a new suspect emerged: Levi
Police pieced together a mass of
circumstantial evidence and it has taken years of slow and painstakingly
casework to convince the Crown Prosecution Service to proceed with
charges in this notorious case.
After a senior prosecution lawyer today
announced that Bellfield will face trial over Milly’s murder, police
could finally bring charges in the most notorious unsolved child murder
of the past decade.
And the Dowlers, still at the same home
which Milly failed to come home to eight years ago, could finally
believe they may be closer to finding out the truth of what happened
Amanda Dowler, known to all her friends as Milly, disappeared on March
On the way home from school, still in
uniform, she had caught the train from Weybridge to Walton, stopped at
the station cafe to share a plate of chips with her friends, and then
begun her ten-minute walk home to Station Avenue at 4.08pm.
When she had failed to appear by 7pm, Mr
Dowler called police to report her missing.
Officers initially treated it as a
missing persons inquiry rather than a possible abduction – a dilemma
highlighted again years later by the slow Portuguese response to the
which was also assumed to be innocent
In the days that followed, the Dowlers
made repeated multiple appeals for Milly to come home, including a
reconstruction on Crimewatch.
The items she was carrying, which were
never recovered, accentuated the picture of schoolgirl innocence. They
included a Nokia 3210 mobile phone with “Milly” scrawled on it, a pencil
case, a white plastic purse with a small red heart in the corner and a
pendant with a fairy on it.
Surrey Police switchboards were
inundated with thousands of calls after the appeals, but officers ended
up “chasing shadows” during a series of false "sightings" from Ipswich
To add to the drama, the discovery of
any bodies in Surrey was investigated and the Dowler family was told. In
one such case, in April 2002, a female corpse found in the Thames, close
to Walton, turned out to be that of an elderly woman.
Police devoted enormous resources to
searching for Milly, looking at more than 350 sites, including dozens of
waterways. They found nothing.
Officers carried out house-to-house
inquiries – in the course of the entire investigation questioning over
Levi Bellfield was at the time said to
be living in a flat with his then girlfriend, Emma Mills, near to where
The address, in Collingwood Avenue, was
visited ten times by police over two years. It was only on the 11th call
that some new tenants answered, and police failed to track back to
establish who was living there at the time Milly vanished.
Another potential clue was the local
Images were taken from a camera at a
Birds Eye Wall's premises opposite the bus stop where Milly disappeared.
But within weeks Surrey Police had said that it had failed to help
police with their investigation.
In fact, years later, a review of
evidence uncovered a red car in one image which police believe may be
central to the case. It belonged to Bellfield’s girlfriend and was
allegedly often driven by the bouncer. It has not been traced since.
While everything suggested that Milly
must have been abducted, it was a problematic theory to police because
they could find no witnesses to a struggle outside the station involving
a girl. Could it have been someone she knew?
As is usual in missing child cases,
detectives had started by investigating Milly’s inner circle of family
For months, Mr Dowler, an IT consultant,
was under surveillance because he was considered a viable suspect. His
house, car and telephone was bugged by officers who believed he would
lead them to her hiding place.
Every part of his private life was
scrutinised. Officers checked the family computer and carried out
exhaustive inquiries into his relationship with Milly.
He was eventually formally questioned
over her disappearance, after which police accepted his account that he
was at home when she was abducted.
Nor were there any clues in Milly’s
past. She was plainly a well-balanced, intelligent and happy girl from a
stable home. A study of her computer, her phone and her network of
friends, disclosed no dark secrets that might have led her to run away -
there was no internet chat room liaison, for example.
Police made three arrests after tip
offs, but each one came to nothing.
By the summer of 2002, six months after
she disappeared, police had told the Dowlers that they should prepare
themselves for the worst: she was most likely to be dead.
The parents would not give up on Milly –
and even continued to text message their daughter in the hope of a
But the grim confirmation of her fate
finally came on 18 September 2002, when her skeletal remains were
discovered 30 miles from Walton, by mushroom pickers on Yateley Heath in
The discovery, far from providing a
breakthrough in the inquiry, raised more questions than answers.
There was no DNA evidence from the
corpse or surrounding area, no witnesses to it being buried.
Detectives seemed to have nowhere else
to go – all leads were exhausted.
But then, five years ago, Bellfield’s
alleged links to the area, his flat and the car, were pieced together.
A file was passed to the Crown
Prosecution Service but it was deemed there was not enough evidence to
A team led by Det Chf Insp Maria Woodall
started again – questioning Bellfield’s associates, trying to trace the
red car and pursuing every last line of inquiry until they uncovered
what they believe to be fresh evidence. They put a new file to lawyers
Police chiefs admitted it was a last
throw of the dice in the quest for justice – and for eight long months
they nervously awaited the decision, maintaining constant contact with
Almost 3,000 days after Milly
disappeared, they finally got the news they have been waiting for: there
was enough evidence to go to trial.
Whether Bellfield was the man who
abducted and murdered Milly Dowler is now for a jury to decide.