The Soham murders: A crime that rocked a close-knit town

St Andrew's Church Soham
St Andrew's Church, Soham. Photo by John Salmon | Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 2.0

Soham is a small town and civil parish located in the east of the university city Cambridge, in the United Kingdom. In 2002, this quiet community would be rocked by the disappearance of two 10-year-old girls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. Locals would rally around the families of the girls and dedicate hours of their time searching for them in an attempt to ensure that they returned home safely. The police investigation into the disappearance would lead to a couple in their twenties, both of whom knew the young girls and both of whom appeared to be hiding something…

It was the 4th of August, 2002, when 10-year-olds Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were attending a barbecue at Holly’s home in Redhouse Gardens, Soham. They were best friends who were both in the same class at St. Andrews Primary School at Soham. Holly was a majorette who played the cornet and Jessica played football. They both bonded over their shared love for the football team, Manchester United (The Independent, 18 August, 2002 – ‘A Nation Shares the Grief of “People Like Us” In Their Loss’). At around 6:15 PM, the girls left Holly’s home to walk the short distance into the town to buy some sweets.

Holly’s parents had believed that the girls were playing in Holly’s bedroom but when they checked at around 8:30 PM, they found that the girls weren’t there. A major search and investigation were launched with more than 50 police officers working around the clock to try and find the girls. The last reported sighting of them had come from a member of the public who remembered seeing them at around 6:30 PM in Sand Street which was close by to Holly’s home (Evening Standard, 6 August, 2002 – ‘Missing Girls: A Single Clue’ ).

Both girls stood at 4 feet 6 inches tall; Holly was described as having a fair complexion with straight blonde shoulder-length hair while Jessica was described as being tanned with shoulder-length brown hair. When they left their homes that afternoon, they were both wearing Manchester United t-shirts, dark trousers and Nike trainers (Coventry Telegraph, 5 August, 2002 – ‘Fears Rise in Hunt for Missing Schoolgirls’).

By the following day, police would announce that they were becoming increasingly concerned for the wellbeing of Holly and Jessica. Since the reported sighting on Sand Street, there had been no more sightings, leading to growing fears within the community that something sinister had transpired. ‘Their disappearance is incredibly out of character. We are extremely concerned,’ said Insp Simon Causer, who was leading the search for the girls (The Birmingham Post, 6 August, 2002 – ‘Town Errand to Buy Sweets and then Ten-Year-Old Girls Disappear’).

Hundreds of people would assist in the search for Holly and Jessica and the tight-knit community truly bounded together to try and ensure that the girls were found safe and well. ‘I am a grandfather and I know it could have happened to my children. We all know this so we don’t need to think about helping these families,’ Mick Badcock said to the Evening Standard (Evening Standard, 6 August, 2002 – ‘Community United by a Fear of What They Might Find’ ). They would trudge through the miles of farmland that surrounded the town, searching for any semblance of evidence, potentially a mobile phone or an item of clothing. Sniffer dogs would be called in to search as well as servicemen from the US Air Force Base at Mildenhall. Meanwhile, Holly and Jessica’s family would make tearful pleas on national television for their safe return.

When the girls left Holly’s home, Jessica had taken her mobile phone with her but she had failed to pick up and by the following morning, her phone was switched off. Police were able to determine that when it was last connected to a network it was in the Cambridgeshire area at around 1:30 AM which made them worry that it could have been dropped or even deliberately dumped.

One angle that police were working on was whether Holly or Jessica had been in contact with somebody over the internet but that line of inquiry led to a dead-end (Coventry Telegraph, 6 August, 2002 – ‘Hunt for Missing Girls Stepped Up’). Police also made sure to establish the whereabouts of known sex offenders in the area ( Birmingham Mail, 6 August, 2002 – ‘Were they Lured Away?’).

Concerns were even raised that the girls could have fallen into a ditch somewhere and seriously injured themselves.

A couple of days after the disappearance, police would release CCTV footage of Jessica and Holly which had been captured shortly before they vanished. One picture, which was taken at 6:13 PM shows the girls in a sports centre car park. It was believed that they had purchased sweets from the vending machine at the sports centre.

