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EDITIONS
Monday, 16 December, 2002, 18:32 GMT
Soham's summer of sorrow
A shrine to Jessica and Holly in Soham's church
The girls' murders shook a town and a nation

Until this year, few people in Britain had even heard of Soham.

This small community in the fens of Cambridgeshire had never before been the focus of such intense news coverage.

All that changed on a summer's evening, when two schoolgirls went out for a walk and never returned home.

Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman
Holly and Jessica were wearing Man Utd tops the day they disappeared
In the following days, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman became the focus of a nation's anxiety.

The image of the two friends, wearing their matching David Beckham football shirts, burned into people's minds as they followed the desperate search.

The photograph was all the more poignant because it had been taken just minutes before they disappeared.

At first there were hopes that the girls had simply wandered off, perhaps to meet someone, and would turn up safe and well.

But in everyone's mind was the possibility - the probability - that they had been abducted.

A rare, but awful tragedy

Cases of children being snatched off the street are still mercifully rare, and consequently make headlines.

But the disappearance of two girls, together, was unprecedented. The intensity of the media coverage only increased the sense of foreboding.

Soham's church
Soham's church became a focus for national grief
Thirteen days after Holly and Jessica vanished, the worst fears of their parents, the police and the public were realised.

The bodies of the two girls were discovered in a ditch at Lakenheath, in the neighbouring county of Suffolk, just eight miles from their homes.

An inquest was told they had died somewhere else, before being taken there.

Further details will only be revealed when the man accused of their murder goes on trial at the Old Bailey.

Ian Huntley, who is 28 and a former caretaker, has been examined by a psychiatrist who declared him fit to stand trial.

Trial fears

His 25-year-old girlfriend, Maxine Carr, a former teaching assistant, is charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice.

The intense media coverage of the case has led to fears that it could prejudice the trial.

Once a person is accused of a crime, there are legal restrictions on what can be said before the case comes to court. The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, warned the media to "exercise a great deal of care" in reporting the case.

Ian Huntley at a police press conference about the girls
Ian Huntley (r) was caretaker at Soham's school
One consequence of the coverage was undisputable. The death of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman had an impact far beyond Soham.

After their bodies were found a minute's silence was held at football grounds around the country.

David Beckham, the player idolised by the girls, sent flowers to both funerals, which were held in private.

The people of Soham attended a moving service of remembrance at Ely Cathedral, held to celebrate the lives of the two girls.

Media glare

And when the police and the county council set up an online book of condolence, tens of thousands of people from all over the world left messages of sympathy.

It was a way of allowing the public to express their feelings without intruding into the privacy of the families.

It is time for us to have some time and space now ... to grieve in private

Soham's Reverend Tim Alban Jones
And after such intense publicity, the people of Soham wanted to be out of the media spotlight.

The local vicar, the Reverend Tim Alban Jones, said they were very grateful for the public's support and sympathy. But he went on: "It is time for us to have some time and space now to be alone and to heal and to grieve in private."

Inevitably, the forthcoming trial will reawaken many painful memories in a small community still struggling to understand what happened in its midst.


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