In October of 2012, a little girl from Machynlleth, Powys, Wales, vanished after being sighted willingly climbing into a car near her home. Her disappearance sparked one of the largest missing person searches that Britain had ever seen, costing a whopping £8.5 million, and led to an almost unprecedented outpouring of support. The outcome, however, showed just how sadistic some people can be and shocked the small community of Machynlleth to the very core.
It was around 7PM on the 1st of October, 2012, when five-year-old April Jones was playing on her bike outside her home on Bryn-Y-Gog estate with her neighbourhood friend, seven-year-old Millie Hearne. At the time, April’s parents, Paul and Coral Jones, had been at a parents’ evening at the primary school April and her brother attended. A car pulled up alongside the two little girls and called April over. April chatted with the driver of the grey or white SUV type car for several moments before climbing into the driver’s side of the car which then drove away. Millie raised the alarm, sparking the extensive and exhaustive search.
Time truly was of the essence; April had been born with mild cerebral palsy and irritable bowel syndrome and was required to take a regular dose of painkillers. By 10:40PM that night, police put out a statement saying that they were 'increasingly concerned' for April. News of her disappearance spread throughout the tight-knit community and many locals combed the area for April well into the early morning hours. In fact, the local petrol station re-opened their pumps so that volunteers could fill up their cars and the garage owner, Nerys Zjalic, said that they would stay open all night if they needed to. The initial search party that night swelled to over 200. Some searched the entire night before gathering at the local leisure centre the following morning to continue in their search.
Police organised groups of search parties which included an expert in search techniques who accompanied each group. Forty police officers, as well as forty trained mountain rescue personnel, were called in to investigate the abduction and search for April. They scoured the local countryside and took the unusual step of recruiting the sixth-formers from the local high school to help. They were focusing mainly in the immediate area as well as interviewing potential witnesses, carrying out house-to-house inquiries and trawling through CCTV.
April’s disappearance garnered national and international press coverage with her parents pleading on television for information which could lead to their daughter. Due to the fact that there was no struggle and April willingly climbed into the car led to much speculation that April knew her kidnapper. According to her godmother, Mair Raftree, there was no chance that April would have climbed into a vehicle with a stranger.
During a press conference, Detective Superintendent Reg Bevan, said:
'April got into the driver’s side. That may well be that she got in with the driver or of course that could mean that it is a left-hand drive vehicle. The indications are that she got in the car willingly. There is nothing to suggest at this stage that there was a struggle when she got into the car.'
Just the following day, there was a massive break in the case when it was announced that a 46-year-old local man named Mark Bridger had been arrested in connection with April’s disappearance. He had fallen under a cloud of suspicion immediately due to the fact that he drove a car which was similar to the description of the car used in the abduction and matched Milly’s description of the man driving the car. Bridger was a father of six whose four former wives and girlfriends all lived within a short walking distance of April’s home.[ He was known to the Jones family and drove a left-hand drive Land Rover Discovery which had been made in Spain.
Bridger was born in Carshalton, Surrey, in 1965. He was the middle child of a police officer, Graham Bridger, and his wife, Pamela. He left school with six CSEs and enrolled at Croydon College where he started studying engineering but failed to finish the course. In 1984, he was convicted of theft and firearms offences and was placed on probation for two years. Then in 2004, he pleaded guilty to using threatening words and behaviour with intent and also battery. In 2007, he was back in trouble with the law when he was convicted of assault after punching a man in the face following an altercation in a pub.
During a press conference following the arrest, police announced that while April had not yet been found, they were still working on the presumption that she was still alive and urged the locals to continue in their search for her. They appealed for witnesses who may have seen Bridger between April’s disappearance and his arrest. However, hope that April was still alive quickly began to fade…
On the 5th of October, police officially designated the case a murder inquiry and the following day, Bridger was charged with child abduction, murder, and attempting to pervert the course of justice. Bridger appeared before magistrates at Aberystwyth where he was additionally charged with the unlawful concealment and disposal of a body. Bridger would plead not guilty to the murder charge but accepted that he was 'probably responsible' for April’s death.
The case went to trial in 2013 and the court would hear how human bone fragments that had most likely come from a 'younger individual' had been discovered in the fireplace of Bridger’s home. Furthermore, blood was found in several locations within his home and forensic examination indicated that the blood had matched April’s DNA. Elwen Evans, QC, prosecuting, told the jury that Bridger had murdered April and played a 'cruel game' in attempting to cover his tracks and avoid detection. She stated: 'He claimed to know the rugged terrain around Machynlleth well, and that’s been a significant feature in police determining the size, scope and scale in their search for April.'
She further revealed that a search of Bridger’s laptop revealed that Bridger had an interest in child pornography and child murder cases. His laptop contained obscene images of children as well as photographs of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, who were murdered by Ian Huntley in Soham, 2002. His laptop also contained photographs of other local girls including April and her two half-sisters, who were 13-years-old and 16-years-old.
During trial, it would be revealed that Bridger had claimed to police that he had accidentally run April over in his car but could not recollect what he had done with her body because of alcohol combined with shock. In an interview with police, he had alleged:
'I had a few to drink and there was two girls on their bikes, I remember the dark-headed girl came from behind the car. I looked to see where the other girl was and I couldn’t see this other girl… The next minute, the bike was there. I started to car up and as I went to pull away, there wasn’t a thud, I can’t understand. The car rose up, as I opened the car I walked round and underneath the front of the car is… April. She was only little so I picked her up and put her across my seat and put her in the passenger seat. I tried to take her pulse and there was nothing. I put my mouth over her mouth and went to blow and put my hand back on her chest and that’s when I realised, one side of her chest wasn’t there. I’d obviously crushed her little body.'
Bridger had claimed that after running over April, he placed her in his car and left the area via the back roads. He claimed that his intention was to try and get April medical help. He said that he drove into Machynlleth town centre where he realised that April was dead. His account of the events then became vague and said that the next thing he could remember was being back at home. He claimed that he couldn’t recall what he had done with April’s body but said that he was certain that he wouldn’t have just dumped it somewhere. He suggested that he may have 'laid her to rest' for her body to be found and may have even covered it with a tarpaulin sheet.
The prosecution, however, would refute this and state that this was a fabrication by Bridger in a desperate attempt to cover up his sexual motivation in abducting April. Furthermore, an examination of Bridger’s Land Rover found no evidence to corroborate his version of events and April’s blood had been found inside his home.
After just four hours and six minutes of deliberations, the jury of nine women and three men would find Mark Bridger guilty of the murder of April Jones as well as unlawfully disposing of and concealing her body with the intent to pervert the course of justice. As the verdict was read out, Bridger closed his eyes and appeared as though he was holding back showing emotion. He was sentenced to life in prison with a whole-life tariff. While handing down the sentence, Mr. Justice Griffith-Williams said:
'There is no doubt in my mind that you are a paedophile, who has for some time harboured sexual and morbid fantasies about young girls.'
The murder of April was incomprehensible for the quaint and close-knit community of Machynlleth. From the moment that it was discovered that April was missing, much of the community truly rallied together in a bid to bring her home safely. In a way, the local community became an extended family for April’s family and touched the hearts of people all across the world. They became the archetype of how a community should react when tragedy strikes.
The body of April Jones has never been recovered. After Bridger was sentenced to life imprisonment, he confessed to the Strangeways’ prison chaplain that he had disposed of April’s body in the Dulas river which flowed behind his home. However, police have stated that they don’t believe these claims and instead, theorise that he scattered her remains across the countryside near his home.