The CCTV footage would be released on a news segment that included an interview with Ian Huntley, the senior caretaker at the local secondary school. He revealed that after leaving the sports centre, the girls had stopped to chat with him. Huntley’s girlfriend, 25-year-old Maxine Carr, was a teaching assistant at the girls’ school and was close with both of them. He explained that he had been washing his dog outside of his home when the girls stopped and spoke with him.

Huntley said that at the time, Carr was having a bath in the house so the exchange between himself and the girls was very brief. ‘I think if I had been talking to them, I would have been talking to them for an hour,’ said Carr. She would show the media a card that Holly had given to her after the end of the school term which read: ‘C U in the future Miss Carr. Don’t leave us, don’t go far,’ (The Daily Telegraph, 9 August, 2002 – ‘Police Inundated with calls as they Release CCTV Film of Missing Girls’). After the momentary conversation outside, Huntley said that Holly and Jessica continued on their way and he continued washing his dog. He struggled to contain his emotion as he stated: ‘They haven’t run away. They didn’t have a care in the world,’(The Herald, 9 August, 2002 – ‘Caretaker Tells How he Met Holly and Jessica’).

The world would soon come to discover that just like Huntley had stated, the girls hadn’t run away… Something much more sinister had taken place and Huntley knew exactly what.

In the early morning hours of the 17th of August, Huntley and Carr were both arrested on suspicion of murder. While it hadn’t yet been publicly revealed, police had recovered several items from the grounds of the school where Huntley had worked including the burnt remains of Holly and Jessica’s Manchester United t-shirts. Later that same day, a man out walking with friends came across the charred remains of two bodies along a dirt track on the fringes of RAF Lakenheath, a large US air force base located just north of Mildenhall. The bodies would be positively identified as Holly and Jessica. The grim discovery extinguished the hope that Soham had clung onto for 13 emotionally draining days and the community were now forced to concede what they had refused to accept – that Holly and Jessica were never going to come home (The Independent, 18 August, 2002 – ‘Missing Girls’).

Huntley and Carr would deny any involvement in the disappearance and murder of Holly and Jessica. However, an investigation would uncover that when the girls were walking to buy sweets, they walked past Huntley’s home. When Huntley saw the girls, he invited them into his home, claiming that Carr, was inside. Once inside, Huntley murdered both of the girls and Carr would provide him with a phoney alibi, claiming that she was home with him that afternoon when in actuality she was in Grimsby.

Huntley would be ordered to stand trial on murder charges. During the trial, Huntley claimed that the girls went into his home because Holly had a nosebleed. He insisted that Holly had drowned when he accidentally knocked her into his bath and then he claimed he subsequently smothered Jessica to stop her from screaming. Dr Nathaniel Cary, a Home Office pathologist, however, completely rejected Huntley’s version of events, referring to it as ‘wholly implausible.’ He said that it would be ‘unlikely at the least’ that Holly could have drowned in Huntley’s bathtub as the result of a fall (The Daily Telegraph, 27 July, 2017 – ‘Soham Murders: Why Did Ian Huntley Kill Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman?’).

Huntley would admit to dumping Holly and Jessica’s bodies in the area where they were found, cutting off their clothing and then setting fire to their bodies in a bid to conceal his tracks. Due to the bodies being set alight, it could not be determined how exactly Holly and Jessica had lost their lives nor could it be determined if they had been sexually assaulted or not. Prosecutors would claim during the trial that Huntley had been sexually motivated and pointed to the fact that he laundered his bedclothes after the murders as evidence of such. Moreover, he had previous charges relating to indecent assaults on underage girls.

Ian Huntley would be found guilty of the two murders and would be sentenced to 40 years in prison and will not be eligible for parole until 2042. In prison, he has been targeted numerous times by other inmates and has made several suicide attempts. Maxine Carr would be found guilty of conspiracy with Huntley to pervert the course of justice and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. She was released with a new identity in 2004.