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EDITIONS
Sunday, 18 August, 2002, 00:31 GMT 01:31 UK
Missing girls - the police operation
Police search Soham College grounds
Officers from 16 forces joined the hunt
The search for best friends Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman has seen one of the biggest police manhunts of recent times

From the moment the girls' parents reported their beloved daughters missing, officers from Cambridgeshire, neighbouring forces and far beyond, have given up their time, their holidays, their weekends and their nights, in a desperate, but tragically doomed bid to bring them home safely.

The first lead came on Sunday 4 August - the day they disappeared from their home town of Soham in Cambridgeshire.

CCTV footage showed the 10-year-olds, wearing matching Manchester United shirts, crossing the car park of the Ross Peers sports centre in Soham.

But inquiries into the films drew a blank.

Investigation facts
320 officers are working on the case
They are from 16 forces, the MoD and the Navy and the RAF
14,000 calls have been received from the public
1,800 of those were made in one 24-hour period
400 house-to-house inquiries have been made
700 drivers have been questioned

At dawn the next day, the search began with police and locals volunteers. It was followed by a public appeal at which officers admitted they were growing "increasingly concerned".

Then it emerged that Jessica had a mobile phone with her when she was last seen - but signal tests gave an imprecise location, only that it was in the Soham area.

It meant the painstaking finger tip search would have to go on.

Almost 500 people and officers from Suffolk and Essex joined Cambridgeshire Police and the operation stretched into its first night.
Holly Wells (left) and Jessica Chapman
Holly and Jessica pictured on the day they went missing

On Tuesday 13 August Suffolk Police contacted their colleagues in Cambridgeshire about a jogger who reported hearing what he thought were teenagers screaming as he passed the area of Warren Hill, near Newmarket in Suffolk.

When two freshly-dug mounds of earth were discovered nearby, forensic teams and specialist search experts began another through-the-night operation to pick through the area piece by piece.

By early the next morning it was established the mounds were nothing more sinister than badger sets and officers resumed the search with the concentration turning back to Soham.

By now, the hunt's nerve centre had come in for some criticism.

Time-consuming

A taxi driver who had reported seeing a man driving erratically in a green car carrying two children, claimed there was a delay before he was interviewed.

He had told another force about what he had seen but it was four days before officers interviewed him about the possible breakthrough.

Cambridgeshire police had been using the Holmes (Home Office Major Enquiry System) computer system, which allows police to cross-reference details reported to other forces and link together relevant information.

But with Holmes, everything must first be entered into the system, a time-consuming process requiring specially-trained officers.

Cambridgeshire Police had to admit their own resources had been insufficient for this mammoth task, and drafted in extra Holmes-trained officers from around the country.

Questioning

The lead detective in the investigation, Detective Superintendent David Beck, then took the unusual step of putting out a video message asking whoever was holding the 10-year-olds to ring him.

He set a deadline for the abductor, or abductors, to call the dedicated line by midnight the next day.

But it came and went without any contact.

Then on Friday 16 August without warning, journalists were called to a hastily-convened press conference at which they were told a man and a woman were being questioned over the abduction.

They were initially released, but arrested within hours.

Ian Huntley is being held on suspicion of abducting and murdering Holly and Jessica.

His girlfriend, Maxine Carr, is being held on suspicion of murdering the girls.

It was then the macabre discovery of two bodies in a remote woodland near RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk was made.

While it seems the first part of the vast police operation may now be over, the putting together of the crucial nuts and bolts and the horrifying detail of what really happened is only just beginning.


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