Twenty years on, the murder of 13-year-old Milly Dowler is one of the most notorious crimes in living memory. The Surrey schoolgirl went missing on 21 March 2002, and the ensuing ordeal for her family would drag on for a painfully protracted period until the spotlight eventually fell on an already infamous killer: Levi Bellfield.
Milly was snatched in broad daylight while on her way home from school. She had got off the train at Walton-on-Thames station, one stop earlier than usual, to spend some time in a café with friends. She then called her dad to say she’d be home within half an hour. Somehow, while walking that short distance, she was taken in an almost inconceivably audacious kidnapping. So audacious, in fact, that police speculated Milly surely had to have known her abductor, and had gone with them of her own free will.
But they were wrong. And, as more time elapsed with no breakthrough in the disappearance, detectives warned the Dowlers that they should brace themselves for the worst-case scenario. That grim prediction was realised in September of that year when mushroom pickers in Hampshire stumbled across badly decomposed human remains that were identified as Milly Dowler’s.
The murder investigation, the largest in the history of Surrey Police, was frustrating and troubling. Thousands of house-to-house enquiries were made, almost 6,000 statements taken, and dozens of registered sex offenders living within a five-mile radius of Walton-on-Thames were interviewed. The Dowler family had to deal with the glare of suspicion, with the BBC later reporting that, ‘in the early days of the investigation, Milly’s father Bob Dowler became a suspect in ‘all but name’’.
Adding to the family’s heartache was a letter sent to them by a man claiming to be Milly’s murderer. This turned out to have been written by a convicted paedophile, Paul Hughes, who’d dispatched the disturbing, taunting letter from his jail cell.
It wasn’t until 2008 that the real, tangible turning point came in the investigation. In February of that year, a 39-year-old man named Levi Bellfield was found guilty of murdering two young women, Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delangrange. They had been bludgeoned to death while out in public. Bellfield was also found guilty of attempting to murder another woman, Kate Sheedy, by ramming into her in his car.
Almost immediately after being convicted for these crimes, Bellfield was named as a chief suspect in the Milly Dowler case. There was particular interest in tying him to a red Daewoo Nexia which CCTV cameras had photographed around the time and place of Milly’s disappearance. It transpired that a car of this model and colour had been owned by Bellfield’s then-girlfriend, who lived locally.
Bellfield himself implied he had been driving that car in an interview with the Daily Mirror newspaper, which he gave from prison in 2009. ‘There’s not many red Daewoos floating about in Walton-on-Thames, so we’ve got to be realistic about it,’ he said. ‘But then I’ve got to be careful about how I answer these questions. I did use the Daewoo once and I was stopped by the police one in it for speeding.’ Although the car was never recovered, Bellfield was at last charged with Milly’s murder in March 2010
During his trial, the prosecuting barrister laid out the cold, painful facts of the case with poignant precision. Speaking of Milly’s final moments, he said ‘On this day and entirely innocent and quite ordinary diversion to a station café to buy some chips with some school friends was a decision that was to cost Milly her life because it meant her taking a fateful journey along Station Avenue where, unbeknown to her, her abductor and killer was soon to strike.’
Bellfield was eventually found guilty and handed a second whole-life sentence. But the trial was mired in controversy due to the fierce interrogations which the Dowler family were subjected to. Her mother later told journalists outside the Old Bailey, ‘Our family life has been scrutinised and laid open for everyone to inspect’, while her father said that the family ‘had to pay too high a price for this conviction… During our questioning, my wife and I both felt as if we were on trial.’
Compounding the agony was the revelation that News of the World journalists had accessed Milly’s voicemail messages on her phone – a fact that earned the anger of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, who dubbed it ‘truly dreadful’. The story was to be one of the most damning aspects of the wide-ranging phone hacking scandal which engulfed media magnate Rupert Murdoch, owner of the News of the World. The newspaper itself was closed in 2011 as a direct result of the furore.
A grim coda to the case came in 2016, when police announced that Bellfield had finally admitted to Milly’s rape and murder, and the Dowler family released a statement detailing how Bellfield had subjected the schoolgirl to a series of savage assaults before killing her the day after she disappeared.
It will come as cold comfort to the Dowlers and the families of his other victims that Bellfield will never again be free, being the only person ever to have been handed two separate whole-life tariffs in British history.