Police see efforts vindicated in wake of criticism
IT HAD been dismissed as a rural police force incapable of mounting an investigation so complex as that into the disappearance of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells.
But last night the efforts of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary finally appeared to have been vindicated with the arrest of a man and woman on suspicion of murder.
Since the 10-year-old girls disappeared on Sunday August 4, the force had come under sustained criticism. It had been condemned for not following up leads such as the supposed sighting of Jessica and Holly by a taxi driver and for allowing the unprecedented publicity which has surrounded the case to cloud its judgment. Its apparent inability to crack the case had even led to calls for the establishment of a dedicated FBI-style task to deal with high-profile investigations.
It is now understood that investigating officers may have had school caretaker Ian Huntley, 28, and his girlfriend Maxine Carr, 25, a teaching assistant in the girls’ class last term, in their sights for some time.
Huntley, who was one of the last people to see Jessica and Holly alive, lived locally and was known to both girls, as was Carr. According to senior detectives, he would have been identified as a suspect as soon as he told officers that he was one of the last people to see the girls alive.
The apparent breakthrough also suggests that rather than being led down blind alleys by the media, officers may have used the press and television to avoid any hint that they were pursuing Huntley and Carr.
Their failure to immediately follow up claims by taxi driver Ian Webster that he had seen a motorists struggling with two girls prompted widespread condemnation. But the force’s reluctance to pursue this ultimately fruitless line of inquiry may be evidence that officers believed the answer to the girls’ disappearance lay closer to home, within the town of Soham.
Given the immense pressure the inquiry team were under, questions were also being asked about the appeal to the girls’ abductor by Detective Superintendent David Beck. Beck, the detective in charge of the investigation, also left a personal message on Jessica’s mobile telephone. When the midnight deadline passed without response, officers commented that they were "not unduly anxious". Police insiders have suggested that the move may have been a smokescreen to buy time for officers to gather evidence for a possible case against Huntley and Carr. Others have claimed that the same may be true of suggestions that the internet may have been used to lure the girls into the clutches of their abductor.
One former detective said the most valuable information would have been held back from the press. He said: "You always have to hold something back, something that only the culprit can know. These details only come out when the suspect is being interviewed. The officers know that only he or she knows about the information and cannot have found out through the press."
Whatever the facts, when officers approached the two suspects they must have been confident that they had enough evidence to arrest them. Their approach was subtle; the pair were invited to speak to detectives and volunteered to do so. The interviews were followed by a request to search the suspects’ homes, which was granted.
Yesterday, following the apparent breakthrough, police had turned their attentions to a meticulous forensic search focusing on the college, the adjoining St Andrew’s primary school attended by the girls, and the neat detached house where Huntley and his girlfriend live.
The forensic investigation is expected to take at least a week.
A team of 20 officers at Huntley’s home were using highly sensitive search equipment - which they did not describe - and have brought in an expert for advice, Mark Harrison, who worked on investigations into missing teenagers Danielle Jones, from Essex, and Sussex schoolgirl Millie Dowler.
Police can hold Huntley and Carr for up to 96 hours before they will have to charge them or release them.
Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the couple can now be detained for up to 24 hours from the time of their arrest without being charged while police question them and other witnesses and sift through evidence.
If police need more time, they will have to apply to a magistrate for a warrant to hold the couple for 72 hours. If necessary, the magistrate can extend the warrant for another 24 hours - meaning the couple could be held in custody for a total of 96 hours before being either charged or released.
One former detective, who asked not to be named, said investigating officers would have assumed the girls had been murdered very soon after their disappearance.
He added: "You are walking a tightrope the whole time, you have to try to be positive for the family while you are fearing the worst and possibly realising the worst. Sometimes you know you are running a murder investigation in all but name."
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